Hero's Homecoming for Afghan Medallist
Afghanistan’s only medal-winner at the London Olympics is delighted with the universal welcome he has received on arriving home, although he bemoans the scant resources available for sports.
Rohullah Nekpai won bronze in taekwondo, repeating his success in Beijing in 2008. He is proud to have won Afghanistan’s first and second Olympic medals.
“I’ve rewritten the history of sport in my country,” he told IWPR. “I took part in the London Olympics on behalf of my 30 million fellow-Afghans.”
When the six-member Afghan team returned to Kabul on August 14, they were met by cheering crowds. Two weeks later, President Hamid Karzai conferred the highest civilian award, the Ghazi Mohammad Akbar Khan Medal, on Nekpai.
In places as far away as Paktia in the south, Afghans watched Nekpai on TV as he defeated Britain’s Martin Stamper. One fan, Abdul Ghani, described how he and his fellow-Pashtuns were so excited that they got up and launched into the “atan”, a traditional dance, to celebrate.
He told IWPR that he wished Afghanistan had ten people like Nekpai instead of countless warlords and “so-called mujahedin leaders”.
Nekpai is aware he has become a symbol of national unity.
“I am certain that sportsmen who represent Afghanistan in international competitions can bring peace and harmony to the country. When people acquire national pride, they forget discord,” he said.
An ethnic Hazara, he identifies himself with the whole nation.
“I am not Hazara, Tajik, Pashtun or Uzbek. I am Afghan and I belong to all the Afghans, because they all supported me, and everyone welcomed me when I returned to Afghanistan with my medal,” he said. “I am proud that every Afghan, regardless of ethnic background, loves me and smiles at me when I walk through the city. I dedicate my achievements and medals to all my fellow-citizens.”
Mari, a Kabul-based journalist, warned others against portraying this Olympian success in ethnic terms, saying, “My message to Nekpai is that he belongs to the entire country and not to one ethnic group, and he should not be exploited by the agendas of those who have brought only misery to every Afghan.”
Now 25, Nekpai took up taekwondo at the age of ten while living in the capital Kabul. He says he was inspired by watching martial arts films and also because his older brother was into taekwondo.
His family left Kabul after civil war broke out in 1992, and lived as refugees in Iran for many years. Nekpai returned to Kabul in 2004, and began training in earnest. Taekwondo had been made an Olympic sport in 2000, and he was determined to compete in the games.
Despite the praise showered on him by the authorities, Nekpai remains critical of the limited support and funding that Afghan athletes get from the government and private benefactors.
“The facilities the government provides aren’t adequate to allow Afghan sportsmen to take part in the Olympics,” he said. “I’m a professional sportsman but my monthly wage is only three-and-a-half dollars, which isn’t enough even to cover one hour’s exercise programme. And even that only gets paid one month out of every three.”
As well as money problems, he said, there was no provision of sports gear and nutrition even for those aiming for the Olympics. The national Olympic committee, he said, offered help only in the months leading up to the competition, instead of ensuring that athletes could train for the full four years between games.
Nekpai’s trainer, Bashir Taraki, agreed that praise from President Karzai was not enough – the state also needed to provide adequate funding.
On the London games themselves, Taraki was critical of the way judges awarded victory to Iran’s Mohammad Bagheri Motamed, who defeated Nekpai and won silver.
“We raised objections but no one heeded us,” he said, noting that the matter was left at that in order to avoid creating trouble for Afghan competitors in future contests.
Nekpai, whom Taraki describes as a role model for other Afghan athletes, is uncertain how to proceed, since he has relied on his family’s limited financial means so far.
“Right now, I don’t know what the future holds for me,” he said. “I am thinking of pursuing higher education in sports abroad.”
His goal remains clear, though: “My aim is to win gold in taekwondo and bring even greater pride to my country.”
Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s Afghanistan editor. Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained contributor in Kabul.