Taekwondo-Afghanistan wants medal to heal home wounds
By Ian Ransom
BEIJING, Aug 17 (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s cashed-strapped taekwondo team present the only hope of bringing home the country’s first Olympic medal.
Rohulla Nikpai and Nesar Ahmed Behave make up half of the Afghan delegation, the other half being two 100-metres sprinters who have never trained on a proper running track in their home country.
“They have qualified here on their own terms. We did not need a wild card to compete,” team head Ghulam Rabani said of the taekwondo team who boast a world silver medallist in 23-year-old Behave.
A former national taekwondo athlete and president of the country’s taekwondo federation, Rabani came back to Afghanistan in 2002, after fleeing Taliban rule to live in Iran in the 1990s.
“Those years were terrible. Every day was hearing bad news,” said Rabani.
Afghanistan has been torn apart by nearly 30 years of war, turning an already impoverished nation into one of the very poorest in the world. Life expectancy at birth is just 44 and nearly one in five children die before their fifth birthday.
The Taliban used the main sports stadium in Kabul, a modest concrete structure, to execute murderers in public, amputate the limbs of thieves and lash adulterers.
The Olympics team all know people who have been killed or had limbs blown off and tragedy still strikes with alarming frequency.
“I’ve just found out one of our athletes has been killed by the Taliban while driving on the road to Kabul from Kandahar,” Rabani said.
Rabani has helped build a network of 700 taekwondo clubs across the country since the Taliban were swept from power after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
But facilities remain “less than zero”, and most tournaments are still held “under the sunshine”. National team athletes can expect a government subsidy of $10 a month.
Still, things are better than the days when the Taliban were in power, said Behave, who will compete in the men’s 68-kg category on Thursday.
“Training in those days was terrible. There were bombs exploding around us and people would come in telling us to pray all the time,” Behave said.
The team, whose Beijing adventure has been funded by the International Olympic Committee, boasts a Korean coach and is confident of breaking the country’s medal duck.
A medal would help, not least in bringing a $50,000 bonus promised by an Afghan mobile phone tycoon and allowing the country’s diverse people forget their differences for a time.
“There are many different faces, different languages here, so sometimes they don’t like each other,” Rabani said.
“But when we got the silver medal at the world championships, all Afghanistan was happy. I heard that even the Taliban was happy.” (Editing by Nick Macfie)