Against all Odds

02 August 2012

by Guy Smallman

Photojournalist Guy Smallman on the challenges facing Afghanistan’s would-be Olympians

As soon as I walked into the freezing, partially completed gym it became clear what Afghan Olympic hopefuls have to contend with.

Afghan national judo team in trainingIt was January in Kabul and cold winter air blew through the missing ceiling.  The session was lit by naked light bulbs powered by an ageing generator.  Periodically, the lights dimmed to almost darkness, obscuring the floor and forcing the athletes to revert to doing press ups.  Nevertheless, they were celebrating being able to train on a standard surface for the first time. The gym was a present from the Norwegian government, impressed by the Afghans when they competed in a tournament in Oslo.

The athletes were from Afghanistan’s national judo team - one of the country’s greatest hopes for a medal in London.  And they weren’t the only ones facing such problems.

It was similar story in the Afghan national wrestling gym, two miles down the road in the rough Maihan neighbourhood. 

Afghan Wrestling GymYunus Hairaan was deeply proud of his freestyle wrestlers as they warmed up in the bitter cold.  The morning sun streamed through the windows, but all other lighting was off due to one of the regular power cuts.  Hairaan complained that the meagre $20 per month allowance the government gave competitors barely covered their travel expenses, let alone the dietary supplements needed for professional competition.

Afghanistan’s legendary boxers were also regarded as potential medal prospects in London.  With a seventy year history in the country, boxing remains one of the most popular sports. The gym in the Ghazi stadium, with its broken mirrors and damp walls, looked neglected, despite being in use every day of the week.   

The male boxers shared their gym with a group of fighters who have attracted a huge amount of publicity.  Over the past few years the three boxing Rahimi sisters, Shabnam, Sadaf and Fahima, have perhaps received more media attention than the rest of Afghanistan’s Olympic hopefuls put together.  Winning medals in regional competitions, they are a source of both national pride and curiosity.

Afghan Women BoxingWomen’s boxing is a new sport in Afghanistan and was never going to sit well with religious conservatives. The sisters’ trainer, Saber Sharifi, was threatened on his way to training sessions and their father received threatening phone calls.  However, their increasing success had helped ease both family members’ reservations and the teasing from local boys.  In January, Sadaf was still hoping to compete at this year’s Olympics through a “wildcard” invitation from the International Boxing Association.  But recent media reports suggest the Association  decided not to extend that invitation, fearing she might be injured while fighting opponents of a much higher standard.

Afghanistan’s main hope for a medal in 2012 remains with Rohullah Nikpai, competing in another combat sport, taekwondo.  Nikpai became a national hero in 2008 when he won the country’s first ever Olympic medal - a bronze - in Beijing.  He was modest about that victory, saying many more of his countrymen would have won prizes if only they had a properly funded training regime.

Afghan Judo TeamOne of the reasons Afghanistan excels in combat sports is because of the extraordinary difficulties facing track athletes.  Training facilities in many provinces are non-existent.  New athletic facilities are under construction in Panjshir and Nangarhar, but are running heavily behind schedule.

Meanwhile, the recently refurbished Ghazi stadium in Kabul has its own problems. The local air quality is so poor that in 2010 the UN estimated that more people died from the pollution in Kabul than from the conflict raging across rural provinces.  Extreme temperatures in both summer and winter make it impossible to train outdoors for more than half of the year.

Nevertheless two sprinters -  Massoud Azizi and Tahmina Kohistani  - have managed to qualify for the London Games.  UK media attention has focused on Kohistani, the only female in the Afghan team, who has had to cope with hundreds of jeering men watching her Kabul training sessions.

Some of Afghan national olympic team in UKThe other four members of the Afghan Olympic team are all competitors in combat sports:  Nikpai and Nesar Ahmad Bahawi in taekwondo, Ajmal Faizzada in judo, and Ajmal Faisal in boxing.

They have overcome many hurdles just to reach the Games. They carry the sporting hopes of millions of Afghans with them.