KABUL -- For years, Kabul's Ghazi Stadium was notorious not for hosting sporting events, but for the executions, stonings, and mutilations carried out there by the Taliban.
Its playing field was so blood-soaked, it was whispered, that even grass would not grow there. Such horror stories went a long way in feeding the world's general perception that sports were banned by the Islamist regime during its rule from 1996 to 2001.
But veteran sports journalists and former Afghan athletes -- while recalling brutality in sometimes graphic detail -- also tell a different story, saying that some sports not only existed, but flourished under the Taliban.
Safi Stanekzai, a former sports journalist with Tolo News and National TV, says that Ghazi Stadium was home under the Taliban to a thriving 12-team Kabul soccer league. Remnants of the old league live on at the stadium, which today stands as a modern sports arena, through the many original teams that continue to play there.
Stanekzai writes off the mistaken notion as an example of how Western media painted a distorted picture of life in Afghanistan because of their lack of insight into how living under Taliban rule really was.
"[The West] didn't have close relations with Afghanistan then. Afghanistan was only known for war and the Taliban," Stanekzai says, adding that the media "focused a lot more on the negatives than the positives of the time. One of those positives was sport. During the Taliban a lot of people were playing sports."
Sports Allowed, Under Strict Rules
Stanekzai notes that while some traditional Afghan sports like kite-flying, dog fighting, and buzkashi, a game played on horseback with an animal carcass, were outlawed for being "un-Islamic," cricket, volleyball, and boxing gained in popularity as the Taliban banned other activities such as music, television, and cinema.
Afghanistan is now preparing to send its first female athlete to the Olympics, boxer Sadaf Rahimi.
Sport was not for everyone, however. Women were strictly forbidden to participate and men were permitted to compete only if they were dressed properly. Soccer players, for example, were required to wear long-sleeve shirts, long shorts, and high socks that covered their bare skin.
Mohammad Isaq, a captain of the national soccer team before the Taliban took power, left Kabul when civil war broke out in the early1990s. When he returned in 1996 after the Taliban had taken power he was approached by Haji Salam, a Taliban commander in Kabul, who was looking to sign former national team players for a new soccer team.
Isaq, a well-known forward, says he agreed, and joined Sabawoon (Dawn), one of the dozen teams created and funded by various Taliban leaders in Kabul. Thousands gathered every week for matches at Ghazi Stadium, he says.
"He [Salam] determined a salary for us and fully funded our team's expenses. From that we were able to support our families as well as continue to play soccer," Isaq recalls. "The Taliban commanders made bets among themselves. He liked us to watch movies on game days, so we would go to his house."
A Brighter Future
Isaq considers himself lucky to have been paid for what he loved doing, especially since there were virtually no jobs in Kabul at the time. He says that while gambling was strictly illegal under Shari'a law, which the Taliban enforced, many commanders would place bets of weapons, cars, and even houses on the matches
Although Isaq, who retired three years later in 1999, has fond memories of the time, there are memories of the Taliban's heinous public punishments that still haunt him. One particular memory, the day he arrived for his first training session, continues to turn his stomach.
Mohammad Isaq with his sons, Sadiq and Fahim
"We did some warm-ups and went to do some shooting practice. When I lifted a barrel that was in the middle of the pitch, I found six amputated hands," Isaq says. "When I saw them it really affected me. I left the training session and the stadium and went home. I felt sick for one or two weeks."
Isaq, who has a part-time coaching role with the Afghan Paralympics team, says he has been encouraged by the strides made in sport in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.
He points to the completely refurbished Ghazi Stadium and the country's first Olympic medal -- the bronze won in taekwondo at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing -- as cases in point.
Isaq is hopeful that the country will add to its medal tally in the London 2012 Olympics, where Afghanistan will be represented by three athletes, two competing in taekwondo and another in judo.
He says sport has an important role in uniting Afghans and showing the world that there is more to Afghanistan than just war and bloodshed.
The Olympics "will give us a chance to introduce ourselves to the world and establish social and cultural relations. It will also encourage peace," Isaq says. "When Afghan athletes travel outside the country to compete, they also improve their technique and skills."