Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Two Sides of the Medal: Afghanistan at Olympia in Rio – and infighting at home

Thomas Ruttig 8 min

Afghanistan’s Olympics team has marched, along with those of 206 countries and territories and an additional refuges team, into the Maracana Stadium for the opening ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games (5-21 August 2016). Sprinter Kamia Yusufi carried the Afghan flag, but, in reality, this was the smallest Afghan team since the country returned to the international sports scene after 2001. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig looks at why the Afghan team is so weak this time and finds a mix of causes – infighting among officials, corruption and, in the case of women’s sports, rejection of women competing among conservative circles and shrinking international attention. He also looks at Afghan participation and some of its Olympic heroes over the decades.

Sign of the Olympic rings at the sports ground near the Kabul National Stadium (Photo Source: Tolonews August 2016)Sign of the Olympic rings at the sports ground near the Kabul National Stadium (Photo Source: Tolonews August 2016)

Afghanistan‘s Rio delegation includes three athletes only, one woman and two men. Sprinters Kamia Yusufi and Abdul Wahab Zahiri will compete in the 100 meters race each, and judoka Muhammad Tawfiq Bakhshi will participate in the 90kg-plus class (find photos and short bios of them here). In the opening ceremony, they were joined by National Olympic Committee (NOC) official Ghulam Rabbani Rabbani who was also present when the Afghan flag was hoisted in Rio’s Olympic Village on 1 August 2016. A photo published on that occasion showed a delegation more weighted towards officials than athletes.

This photo (via Twitter) shows the Afghan delegation in Rio’s Maracana stadium.

No Afghan athlete has directly qualified for the Rio games (1); in most sports, there are preparatory tournaments to be passed or individual norms set by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to be met to participate in the games. In order to uphold the principle of participation also for smaller sports nations like Afghanistan, all countries receive a number of special invitations from the IOC. This was the case for Yusufi, Zahiri and Bakhshi.

Afghanistan's Rio Team: Kamia Yusufi, a sprinter who has already competed in international competitions (Photo Source: Tolonews 2016)

Afghanistan’s Rio Team: Kamia Yusufi, a sprinter who has already competed in international competitions (Photo Source: Tolonews 2016)

Bakhshi, player and coach of the national judo team, and, to a lesser extent, Yusufi, born to an Afghan refugee family in Iran, have some international experience. They have competed and won medals in several regional competitions. In world championships, Asian and South Asian Games, however, they have remained without medals so far. [Amended on 9 Aug 2016:] Zahiri has only one international competition in his CV, from the 2016 South Asian Games in India.

Afghanistan's Rio Team: Judoka Muhammad Tawfiq Bakhshi participating in the 90kg-plus class (Photo Source: Tolonews 2016)

Afghanistan’s Rio Team: Judoka Muhammad Tawfiq Bakhshi participating in the 90kg-plus class (Photo Source: Tolonews 2016)

Bakhshi will be the first of them to see action; on 10 August, he will meet the Portuguese José Fonseca. (Apart from the national teams, for the first time there is also a team of refugees from several countries. It came on a special invitation “in the context of the worldwide refugee crisis”, as the IOC put it, and was also nominated by the sports world body, based on proposals by the individual National Olympic Committees (NOC). Although Afghans make up one of the largest groups among the worldwide refugee population, there is no Afghan participant in that team – maybe because the IOC insisted that the chosen candidates should be close to the Olympic norm in the particular discipline, a condition no current Afghan athlete fulfils.

Olympic 100m spint starter Zahiri, Photo: Tolonews.

Olympic 100m spint starter Zahiri, Photo: Tolonews.

Afghanistan’s war-mangled Olympic history

Since a National Olympic Committee (NOC) was founded in Kabul in 1935 and accepted by the IOC in the following year, Afghanistan has competed in most summer Olympics, unless war or politics got in the way. Its first appearance was in the 1936 games in Berlin organised by the Hitler regime. While the Afghan delegation showed the Nazi salute when marching into the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony, then Minister of War, Ghazi Mahmud Khan, who also chaired the Afghan NOC, was officially representing his country (see the official final report, pp 25, 26, 548); a year earlier, he had participated in the Nazi party’s Nuremberg congress that passed the infamous passed anti-Jewish laws that served later to ‘legally’ underpin the Holocaust.

