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For Afghans, London Games Brings More Than Olympics Glory

Posted: 08/22/2012 5:58 pm

Olympic Games often bring national euphoria as nations cheer when their teams win, and some cry when they lose.

But in Afghanistan -- a country often equated more with violence than with winning in sports -- the London Games evoked emotions many in the country had not felt for a long time. And it wasn't because Afghan athletes racked up a pile of medals. In fact, the country only won its second bronze since first participating in 1936 Berlin Olympics.

It was the Olympic saga of three Afghan athletes which brought about a sense of national unity and inspired long lines of praise and poetry. And the youth of the country went "bananas" as one online activist, @ahmadshuja, tweeted.

The Olympic journey of the team also unfolded like s script from a Hollywood movie.

It began with Tahmina Kohistani -- the team's only female sprinter. She did not win any medals but for many Afghans -- especially women -- she achieved something beyond national pride. Parwiz Kawa, the editor of 8AM newspaper -- a widely circulated paper in Afghanistan -- wrote (in Dari), "Tahmina ran for equality and freedom, and she won!"
On the men's side -- the story was no different.

Competing in men's 68kg Taekwondo, 25-year-old Rohullah Nikpai won bronze after facing off against his British opponent Martin Stamper. Millions of Afghans -- across all ethnic and political groups -- were glued to their TV sets as they watched him score the final victory point.

Being from a long-persecuted ethnic minority and growing up as a refugee in Iran, Nikpai achieved what many Afghan leaders and politicians have long failed: He united his country in one kick.

The U.S. embassy in Kabul realized the importance of his achievement. They sent a congratulatory tweet, "@USEmbassyKabul: Congratulations to Roohullah Nikpai, who won a bronze medal for Afghanistan at the Olympics in taekwondo!"

The final and the most dramatic moment came when Nisar Ahmad Bahawi -- competing in men's 80kg Taekwondo -- fought back despite injuries to his leg.

He was widely expected to win Afghanistan's first gold medal.

The 28-year-old did not win any medals, but it was his match against his Argentinean opponent that captured the imagination of his people, especially the youth of the country. He struggled to keep himself up while visibly in pain. He threw kicks and did not let his opponent give him a knockout. And this struck a chord with millions of Afghans. But his match also exposed how corruption has not even left the national team unscathed.

The Afghan team did not have any doctors to attend to Bahawi's injuries. Many in the country blamed this on the corruption that has remained rampant across all government institutions. Others were outraged as one Afghan BBC reporter, Bilal Sarwary (@bsarwary) tweeted about it: "Even sports & Olympics not safe from patronage, corruption & bad governance."

More tweets and comments filled the Afghan blogsphere and the country's growing media, calling on their leaders to tackle corruption.

But others said they hoped the world would take notice of the moment.

Sulaiman Qyamat -- a 31-year-old activist -- said he hopes the story of the three athletes could be a reminder to U.S. policymakers and the international community to invest in the youth of the country -- who make up over 60 percent of the population. "U.S. policymakers should tap on the Afghan youths' potential and optimism instead of relying on the traditional power brokers."

What the trio in the Afghan team achieved may not alter the outcome of the conflict as U.S.-led NATO troops prepare to leave the country in 2014. But it allowed young Afghans who grew up in the last 20 years to see their country briefly united for the first time in their lives.

 
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