KABUL (Reuters) - The sounds produced by the three Afghan athletes going to the London summer Olympics are fierce: elongated wails ricochet off the chipped and dilapidated walls of the taekwondo centre, while leather smacks and slaps at the boxing gym.
In a country wrenched by decades of war, perhaps it is no surprise that all three, a taekwondo male duo including Beijing bronze medalist Rohullah Nikpai, and teenage female boxer Sadaf Rahimi, followed fighting sports.
They were born into conflict that still rages, and chronic insecurity and poverty mean they train in spartan spaces with little financial support, and currently freezing cold in the country’s worst winter for 30 years.
“The difference between me and others is I want to show other countries that an Afghan girl can fight,” 17-year-old Rahimi told Reuters, squinting from a protective facemask that pinches her cheeks and black kohl-lined eyes.
Like Nikpai, Rahimi and her family fled to neighboring Iran to escape the violence and brutal oppression of the Taliban, who were toppled just over a decade ago.
The austere Islamist group had publicly stoned women to death for charges of adultery at the Ghazi stadium, where Rahimi, her two sisters and the rest of the country’s first team of female boxers, set up in 2007, practice today.
Her muscular shoulders rippling as she readies to throw punches at her coach, Rahimi said she feared the Taliban, who banned women from education, sports and most work, would regain a share in power through early talks with Afghan and U.S. officials aimed at ending the NATO-led war.
“I hope the Taliban don’t come back and take over,” she said, wincing and starting to untie pink shoelaces over her knuckles, used instead of hard-to-get strapping. “But if they do, I urge them to let women engage in sports and go to school”.
Coach Mohammad Saber Sharifi, a former professional boxer and advocate of Afghan women’s rights, especially through sport, said Rahimi had been granted a wild card to compete at the Olympics, meaning she can sidestep further qualifying rounds.
She will soon leave Kabul’s rutted and snowbound streets for London to train for the Olympics, where women’s boxing is debuting as a sport, he said.
On the other side of Kabul from Ghazi stadium, in an equally barren practice space, 24-year-old Nikpai and fellow taekwondo Olympic contender Nesar Ahmad Bahawi kick and punch in preparation for competition at London’s ExCel centre in August.
Wearing red chest and back guards made from the material used in bullet-proof vests, the pair, who both recently qualified for the Games in Bangkok, make high-pitched screeches as they take aim, typical of the sport.
But despite officially qualifying and winning Afghanistan’s first Olympic medal at Beijing four years ago, Nikpai bemoaned the lack of support given to sport in his country.
“Nesar and I don’t have a good place to train, facilities, or even a regular transport system and proper electricity,” he said, his breath steaming in the frigid air of the centre, whose small heater did little to combat the frozen white landscape outside.
Poor conditions are not limited to taekwondo, whose national team members receive a miserly monthly stipend of between $10-$14. Boxing coach Sharifi, whose team have never trained in a ring, said tiny sporting budgets severely limit their success.
“We can’t really compare ourselves to the world,” said Nikpai, who was lured to taekwondo after watching hours of action films as a refugee in Iran. He returned to Kabul in 2004.
Nikpai received a hero’s welcome upon his return from Beijing and was summoned to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who presented him with a brand new flat, money and a car.
The head of the Afghan Olympic Committee, General Mohammad Zahir Akhbar, said he hopes more athletes in wrestling, judo and athletics will qualify for the Games in London.
“We are war-torn, our athletes face economic and security problems, but we are aiming for medals,” Akhbar told Reuters.
First-time Olympian Bahawi, who took up taekwondo at the behest of his family because he kept kicking his friends, said triumph at international competitions could be a way to lift security at home.
“Sport brings a message of peace and stability in the country,” said the tall 25-year-old from the country’s eastern Kapisa province before knocking flat a team mate with two quick kicks on his side.
Afghan coach Bashir Taraki, who trains them alongside Korea’s Min Sin-hak, downplayed the attraction to the fighting aspect of the Korean martial art, saying: “I think they are more into taekwondo’s discipline than its fighting side”.
Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman, Editing by Rob Taylor