The 2012 Olympic Games start today in London with half a dozen Afghans representing their country in taekwondo, boxing, judo and athletics (1) and at least two Para-Olympians competing in weight-lifting and athletics (2). AAN’s senior analyst, Kate Clark, was in Kabul during the 2000 Olympics, when potential Afghan contenders had to stay at home because neither their government – the Taleban – nor their Taleban-controlled Olympic committee was internationally recognised.
The story of Afghans not getting to the 2000 games was no relief from the unremittingly bad news from Afghanistan in those days, but the reporting was a lot of fun. Sporting clubs and playing fields were somehow neutral ground and sport a (relatively) uncontroversial topic. People did not have to fear getting into trouble with the Taleban authorities for speaking to me and spoke reasonably freely.(3)
Filming, an illegal activity in those days, also proved relatively easy: the president of the Taleban Olympics Committee let me into a room at the Kabul Stadium so that I could clandestinely film a football match (sport happened there too, more often than the much reported executions) – the following year he would ask me if I could help get him asylum in the UK. I also got footage of and interviews with young men playing on the Amani school pitch in the late afternoon sun (it is now a restricted area due to the nearby presence of the CIA headquarters, ISAF and the Presidential Palace), a wrestling club in Shahr-e Now and a taekwondo club in Microrayon. All the facilities were shabby, but full of enthusiastic young sportsmen. There was no place for women in sport (also not as spectators in the stadium), although I remember an article in the state-owned Kabul Times citing the Prophet on sport being good for men and women and that spouses should run races together.
It was very upsetting to meet sportsmen who, yet again, had no hope of competing abroad. In the previous games, in Atlanta in 1996, Kabul was still in the middle of brutal civil war and several sportsmen told me that, during that period, it had been relatives of those in government who got to represent their country.(4) (This, of course, might also have been the case during the Taleban era; the government was not put to the test, but it was noticeable how many of the Mutma’in brothers – a non-Taleban family from Ghazni or Logar – had got positions in the state sporting organisations.) Similar accusations emerged in 2002, that sport was yet one more thing for those newly back in power to get their hands on. One friend, nationally senior in his sport, had his club wrecked by a rival a few months into the new era who wanted to make sure he was the top dog.
As Afghan sportsmen and women prepare to compete now – see articles here and here, I have been thinking back to 2000 when Afghan sportsmen were poor and isolated, trapped in a pariah state and unable to get visas to travel.
Below is the script I wrote for a BBC radio piece in 2000. I have added in a few of the quotes I used for a TV report.
BBC Radio Script Olympics 23 August 2000
CUE: Two hundred countries are members of the Olympic family, but only one hundred and ninety nine will be competing at the Sydney Games. The other – Afghanistan – has been barred. The Taliban government, which rules ninety per cent of the country is not recognised internationally. And neither is its Olympic Committee. That means no Afghans will be going to Sydney. Women are banned from playing sports under the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam. But several Afghan sportsmen would probably have qualified for Sydney if they’d had the chance. Kate Clark met sportsmen and officials at a recent meeting at the national stadium in Kabul
‘Sports are extremely big in Afghanistan, because, well basically, it’s one of the few legal past-times in a country where dance, cinema, music, TV all have been banned. There’s an amazing enthusiasm and desire to succeed. But people face real problems. The facilities are poor, resources are poor. Afghans can’t get visas to compete in international events. What’s really sickening people here is that the Sydney Olympics are going ahead in September and Afghanistan is going to be the only country not represented.’
Sounds of Kung Fu man breaking ice
NARRATOR: Afghanistan’s top Kung Fu player, shouts ‘God is Great’ and breaks eight blocks of ice with a single blow. It’s part of the entertainment put on for sports fans gathered at Kabul Stadium.
Kung Fu isn’t an Olympic event, but there are men here from other sports who probably were good enough to have qualified for Sydney. I asked them how they felt about not going and about the general problems they face. First is Abdul Matin Khadem, Head of the Afghan Federation of Taekwondo and an internationally qualified referee and teacher, as well as the top player in Afghanistan. He encourages other Afghans to get active, saying it’s an antidote to the widespread depression felt after twenty years of war. But he says it’s hard not to feel discouraged when he can’t compete abroad.
‘I want to improve my knowledge in taekwondo. But in Afghanistan there is no-one higher than me to study with. I hope the International Committee will in future recognise the Afghan sportsmen and ask them for competition – individually or from the government side. We are ready with both cases. Sport doesn’t have any border around the world.’
‘We’re so upset that we’re not allowed to go to the Olympics. We have our dreams and hopes as sportsmen, but they just shut us out. I’m Karim Farda, the number one wrestler in my class in Afghanistan. I took fifth place at the Asian Games in 1994 in Hiroshima in Graeco-Roman style of wrestling(5). If I could just get a visa to compete abroad in any international competition – not just the Olympics – I’d find the money somehow to get there.’
HABIB SHAH IQBAL
‘My name is Habib Shah Iqbal. I’m the trainer of the national wrestling team. We’ve got nothing, no facilities. We used to have good facilities, but we lost it all, everything got looted in the war. We’re training in bare halls. We’re asking the international community to try and help us, so that we can travel abroad.’
