Nineteen-year-old Mahbooba Ahadyar was due in Beijing this summer to become the first Afghan woman ever to compete in the Olympic 800 meter and 1,500 meter races.
But on July 4, unbeknown to her coach, Ahadyar snuck away from an Olympic training center in Formia, Italy -- taking her passport and her luggage with her.
Ahadyar's coach, Shahpoor Amiri, was on the verge of tears when he spoke on July 10 to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan about Ahadyar's disappearance. Amiri says he has spoken to Ahadyar once by telephone since she left.
Amiri says Ahadyar told him she does not want to return to Afghanistan and did not specify where she had gone. He says Ahadyar told him that two other female athletes -- one from Pakistan and one from Bangladesh -- had helped retrieve her passport from an official of the International Association of Athletics Federations, who was holding the documents of all the athletes at the pre-Olympics training camp in Italy.
I have come to a foreign country, but I still have not forgotten my Islamic culture and values
"About the reason for her disappearance, she just told me that she had a lot of problems. I told her that running away would not solve those problems. But she said she would not return and had already decided what to do," Amiri says.
The deputy chairman of the Afghan National Olympic Committee, Sayed Mahmood Zia Dashti, has claimed that Ahadyar injured her leg and was receiving treatment in Italy.Death Threats
But Ahadyar herself expressed her fears to RFE/RL about death threats she had received from extremists in Afghanistan who oppose the idea of women competing in sports.
Speaking by telephone from Italy the day before her disappearance, Ahadyar told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that she was gravely concerned about what would happen to her upon returning to her home in Kabul.
"When I was in Kabul, I received many anonymous phone calls from people who threatened me and told me not to compete in sports. Even some of our neighbors have harassed me about it," Ahadyar said.
Women were banned from attending school or participating in sports during the Taliban's rule of Afghanistan from 1996 to late 2001. Indeed, the Taliban placed such severe restrictions on women that they were only allowed to leave their homes if clad in an all-encompassing burqa.
Today, more than six years after the collapse of the Taliban regime, many Afghan men still prefer that their women wear a burqa when they leave their homes.
Three other Afghan athletes plan to compete at the Olympics
Contributing to the pressures that Ahadyar faced in Kabul, some conservative clerics in Afghanistan have deemed it un-Islamic for women to compete in sports at all.
Dashti, the deputy chairman of Afghanistan's National Olympic Committee, told RFE/RL just before Ahadyar's disappearance that he also was concerned about what the reaction would be back in Afghanistan to Ahadyar's appearance on the track in Beijing.
"Athletes are allowed to wear either shorts or long trousers. [Ahadyar] will attend the games wearing long trousers," Dashti said.
Meanwhile, Ahadyar's coach, Shahpoor Amiri, told RFE/RL that he thought the main concerns of extremists in Afghanistan would be placated if Ahadyar wore long trousers while competing in Beijing.
"Our country and our culture does not allow us to let an Afghan Muslim girl participate in the [Olympic] Games if they are dressed like the athletes of European or some Asian countries," Amiri said.
"There are no rules that can prevent us from attending the Olympic Games because of the way we want our athletes to be dressed. If there were such rules, we would prefer not to participate in the Olympic Games at all."Olympic Dress Code
Still, following that dress code apparently is not good enough for some Afghans. Afghanistan's only other female Olympians, Fereba Rezaie and Robina Muqimyar, both wore long trousers when they competed in the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. However, neither wore head scarves to cover their hair.
When Rezaie returned to her home in Kabul, she received many death threats -- and reportedly was even beaten by a group of unidentified Afghan men. Within months of her Olympic experience, Rezaie and her family fled Kabul to seek safety abroad in an undisclosed country.
Ahadyar told RFE/RL just before she fled the training camp in Italy that she has always been careful to observe Afghan and Islamic cultural values -- fearing that someone would try to kill her back in Afghanistan if she violated those traditions.
"I have come to a foreign country, but I still have not forgotten my Islamic culture and values," Ahadyar said.
Referring to Ahadyar's disappearance, International Olympic Committee (IOC) spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau said the IOC accepts that athletes "sometimes feel they have to make hard choices to improve their lives." Moreau said it appears that this is what has happened in Ahadyar's case.
Moreau also said that while the IOC did not have any official information on Ahadyar's whereabouts, it "knows that she might be seeking asylum in Norway."
Ahadyar's departure leaves the Afghan Olympic team with only three male athletes to compete at Beijing. But officials from Afghanistan's National Olympic Committee say the team will most likely send another woman to compete in the place of Ahadyar.RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz contributed to this story