Byline: Ashley McGeachy Fox
ATHENS _ She ran from the past, from a life of repression, a climate of torture, an atmosphere without hope. Eleven months after beginning her journey in high-heeled sandals, long pants and a black scarf on a broken concrete track, Robina Muqimyar dug her cleats into the starting blocks, and inhaled.
On the nicest, most expensive track in the world, in an event _ the Olympic 100 meters _ she had dreamed of, Muqimyar trailed the legendary Gail Devers after her opening stride Friday morning. She finished seventh in her heat, nearly three seconds off the pace of Devers, who finished third with a qualifying time of 11.29, and 62nd out of 63 competitors, but Muqimyar was smiling.
Muqimyar smiled for herself, for her country, and at the request of her competitor, in a picture with the diva Devers.
Muqimyar is one of two female Olympians from Afghanistan, a country that until 2002 was long repressed by the Taliban, who shrouded their women in burkas and killed their countrymen. Like her teammate, judoist Friba Razayee, Muqimyar lost, and lost badly, in her first Olympics, but she didn't care.
She beat one other sprinter, Fartun Abukar Omar of Somalia, and quite possibly paved the way for other Afghan women to become athletes.
"I didn't have the Afghan flag with me at that moment, otherwise I would have been just running with it around the stadium," Muqimyar said through an interpreter. "I was really, really glad, and I was proud of my country and my people. ... I was the first Afghan woman who started to run after the Taliban. That's really a big honor for me."
Muqimyar added: "I will never ever forget this moment in my life."
The 17-year-old Muqimyar was a young girl during the Taliban's reign, but she remembers the horrors. The murders. The public hangings. The fear of going outside.
Eighty-five percent of women in Afghanistan are illiterate, and Muqimyar had few opportunities, until one day a Norwegian man came to her high school looking for athletes.
Stig Traavik, a 1992 Olympian in judo, discovered Razayee, and Muqimyar, who shed her black scarf and ran for him in sandals, long pants, and a frock. Muqimyar wasn't the fastest that day, but the most persistent.
She trained in Kabul Stadium, where the Taliban once hung men from goalposts at halftime of a soccer game. In unsuitable shoes, she ran across a rocky track pocked with bullet holes.
Sometimes, Muqimyar ran barefoot. Always, it was away from the disapproving eyes of Afghan men.
"In Afghanistan, everything was OK when I was training," Muqimyar said. "My biggest problem was I didn't have shoes for running. I was running on a concrete track. The customs of the people were really another big challenge to me, but I hope I can open the door for Afghan women. This was the first step. I'm really glad about that."
As optimistic as Muqimyar understandably is about the future for women in her country, she is not universally popular at home. Omid Marzban, the lone Afghan journalist at the Games, said that, while everyone knows who Muqimyar is, not everyone likes her.
"The minority, yes," Marzban said, "but the majority, no. They don't like the women to run."
At home, Muqimyar cannot run on the streets of Kabul. If she did, she likely would get heckled, touched, attacked or worse, Marzban said. And who knows whether she will be able to marry.
"If there's an open-minded person, maybe she can," Marzban said. "But the majority of people don't like her."
Muqimyar has tried to respect her religion, and her countrymen. For her Olympic debut, she raced in baggy track pants and a loose T-shirt, although her long black hair was uncovered.
"For me having worn trousers, that was a great honor because that shows I'm respecting my people," Muqimyar said. "Even if somebody asked me to wear scarves, or a big cloak, I would have been wearing that, and I would've been proud of that. ... I respect my culture."
Against the world's elite sprinters, Muqimyar was overmatched. Jamaica's Veronica Campbell won the heat in 11.17 seconds, Ukraine's Zhanna Block was second in 11.25, and Devers was third. Yuliya Nesterenko of Belarus set the first-round pace with a time of 10.94.
Muqimyar wants to run in the future. Having lowered her time in the 100 from 17 seconds to 14 in less than a year and under unfavorable circumstances, Muqimyar plans to continue to train.
Maybe she can get better equipment. Maybe she can find a better track. Maybe one day she can run in public.
"I'll really just get ready for the 2008 Olympic Games," Muqimyar said. "I hope I can win a medal, at least a bronze medal."
Contact staff writer Ashley McGeachy Fox at 215-854-5064 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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