Afghans Want Sporting Chance

Modest success at the Asian Games is shot in the arm for the country’s long-suffering sportsmen.

Afghans Want Sporting Chance

Modest success at the Asian Games is shot in the arm for the country’s long-suffering sportsmen.

Thursday, 3 March, 2005

Roya Zamani’s bronze medal at the Asian Games was never going to capture international headlines, but here it’s hoped it might spark a sporting revival.

It was a small victory that Afghanistan even managed to send a team to the games in South Korea, less than a year after a fragile peace returned to the country after 23 years of war.

Not that the 23-year-old Kabul resident, who shared a bronze in Tae Kwon Do, had to do very much to secure her medal. She never actually won a bout after receiving a bye to reach the semi-finals, where she lost. "It was a proud moment for me and my country to win a medal. I am so happy and in future I want to win more credit for Afghanistan," she said.

The Afghan team - taking part in football, wrestling, Karate, boxing and Tae Kwon Do - that went to the Asian Games in South Korea was the first to compete competitively in 18 years.

Apart from Zamani's medal triumph, Mohammad Iqbal was placed sixth and Mirdad fifth in the 66 kg wrestling events. The remaining teams lost, including the football side, which conceded 31 goals and scored none in three games.

A mix-up over the permissible age of the players did not help their cause, but Zulmai Paindah, Afghanistan’s soccer administrator, pointed to some other reasons for the poor showing.

"Our team trained for just one day, because physically our players were so tired after they travelled from Kabul to Islamabad and on to Karachi before flying to Korea," he said. "Millions are spent on other teams – we don’t have any money so we have to face defeat.

"But it was a good experience for us and in future we will win. In years to come, we will consider players from the provinces and foreign countries (Paindah had to rely on Kabul-based players for the tournament).”

The wrestlers who came so close to a medal enjoyed the competition. "We gained good experience from these matches and if God is willing we will become world-class athletes," said Mohammad, a member of the squad.

Another, Baig, says he hopes the sport gets outside help, “We are still weak and it would be important for us to get a foreign trainer.”

Afghanistan first became a member of the International Olympic Committee in 1936 and kept its membership for 40 years. During the war years, athletes either went abroad or weren't able to train or compete, making it impossible to put together national teams, explained Abdul Sattar Lewal, a senior official in the national Olympic committee.

"Now we have 22 sports federations. Our senior and youth teams have 558 and 234 members respectively. We have invited all Afghan sportsmen to return to the country and fortunately some have already answered the call,” he said.

Afghanistan's sporting past is dominated by competitors in strength-based events. Nizamuddin won world and Asian titles in heavyweight wrestling in the Sixties. And in the 1980 Olympics, wrestlers Siddiq Zargar and Baryalai collected silver and bronze medals.

Jawed Hamkar, a black belt in Karate, is a coach at a martial arts club in Kabul which trains 100 people, aged seven to 55. "We kept going throughout the wars and the Taleban period. Afghans, especially the younger generation, like Tae Kwon Do, Karate and Kung Fu, and want to be powerful," he said.

During the war years, not only were the Afghan teams weak but they also fell foul of international restrictions. In 1998, an Afghan boxer was not allowed to compete in a boxing match because he had a beard - compulsory for men in the Taleban era - but not acceptable in the ring.

Afghans do have their own sports. They take part in Khosai, a form of team wrestling, and Buzkashi, said to be the national game of northern Afghanistan, which involves riders on horseback dragging the body of a calf around a field.

The latter is a dangerous game in which players sometimes get injured or even killed. But amazingly, it has a properly organised championship. This year, Afghanistan came third in a regional tournament.

During Taleban times, women were not allowed to participate in sports, and are still reluctant to do so, although two female teams did go to the Asian Games.

Rona used to play volleyball and was a member of Kabul university team. "Now I have children and have to do a lot of chores around the house. I quit volleyball after I got married. I think women should take parts in sports too, but ones which do not contravene Islamic laws," she said.

Generally, sports have increased in popularity since the collapse of the Taleban last year. Kabul TV even covered the World Cup from Japan and South Korea, much to young Mohammad Layeq's delight.

"When I watch sports on TV and a country wins a game and is given cups and medals and I see their flag being raised, I wish Afghanistan played internationally too,” he said.

Shahabuddin Tarakhail and Mohammad Shafiq Haqpal are Kabul-based independent reporters.

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