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Afghanistan Celebrates Its First-Ever Olympic Medal

Rohullah Nekpa made Olympic history in Beijing yesterday by becoming the first Afghan ever to win an Olympic medal -- a bronze in Taekwondo. Most Afghans were unable to watch Nekpa, as only a few households have access to cable television channels broadcasting the Beijing games, and power outages are a daily occurrence.

But Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ahmad Takal, caught up with Nekpa, speaking by telephone from Beijing after winning the bronze:

"I was so happy that I was crying. I went down on my knees and I kissed the ground. I rushed toward my coach and I hugged the Taekwondo master from South Korea [who helped me prepare for the Olympics]," Takal said.

Nekpa's story is truly inspiring. The 21-year-old is an ethnic Hazara who was born in Iran as the son of Afghan refugees. He said he discovered Taekwondo at the age of 10 when his older brother took up the sport. He said it was from watching his brother train that he learned to appreciate Taekwondo. (Watch him fight here.)

But it wasn't until 2004 that Nekpa's family returned to Afghanistan and he lived in Kabul for the first time. Within a year, Nekpa was training with the Afghan national Taekwondo team.

Nekpa said his training routine was particularly stringent during the past six months. Especially helpful, he said, was a two-month trip to South Korea where the Afghan team studied and trained under a Taekwondo master. To make that trip, he said, the team had to borrow money privately from an Afghan man.

"There are lots of problems for athletes in Afghanistan -- most of all, the lack of sports facilities and the lack of salaries for those who are involved in sports. We faced all of these problems and we worked hard to get over those barriers. We had hoped to be able to get into the Olympic Games. And now, it has happened and we have [won our first Olympic medal]," Nekpa said.

Nekpa is likely to get a hero's welcome when he returns to Kabul. After he received his bronze medal he received a phone call from President Hamid Karzai, who promised him a new house as a reward for his victory. Additionally, the head of a local organization has promised rewards for Afghan medal winners -- offering $10,000 for a bronze.

-- Ron Synovitz

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