Afghan odyssey to Athens

Five young athletes from Afghanistan have set out on an adventure to the Athens Olympics.

    Afghanistan has not competed in the games since 1996

    They have no money. They are in a foreign land whose language they do not speak, and they rely on a Greek woman who has brought them to a town on the Aegean Sea island of Lesvos.

    It is the first Afghan Olympic team since the 1996 Atlanta Games, and the first to include women. The athletes are doing everything possible on a meagre budget to perform respectably at the August games.

    "The winning and losing is not important for me," said Friba Razayee, 18, who will compete in judo. "The world is preparing four years for the Olympic Games. We are preparing three months ... but we will try our best."

    Razayee and 100-metre sprinter Robina Muqimyar, 17, are the two women on the team. They come from a country where the former Taliban government banned schools for girls and required a burqa for all women.

    IOC invite

    Their team-mates are men: A wrestler, another sprinter and a boxer, who was the only one to qualify for the games. The rest were invited by the International Olympic Committee.

    "I do not want to be married. I just want to try to be a good athlete. I want to change the history of Afghanistan. I want the other women to watch me and see me and follow me."

    Robin Muqimyar, 17,
    Afghan athlete

    Afghanistan last sent athletes to the Olympics just weeks before the Taliban took the capital, Kabul. The IOC suspended Afghanistan in 1999 for a list of grievances, most important of which was the ban on female competitors.

    But it is Zoi Livaditou, Afghanistan coordinator of the Greek Rescue Team, who got the team to Greece to train for the Olympics.

    Livaditou decided to help after seeing sprinter Masoud Azizi, 18, practicing in worn sandals in Kabul's stadium, which was used for executions during the Taliban's reign.

    Greek hospitality 

    After negotiations with the Greek state Lesvos, Livaditou's birthplace was chosen for the training. The mayor of Kalloni, George Kyratzis, persuaded the citizens to offer free room and board. The athletes even got free haircuts.

    On 26 June, they will travel to Thessaloniki to train until the Olympic Village opens in August.

    Athens organisers have not given any money to the team, but persuaded Adidas, a sponsor, to give clothes and equipment, Livaditou said.

    But the team needs pocket money and she has none left.

    "I do not have the ability. My money is finished," said Livaditou, whom Azizi calls his surrogate mother. "They need their vitamins, their supplements."

    Kyratzis gave the athletes $480 and coaches $720 as a gift when they first arrived, since they had no money of their own. The team then sent all the money to their large families back home.

    'Humanitarian effort'

    "We did not see them just as another team. We saw it as a humanitarian effort," Kyratzis said. "We welcomed the proposal from our hearts."

    "We did not see them just as another team. We saw it as a humanitarian effort"

    George Kyratzis,
    Mayor of Kalloni

    The athletes are always accompanied by two undercover police officers. They have tried new things, such as a concert organised by famed Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis.

    Before coming to Greece the men were training in Iran from October to April with economic support by the IOC.

    "They are very proud and they encourage that we be brave," Razayee said.

    Razayee, with a fondness for ice cream since tasting it in Greece, said although she is competing in judo, boxing is her first love.

    'Greek odyssey'

    Sultani Basharmal, a 19-year-old boxer who will compete in the 68-kilogram category, has seen many things on this Greek odyssey.

    "Greece is the best country. It has a beautiful view, beach and lovely people. In Afghanistan we haven't a pool like here," Basharmal said after learning to swim in just one day.

    With training, sprinter Azizi cut his time in the 100 metres from 11.74 seconds three months ago to 11.16. Running in the Kostas Kenteris stadium in Lesvos - named after Greece's gold medalist in the 200 metres at Sydney - has helped. It is better than running on rocks and dust in Kabul.

    "I am very proud to be with the other world champions," Azizi said. During the games "I will introduce myself to them."

    But in the end, it is not about the Olympics or about winning. The athletes want to find money to refurbish the stadium in Kabul, to buy sports equipment or maybe a gym.

    For the women there is a lot more to accomplish.

    "I do not want to be married," Muqimyar said. "I just want to try to be a good athlete. I want to change the history of Afghanistan. I want the other women to watch me and see me and follow me."

    SOURCE: Agencies


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