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Afghan Athletes’ Arrival at Tokyo 2020 Displays Powerful Role Sporting Bodies Can Have

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Afghanistan’s Paralympic athletes Zakia Khudadadi and Hossain Rasouli. Courtesy image

By Michael Pavitt |

One can only imagine the month Afghanistan’s Paralympic athletes Hossain Rasouli and Zakia Khudadadi have had, with the pair’s hopes of competing at Tokyo 2020 having been dashed last week, only to now be in the Japanese capital.

The two athletes spoke to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) earlier this month to discuss their hopes for the Games, amid uncertainty in the country.

“I was thrilled after I received the news that I have got a wild card to compete at the Games,” said Khudadadi on August 10.

“This is the first time that a female athlete will be representing Afghanistan at the Games and I’m so happy.

“I just want to be there with the other athletes from the world and give my best. It is an opportunity to show my ability and I will be so proud to stand with all of those athletes.”

Yet only days on, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan appeared to have ended those ambitions, with Khudadadi left appealing to the international community for help to be able to compete at the Games.

IPC President Andrew Parsons last week reflected with sadness that Afghanistan’s two-member team would have to withdraw from the Games, as the Taliban regained control of the country, 20 years after being removed.

The regime change is a great concern for women’s sport in the country, despite promises from the new Government to give women more rights within the confines of Sharia Law.

Khudadadi has inadvertently become a representative for this, having been due to be Afghanistan’s first female athlete to participate at the Games since Athens 2004. The potential shelving of her own aims could have been symbolic of how people’s rights could be impacted should the worst-case scenario emerged.

The stories of the two athletes again highlighted how sport can help connect and explain the consequences of global issues around the world.

The fact Khudadadi will now be able to participate at the Games will take on added significance given what is going on back in her homeland and what it may mean for women.

IPC chief brand and communications officer Craig Spence gave details of the events leading to the athletes arrival in Tokyo, with their journey concluding with a meeting with Parsons.

“With the chance that the athletes could be safely evacuated from Kabul and the knowledge that both wanted to come to Tokyo 2020, the decision was taken by the IPC Governing Board on 22 August to allow the Afghan flag to be paraded at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony in solidarity,” Spence said today.

“This was the IPC’s first step in keeping the door open for the Afghan team to potentially be involved in these Games.

“Very early on 23 August the athletes were safely evacuated from Kabul to Paris. In Paris the two athletes were cared for at the National Institute of Sport Expertise and Performance, known as INSEP. In addition to being able to continue their preparations for Tokyo the pair were given clothes, counselling and psychological support.

“Throughout their stay in Paris, both athletes expressed a strong aspiration to attend the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

“The meeting was extremely emotional, there were lots of tears from everyone in the room. It really was a remarkable meeting.

“Having seen images of the athletes being evacuated on a plane on Monday, to see them in person safe and well in the Paralympic Village is something I don’t think we’ll ever forget – underlining the ability of sport to bring humanity together as one in peace.”

No doubt the situation would have been even more complicated and challenging than the shortened version provided to the media, but the handling has been excellent.

Had the athletes been unable to attend the Games, the flag being displayed at the Opening Ceremony would still have had symbolism at a difficult time for the country. Equally, Parsons provided wise expectation-management on what the IPC could achieve in an interview with UK rightsholder Channel 4 before the Opening Ceremony, where he vowed long-term support for the Afghanistan Paralympic Committee and athletes, preferring to focus on how the organisation could assist moving towards Paris 2024.

Clearly at the time the wheels were moving behind the scenes for Tokyo 2020, but the reduced expectation made the arrival of the two athletes even more of a welcome surprise. Equally the IPC has shown flexibility in finding a solution to allow Rasouli to compete in the long jump, due to being unable to participate in the 100 metres as planned.

At times it is easy to be cynical about the efforts of governing bodies, but the IPC has demonstrated that sporting organisations do carry a significant amount of clout in the international scene and that influence can be used to support and improve people’s lives.

It would have been the easiest thing for the IPC to say that it was observing the situation in Afghanistan and determine the crisis was too challenging for the organisation to get involved.

The IPC has sought to deflect praise and has credited the Governments, the Centre for Sport and Human Rights, Human Rights for All, the French Paralympic Committee, the British Paralympic Association and World Taekwondo for their role.

Yet the IPC does deserve praise.

Perhaps a comparable example would be the International Judo Federation stepping in to assist Saeid Mollaei after he was threatened by officials from Iran, with the organisation helping his stay in Germany before receiving Mongolian citizenship.

FIFPro, the organisation representing professional footballers, outlined its efforts to evacuate a large number of women footballers and athletes from Afghanistan to Australia given the crisis, stressing that the young women were both athletes and activists. As such, the fear is they may have been targeted by the Taliban.

Afghanistan’s Chef de Mission Arian Sadiqi spoke earlier this month about the importance of the nation having representatives at the Paralympics.

“The Games are very important for our athletes and the Paralympic Movement in Afghanistan because it is these Para athletes who are the role models,” he told the IPC.

“Their presence at Tokyo will encourage and motivate others with disabilities to take part in Para sport and drive the Movement.

“Irrespective of the situation, our Para athletes are doing incredibly well and preparing with limited resources. It will be a huge learning curve for them and NPC Afghanistan.

“I strongly believe that through the Paralympic Movement and the Paralympic Games we all can voice and deliver the message of co-existence for humanity, to keep and cherish peace as quarrels and negative feelings destroy humankind.”

Given the events over the past month, Sadiqi’s words will surely resonate event more when Rasouli and Khudadadi compete at the Games in the coming days.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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