NARRATOR: When the Taliban took power in Kabul, they set up their own national Olympic committee. Its president is Abdul Shukkur Mutma’in. He says the International Olympic Committee – IOC – is just playing politics.
BAND MUTMA’IN (PERSIAN VOICE OVER)
‘It’s clear in the Olympic charter that sports should be separate from politics and there should be no discrimination. But because of politics, the United Nations doesn’t recognise our state – the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – and therefore the IOC won’t recognise our committee, either. We demand a reversal of this decision.’
NARRATOR: But the IOC says its hands are tied. According to its own rule book, if the UN doesn’t recognise a government, it can’t recognise that country’s Olympic Committee. The Committee says it might have been able to help individual Afghans if asked early enough – as it has done for sports people from East Timor and Somalia – other war-torn countries with unrecognised governments. But it seem that was never going to be acceptable to the Taliban. Abdul Shukkur Mutma’in again.
BAND (MUTMA’IN Persian Voiceover)
‘They said that Afghans can compete as individuals, not under the flag of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. That’s unacceptable for us and no Afghan would take part in these competitions unless it’s under the national flag.’
NARRATOR: The IOC did agree to provide accreditation for two officials to travel to Sydney as observers. But this was withdrawn after the IOC accused the Taliban of saying the accreditation was a step towards recognition.
Meanwhile Afghan athletes are trapped, wondering how many more Olympics they’ll miss and how many more years they have before they’re too old to compete. The wrestler, Karim Farda, has now missed two Olympic Games. Last time, he says, people were chosen for the Afghan team if they had good contacts with the former regime. This time, no-one’s going.
‘One of our compatriots, Nasir, will be competing in Sydney but only because he’s got asylum in Canada and will be representing them. We used to train together in the same club, here in Kabul. It’s so frustrating for me that he can go to Sydney while I – I’m trapped here.’
NARRATOR: This is one of the poorest countries in the world. Half the population doesn’t even get enough food to eat. Yet in a few sports, Afghanistan has world-class potential – traditionally wrestling and boxing and now taekwondo. The desire of Afghan sportsmen to win is undimmed, despite appalling facilities and almost no funding. But for now, they’re just striving for the chance to compete.
(1) The Afghan team consists of Rohullah Nekpa and Nesar Ahmad Bahawi in taekwondo; Massud Azizi and Tahmina Kohistani, the only woman in the team, in long-distance running; and Emal Faisal and Ajmal Faizizada in boxing and judo (source Xinhua).
(2) We were not able to find the names of the Afghan Paralympics athletes yet. However, we want to add, that some other teams include members who had suffered bodily harm in Afghanistan (see here).
(3) Afghanistan could not compete because its Olympic committee was not recognised internationally. A spokesman for the International Olympic Committee told me at the time the issue had nothing to do with Taleban sports policy – for example, their ban on women playing sports, or not allowing boxers to shave, even though beards are banned by international boxing rules.
Additions by Thomas Ruttig: For a while, the Taleban also tried to ban ‘Western’ sports like football; they preferred volleyball (and where actively playing in Shahr-e Now Park every afternoon) and martial arts. But soon, ‘implementation fatigue’ (a term invented by a Western development worker during those days) set in and a Kabul football league was allowed, regularly playing in Kabul’s National (sometimes ‘Olympic’) Stadium (see earlier AAN blogs on this here and here).
(4) Due to the civil war, Afghanistan’s National Olympic Committee had missed the registration deadline for its sportsmen, but the IOC made an exception. For the same reason, Afghanistan had missed the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
One of the Afghan Olympic sportsmen 1996 in Atlanta was the boxer Muhammad Jawed Aman. Unfortunately, his flights were delayed and he arrived one day too late to have his pre-fight weight taken. He was disqualified. Abdul Ghafar made it in time and competed as a sprinter over 100 meters. He clocked the slowest time of all competitors, 12.2 seconds. Comment by the German news agency dpa: ‘The Afghan should take comfort in the fact that some two billion men worldwide are even slower.’
(5) Amended: It was in wrestling when Afghanistan had its biggest ever Olympic success before, a fifth place by wrestler Muhammad Ibrahimi at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, before taekwondo fighter Rohullah Nekpai’s won its first ever Olympic medal, a bronze medal in Beijing 2008 which was celebrated like a golden one in Afghanistan (read an article about him here). Nekpai starts in London again. Afghanistan had its first Olympic appearance in Berlin 1936 (in athletics and hockey; the hockey team lost against Germany 1:4 and drew with Denmark 6:6), then appeared again in London 1948 (hockey: beat US 2:0, drew against Switzerland 1:1, lost against UK 0:8), missed Helsinki 1952, participated in Melbourne 1956 (here its hockey team beat the USA again, by 5:0 but lost against India and Singapore), in Rome 1960 (in athletics and wrestling), Tokyo 1964, Mexico 1968, Munich 1972 (with eight wrestlers only), missed Montreal 1976, participated in the Western-boycotted Moscow games 1980, boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles games (both under the PDPA regime) and was present in Seoul again in 1988 (with 5 freestyle wrestlersonly).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020