Since then, Afghanistan has competed in most Olympic summer games. It was absent in Helsinki (1952) and Montreal (1976) for unknown reasons and was part of the 1984 Soviet-led boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics – a response to the boycott of the previous games in Moscow by many countries because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (an AAN guest dispatch about this here). Civil war kept Afghan athletes out of the 1992 Barcelona games and lack of recognition of the Taleban’s NOC of those in Sydney in 2000. Two Afghan sportsmen, a boxer and a marathon runner, did make it to the 1996 Atlanta games individually, escaping the country where the capital Kabul had just been taken over by the Taleban. (Full Afghan participation statistics here, some photos here.)

Heroes, underdogs and let-downs

Afghanistan’s biggest Olympic success so far is Taekwondo fighter Rohullah Nekpai and his two bronze medals from Beijing (2008) and London (2012). Those made him the first Afghan Olympic medal winner and the only one so far. Before that, wrestler Muhammad Ibrahimi was the best Afghan participant ever, finishing fifth at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The first ever women Olympians from Afghanistan were sprinter Robina Muqimyar and judoka Fariba Razayi who competed in Athens in 2004.

It was Marathon runner Abdul Baser Waseqi who, in 1996, wrote one of the many, although often under-reported heroic ‘underdog’ stories that are one of the delights of the Olympic Games. Waseqi had injured himself while training for the competition in Atlanta, but participated nevertheless, limping through most of the 42,195 meters and finishing a far distant last; he did not give up before reaching the finish.

It was also in Atlanta in 1996 that the first ever Afghans – two cyclists, Gul Afzal and Zabet Khan – competed in the Paralympic Games (more detail here). (2)

2008 and 2012 medal winner Nekpai, who was then received by roaring crowds and honoured by the president upon his returns to the country, is also the protagonist of one of the saddest Afghan stories linked to the 2016 Rio games. As a result of two years of infighting in Afghanistan’s National Olympic Committee, the government stopping funds, leaving trainers frequently unpaid and athletes without medical care, Nekpai went into his April 2016 qualification tournament on the Philippines injured and without proper preparation – and failed. He blamed the NOC’s failures and was hoping for a special IOC invitation so that he – with 29 still in best fighting age – could try to add at least a third Olympic participation to his score, the German TV network ARD reported. But this invitation did not come.

Afghan Olympic factionalism

The presidencies of the Afghan NOC and its member associations for individual sports are lucrative posts, as they are ‘sexy’ addresses for donors and bring foreign visas and trips abroad. Several donor countries and international sports federations have poured money into getting Afghan sports, especially women’s, restarted after the decades of war. Different political forces have competed for control over the governing bodies.

Up to 2009, the government appointed the NOC’s chairmen. For a number of years, wrestler-turned-mujahedin commander Anwar Jagdalak held this position. In the first ever election, by the national sport federations, Muhammad Zahir Akbar, a former general, won. He stepped down to become a security advisor to the presidential campaign of Dr Abdullah in 2014 and was succeeded by Fahim Hashemi in April that year, a businessman and owner of the 1TV station. With Sediqa Nuristani, he had the first ever women as one of his deputies. Reportedly, he tried to make the NOC more independent from the government.

As Afghan media reported, Hashemi ’s independent course angered the Directorate for Physical Education and Sports that funnels government money into Afghan sports and which, in turn, is part of the Ministry of Information and Culture (that also covers youth and sports). The directorate stopped the flow of funds and, as a result, Hashemi, financed the participation of an Afghan team in the 2014 Asian Games from his own pocket.

After 17 months, in late 2015, Hashemi threw in the towel. But after his resignation, he put in a protest against General Akbar’s re-election. There were procedural mistakes, he claimed. He himself, although he was still a member of the board, was not invited to participate in the vote. Making things more complicated, Akbar’s election was recognised by the IOC, but not by the Afghan government’s sports directorate. According to the ARD report already cited, it now backs Hashemi.

