Byline: JEFF SCHULTZ; Staff
Athens, Greece --- Some don't come to the Olympics to win a medal so much as to confirm victory. You grow up under the thumb of terrorists, you are told to stay indoors and far from the playground merely because of gender, watch how quickly your perspective changes.
"When I start running, I will already feel like I'm the winner," Robina Muqim Yaar said. "Just standing on the track, I will feel like I won a gold medal. What's really important is that I am representing Afghanistan and Afghanistan woman. I will be a symbol for Afghanistan women."
Train in a stadium where the Taliban was notorious for performing public executions, beatings and mutilations, watch how your perspective changes.
Afghanistan, suspended before the 2000 Games in Sydney because of atrocities during the Taliban regime, was welcomed back in Athens after the defeat of the Taliban. The team runs only five deep --- three men, two women. None is likely to medal. Yet at the Opening Ceremony, athletes from other countries stood with them for pictures. At a first-round boxing match, Basharmal Sultani was given an ovation by the small crowd at Peristeri Hall, despite losing. "This was a great moment in my life," he said, "and it will be the same for other athletes when they compete."
None more than Yaar. She was born in Pakistan but moved with her family to Afghanistan when she was 2. As a female in a Muslim country under Taliban rule, her life's options --- and those of female judo team member Friba Razayee --- were pretty much limited. No school, no job, no athletics, no freedom of choice. When she got married, it would be because a man picked her or a family arranged it.
"All Afghan women were like female prisoners," Yaar said. "Not just my future would be different, but all Afghan women."
The future changed in 2001 when the Taliban was defeated. For the first time in her life, Yaar could run for a reason other than danger. Most Olympic athletes train for years. Yaar's program, such as it was, started 11 months ago.
Stig Intraavik, a former Olympic judo team member from Norway and partly on the dime of the Norwegian government, moved to Kabul two years ago to start a judo program and was asked to help rehabilitate the country's Olympic program. He started gauging interest by going to schools and asking kids to run 100 meters.
"We expected 30 or 40 to show up at this one girls' school, but we got at least a few hundred," he said.
One was Yaar. She showed up on the school yard, as Intraavik said, "looking like an Afghan schoolgirl." High-heeled sandals, black slacks, a black shawl. A scarf was wrapped around her head and face. She took off the scarf, then ran
"She wasn't very fast," Intraavik said. "But when she finished, she came over to me right away and said, 'I'm the best.' "
Her time was 17 seconds. With training, she has that down to 13.76, hardly world-class. Imagine if she had started earlier than the age of 17 and wasn't training on a track of broken concrete. Afghan's athletes don't have the facilities, equipment or training methods that others do. The other thing that separates them is Kabul Stadium.
"The first time I ran [a competitive race] was at Kabul Stadium, where executions took place under the Taliban," Yaar said. "I was really happy that, as an Afghan, I could be running in that kind of place."
The Taliban often would make people go to the stadium, then flog or execute those deemed criminals in public as warning to others. Once, two men were led down onto the field at halftime of a soccer game and hanged from the goal posts. Beatings were common.
Sultani said, "Once I went to the stadium, and they were hitting a woman, over and over. I just said that was the first and the last time I would go to see that."
The term "female athlete" still is not fully accepted in Afghanistan. Some friends make jokes. Some men eliminate such women from their marriage pool. But Razayee competes in judo this morning. Yaar runs her heat in the 100 Friday. And it's getting better.
"My one hope is to stand beside the world champions on the starting line," Yaar said. "That would be a big moment for me. That would make me very happy."