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Athletes Want Sporting Chance

Afghans look to new union to give them a much-needed competitive edge.
By Mohammad Monir

Afghanistan’s athletes, starved of funds and demoralised by dismal performances in international competitions, have decided to break with the government and set up their own independent union.

For the past 60 years, all sports in this country have been controlled by the National Olympic Committee, ONC. This body was suspended from the Olympic movement during the five-year rule of the Taleban, primarily because the regime refused to allow women to compete in sport. The hard line student militia also insisted that all sportsmen wore beards and long trousers.

Since the collapse of the Taleban over a year ago, the country’s athletes have been trying to return to the international sporting arena. But after 23 years of constant war that laid waste to much of the country and destroyed the economy, they have found themselves at the end of a long queue for reconstruction funds.

Athletes accuse the ONC of failing to provide even minimal aid for sports, of distributing this according to its own whims, and of selecting teams on the basis of favouritism rather than ability. In the most recent major regional soccer tournament, the Asian Football Cup, the national side lost all their matches and conceded over 30 goals.

“For the past five years all Afghan athletes have had to meet all their expenses out of their own pockets,” Zekria Asadi, chief trainer of the national judo federation within the ONC, told IWPR. “The only reason for this is that the administration of sport is run by the authorities. As long as sport is under government control it is unlikely to be promoted.”

Sayed Rahman Yorish, who trains 500 athletes in martial arts every day at his privately-run club, said, “The ONC does not take much care when selecting athletes for international competitions, with the result that our performances are consistently poor.”

Pushed to action, a number of leading sportsmen set up an independence union last year called the National Union of Afghan Athletes, NUAA, which claims to represent 15,000 male athletes and, for the first time since the communist era which ended in 1989, also includes some women.

The ONC, far from condemning the move, actually supported it - presumably hoping that its appeals for funds from other sports organisations around the world would bring in more than the impoverished Afghan government could ever provide.

However, NUAA secretary Ghulam Jailani Ghroob, who is also the ONC’s head of publications, admitted that no money had come in the seven months of the union’s existence. He said at least one million US dollars was urgently needed to start training young athletes across the country to bring them up to international standard.

ONC director Mohammad Anwar Jagdalak, a former wrestler who spent the Taleban years in Britain, said the body was planning to bring in a new leadership next month.

But he denied that his organisation had failed to support Afghan athletes, saying, “In such a short time [since the fall of the Taleban] we can’t possibly meet all the demands and needs of the country’s sportsmen and women.”

A number of leading Afghan sports figures are confident that the new union is a step in the right direction. “The creation of an independent, non-government sports committee catering for both men and women can win the trust of all athletes and attract assistance from abroad,” Abdul Hameed Sofi, a leading volleyball trainer, told IWPR.

The creation of the new union coincides with moves by individual Afghan sports bodies to seek financial and professional assistance from abroad.

Soccer is the most popular game in the country - the national game buzkashi, a form of polo using a headless goat instead of a ball is played only by an elite group of skilled horsemen though watched by many – and has gained the support of the English Football Association, which has provided money and equipment, to set up a national league in Afghanistan.

The programme, which aims to help Afghanistan qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, for the first time in its history, has won the backing of British prime minister Tony Blair.

Popular enthusiasm for the sport was underlined when a match between Afghanistan and members of the 5,000-strong multinational security force established in Kabul last autumn was played to a capacity crowed of 25,000 - with 20,000 more trying to get in - in the capital’s stadium where the Taleban once executed their prisoners.

Cricket has also become popular after returning refugees brought a love for the game back from their exile in Pakistan. Now enthusiasts are appealing for help from the latter, asking for coaches, essential equipment and the possibility of playing home and away matches between the two countries.

Cricket was one of the very few sports allowed by the Taleban, many of whom were educated in Pakistan. However, tours abroad were limited as several nations objected to the obligatory full-length beards worn by the Afghan players.

Mohammad Monir Meheraban is a freelance journalist in Kabul.

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