Last Thursday, an early morning suicide attack aimed at a Turkish convoy in downtown Kabul started the day for Afghans. Two hours later, the news of the Afghan national cricket team’s win over Scotland at the ICC Cricket World Cup triggered instantaneous jubilation throughout the country. Young and old poured out on the streets dancing and singing, forgetting for a moment their precarious existence.
One of the areas in which Afghanistan has shown much promise and hope for transitioning from destructive war to healthy competition is sports.
The Premier Football League’s annual tournament, though only in its fourth year, has become the national pastime. The national football team’s championship at the 2013 South Asian Football Federation games boosted Afghan national pride and massive celebrations were one of the few joyous occasions in a country that mourns terrorist victims on a daily basis.
When Rohullah Nikpai won Afghanistan’s first ever Olympic medal at the Beijing 2008 games in taekwondo, he was passionately hailed throughout the country. Until Beijing, Afghanistan had participated in 12 Olympics since its first appearance at the Berlin games of 1936.
Antidote to ethnic divisions
Successes in sports have become an antidote to the ethnic and sectarian divisions that Afghan politicians are trying to infuse in this war-weary nation. The public, thirsty for inspiration and non-war heroes, cheer their sports champions as if they are Olympian gods.
But now, like many other institutions in this country, corruption, warlordism and power politics are beginning to erode the sector’s establishments and may, possibly, prevent it from further prosperity.
For three weeks, the bustling and dusty squares of Kabul were plastered with posters of Afghan taekwondo stars and portraits of the National Olympics Committee (NOC) president, Fahim Hashimy, the latter’s images marked with X. “Corrupt” in red ink was written under Hashimy’s posters. A number of athletes were sitting in a tent in a square in downtown Kabul in protest and were accusing the NOC president of corruption.
Hashimy, who under his holding company, Hashimy Group, is the owner of a television station and an airline, among other things, has filed a lawsuit with Afghanistan’s Attorney General’s Office, charging the instigators of this campaign with defamation of his character and baseless accusations.
The man behind these protests is said to be the head of the Afghan government’s Sports and Physical Activities Directorate Kiramuddin Kiram. Rumoured to be a protege of Ahmad Zia Massoud, President Ashraf Ghani’s senior adviser on good governance and administrative reforms, the director has ambitions of leading the NOC. Kiram has created a parallel taekwondo federation, members of which are participants in the protests against Hashimy. Thus, the fierce rivalry between the two men has resulted in discord among athletes.
The current NOC president, who was head of the Afghan Chess Federation, came to his position last year through unanimous vote of all the 28 federations that comprise the governing board of the NOC. His foes claim that Hashimy’s win was in part due to monetary incentives as well as political pressure from the office of former Vice President Karim Khalili.
Byzantine modus operandi
Whether or not there is any truth to those claims, the fact is that according to the NOC’s and the International Olympics Committee (IOC) Charters, NOC presidents must be voted in by their member federations, in a process independent of government interference. Furthermore, federations belonging to the NOC must elect their heads under NOC supervision and in accordance with the committee’s by-laws.
While Kiram's ambition of becoming the NOC head is perfectly legitimate, his manoeuvrings to achieve his goal illustrate the Byzantine modus operandi that has become the standard pattern in all aspects of governance and politics in Afghanistan.
While Kiram’s ambition of becoming the NOC head is perfectly legitimate, his manoeuvrings to achieve his goal illustrate the Byzantine modus operandi that has become the standard pattern in all aspects of governance and politics in Afghanistan. His interference, as a government official, in NOC affairs may well cause Afghanistan the loss of its IOC membership.
A similar situation arose in Pakistan in 2013, whereby the government created a parallel body to the IOC-sanctioned Pakistan Olympics Association. The dispute between the two governing sports bodies nearly cost Pakistan revocation of its membership at the IOC.
In 2012, the IOC suspended India Olympics Association for failing to comply with the world sports body’s regulations for holding independent elections without the government’s interference. Indian athletes thereby lost the right to compete in any Olympics event under Indian national flag.
In addition to IOC regulations for government non-interference in national committees’ elections, article 16.1.5 of the IOC Charter states: “Members of the IOC will not accept from governments, organisations, or other parties, any mandate or instructions liable to interfere with the freedom of their action and vote.”
All is not lost yet for the Afghan athletes’ future Olympic opportunities. In a recent meeting with the two sports heads, Ghani is said to have defended the NOC Charter, scolded the creation of a parallel federation and has appointed a commission to review the case.
While a domestic power struggle in the sports sector of an under-developed country may not seem to be of much concern for the rest of the world, this dispute and how it will be resolved will convey vital messages.
The Afghan president’s initial insistence on behaviour in accordance with the Olympics Charter is encouraging. The investigating commission’s unbiased work and resolution of this dispute will bear a critical – if minor – confirmation of the Afghan government’s seriousness in the application of the rule of law and good governance.
This would also be a good opportunity for Afghanistan’s international friends, who desperately seek to showcase success stories, to actively encourage transparency and lawful conduct in Afghanistan’s National Olympics Committee and insist on the Afghan government’s non-interference in the affairs of the country’s NOC.
The international community, the IOC and the Afghan government must protect and promote the message of peace and unity that the success of sports has presented to this young Afghan generation.
Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.