The split over Afghanistan’s NOC is another reflection of a more general tug-of-war over governmental positions between different factions in the two ‘camps’ of the National Unity Government (AAN analysis here). The Minister of Information and Culture Abdul Bari Jehani was nominated by the camp of President Ghani. The head of the sports directorate’s Humayun Khairi, according to Tolonews, belongs to the same camp, as he is linked to the Jombesh party led by Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum. Dostum was made responsible for Afghan sports by President Ashraf Ghani in early 2015, after he had complained about having been sidelined in the government (see AAN reporting here). Although he reacted with a sneer, saying, according to The New York Times, that he was not “[the Portuguese football star] Ronaldo – you can’t just throw a football at me,” he nominated Khairi to be the sports directorate head. NOC chief Akbar, however, belongs to the competing, Abdullah camp. As another result of the infighting, an up-till-now widely unknown official, Ghulam Rabbani Rabbani, heads the Afghan delegation to Rio.

It is the sportsmen and women, like Nekpai, or like Somaya Ghulami, a female taekwondo fighter living and training in Iran and hoping for a medal who are the victims of this factional infighting, missing out on their chance to compete in Rio. Nekpai told the ARD that it was “a direct consequence of the corruption in [Afghan] sports that Afghanistan does not send any taekwondo fighter to Rio.” The martial art is one of the country’s most popular sports. “I want that politics keeps out of sports. When we do not succeed of keeping politics and sports apart, sports in this country will be ruined.”

No women…

This already happened some time before the Olympic Games to Afghan women’s sports. As The New York Times reported in April 2016, citing examples from the national associations for cycling, football, taekwondo and (non-Olympic) cricket, “Women’s sports programs in Afghanistan, long a favourite of Western donors, have all but collapsed. (…) Some [sports associations] consist of little more than a young woman with a business card and a desk” by now. The women’s cycling team, supported by a US charity, Mountain2Mountain, that until recently had made extremely positive headlines around the world (for example here) and was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Price, has ran into “out of control” corruption under its (meanwhile suspended) Afghan male coach. There were even accusations of sexual misconduct against him by a former member of the team who has requested asylum in Germany. The women’s football team has not competed internationally since 2014. The women’s cricket team had been dissolved by the (male) leadership of the Afghanistan Cricket Board, as its members hold the opinion that women should not be playing sports. The Times reported Shamila Kohestani, former captain of the Afghan women’s football team, saying:

…that Afghan officials never really supported the idea of women in sports, saying they only feigned interest because women’s sports were such grant magnets. “They would say, ‘I would never let my daughter do that,’” she said. “They treated us like sluts or something because we’re running around showing ourselves to men.”

One of the two first ever Afghan women Olympic starters, Robina Muqimyar (now Jalali), also blamed foreign embassies for no longer paying much attention to women’s sports in her country.

As a result of those circumstances, the 2016 Afghan Olympic team has only one woman, and she lives and trains in Iran.

In general, the infighting among the country’s sports officials has not helped to elevate Afghan athletes’ international competitiveness, both on the men’s and the women’s side, and the times are over that the country received special treatment as it had just returned to the international sports scene. There is very little chance that any of the three athletes who made it to Rio can add to Nekpai’s triumphs from Beijing 2008 and London 2012 that, across all social and ethnic backgrounds, had made so many Afghans extremely proud.


(1) [Amended on 9 Aug 2016:] The IOC, for example, set a qualification time of 10.16 seconds for the 100m sprint event for the men at Rio. The Afghan participant Zahiri did not match this, but reportedly qualified on a ‘wild card’ with crossing a qualification hurdle of 10.75 seconds set by the Afghan NOC.

(2) There is no information yet available on Afghan participation in the Rio Paralympics. However, there are a number of Afghanistan veterans of several nations’ armed forces who will be competing – see examples from the UK here and Australia here.


Corruption National Olympic Committee Olympics Sports women