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Afghanistan: Forgotten Olympians Hope For Return To The Field

Among the Afghans looking to resume normal life after nearly two decades of war are the country's athletes. With fields and equipment in disrepair -- and some sports even emerging from a five-year ban under the Taliban militia -- much work remains before the country's sportsmen and -women are ready to return to international competition. But some sports figures in Afghanistan are ready to get back in the game -- and are setting their sights on the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

Kabul, 27 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It's not easy being a ski champion in Afghanistan.

Consider the weather. Afghanistan has plenty of soaring mountains which should be covered with blankets of snow this time of year. Instead, snowfall has become almost as meager as rainfall here, as the country suffers yet another year of continued drought conditions.

And then there is Afghanistan's recent political history. For the past five years, none of the country's sports champions has had the option of going to the Olympic Games, as the international community isolated the Taliban for its human rights record. At the same time, the collapsed economy meant no new equipment or training facilities even for the most determined athletes hoping to outlast the fundamentalist militia.

But now hope may be on the way. Afghanistan has a new interim administration, and the international community is rushing to renew financial, trade, and cultural links with Kabul. And already there are signs that Afghanistan's return to the Olympics may not be far away.

One hopeful indication came as the chairman of Afghanistan's interim administration, Hamid Karzai, addressed the press here just after his inauguration on 22 December. Karzai, citing early offers of international assistance to his administration, said that Italy has offered to "help send our sportsmen to the Olympics."

Karzai provided no details and quickly passed on to mentioning other forms of foreign aid, including an offer by Iran to help pay the salaries of professors at the University of Kabul.

But the news provided a ray of hope for many Afghan athletes whose Olympic dreams in recent years have not even included watching the Games, due to the Taliban's ban on television.

Today, one meets Afghanistan's champion athletes in an array of strange places. One is Kabul's downtown currency exchange, which is a crowded courtyard in the central bazaar. There, a sea of men flows between the competing money shops according to the pull of their exchange rates. Inside one of the shops -- trading in U.S. dollars, afghanis, and Pakistani rupees -- is a fit, muscular man wearing a ski parka and knit ski cap. On the cap are the words "Albertville 1992" -- the site of the Winter Olympics in France a decade ago.

The man is Mohammad Yusuf Karghar, a member of the Afghan ski team at the Olympic Games in France. An American visitor learns he is a ski champion only when, after exchanging money, the money changer asks incidentally about ski conditions this season in the United States.

Karghar says he has been sidelined since 1992, when Afghanistan erupted into factional warfare, followed in 1996 by the Taliban's seizure of Kabul. He says that amid these events, he was able to keep practicing his sport some of the time, until Afghanistan's drought finally put an end to any possibility of skiing.

"For about five years, we have had no skiing as a sport here because of the drought and the lack of snow. So we have no practicing skiers here now in Afghanistan, unless there are some people who have been invited to participate in competitions abroad."

Karghar says he is from only the second generation of skiers in Afghanistan, where the sport was virtually unknown until some 30 years ago. He credits his father and an uncle with being the first Afghan men to become seriously interested in skiing after they spied a German resident of Kabul trying out his skis on a hill near his residence.

Karghar remembers his father and uncle being highly intrigued by that curious spectacle.

"When they came across a German skiing on Maranjong Hill [a district of Kabul], it was very interesting for them and they wondered what this foreign gentleman was doing there. Then, when they went [closer] to the scene and saw him skiing it became even more interesting. And so they later prepared some simple equipment for themselves, including a sled."

That first interest in skiing became a family passion after Karghar's father made a trip to Iran and brought back professional equipment. Today, Karghar says 25 members of his extended family -- both men and women -- are competition-level skiers. Thanks in part to those skiers' activities, and their coaching of various school teams, skiing was later officially accepted by the Afghan national Olympic committee as a sport in which Afghans should compete internationally.

Karghar says he is very interested in returning to his specialty, the slalom. And at 38, he says he still feels young enough to do so. The problem now, however, is where to resume training. Afghanistan's only full-time ski run, some 1 1/2 hours from Kabul, is in utter disrepair. Established during the reign of former King Zahir Shah -- exiled in Rome since 1973 -- the slope's ski lifts haven't worked for decades. The last time a skiing competition was held on the slope was 24 years ago.

Still, in sports, hope springs eternal, not only among skiers but for all athletes. And the prospect that foreign countries will help Afghan teams again take the field is inspiring the country's Olympic committee to already start planning for the future.

At the committee's headquarters in Kabul's municipal football stadium, director Sayed Mahmoud Zia Dashti says many of the country's coaches and trainers are already planning to reorganize their teams. But he says most of the athletes are out of practice and the whereabouts of many are unknown.

"[The athletes] were not able to continue their training during the past five years. And only the trainers are [in contact with us] now. I am one of the executive members of the Olympic committee, but we haven't made any contact with the athletes so far."

Dashti, who previously headed the Olympic committee of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, says that competitors in some sports -- such as boxing and chess -- were forced into retirement when the Taliban banned those activities. Other sports -- particularly football and volleyball -- were encouraged by the militia, but gymnasiums and stadiums received minimal upkeep. Kabul's municipal stadium doubled as the site of the Taliban's regular Friday public executions and amputations, which were followed by a football match. Crowds were called out by the Taliban to witness the executions, making the game seem like an unhappy afterthought.

The Olympic committee director says he now looks forward to regrouping the country's athletes to train for the upcoming 2004 Summer Games in Greece. He says there will again be national women's teams in basketball, volleyball, and tennis, and he hopes the men's teams will recapture their past international standing in wrestling and basketball.

But to do so, countries like Italy will first have to fulfill their promise to help Afghanistan's athletes return to the field.

For that, Dashti says gymnasiums and stadiums will need to be rebuilt and new training equipment provided. And expert foreign trainers will have to come to Afghanistan to pass on the latest techniques to coaches and players. Then, with serious training -- and in the case of Afghanistan's ski team, a little snow -- the country's athletes should be ready to compete regularly again at the Olympics.