How a ‘ragtag group’ helped 86 Afghan athletes, officials and family members flee the Taliban

The athletes wanted to compete in the Olympics but after threats from the Taliban they were forced to flee the country

How a ‘ragtag group’ helped 86 Afghan athletes, officials and family members flee the Taliban

A ragtag group of people – an athletics coach, the chief prosecutor of an ophthalmology hospital and an eye surgeon – have stitched together a professional Olympic contingent in the face of threats from the Taliban.

The 86 Afghanistan athletes, officials and their families were all forced to flee when the Taliban banned all sorts of sport after the 2001 US-led invasion.

They joined a growing number of ordinary Afghans finding safety abroad after the Taliban staged failed bombings on the International Olympic Committee’s headquarters in August 2011.

The 11 people travelling with them on the Bolt Special flight left as recent economic data revealed a sharp drop in last year’s GDP growth to 1.3%.

The Afghan government is pinning its hopes on 2016 – the 10th anniversary of the invasion – to encourage a return to better days for the war-torn country.

The athletes were initially told by officials that they would need to stay and train locally before they could compete in the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

“None of us had ever been to Afghanistan,” said Tayeb Azizi, a medical student and three-time national champion. “We found our way here not knowing anyone. Now we have the opportunity to earn a living and send our families back to Afghanistan.”

Amal Mohammad Aminzada: ‘We had no option but to get away.’ Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters

After being accepted at a European medical school, Azizi left in 2011 to train at the Chinese-owned Tsinghua University in Beijing. His university coach, a Jordanian, supported his decision to go abroad.

The trouble began when Aminzada, 32, was chosen as the sole athlete to represent Afghanistan in the London 2012 Olympics. She was also among the first to compete at the world athletics championships in Moscow, and won a bronze medal at the Asian games. She set a world record in the women’s 100 metres this year, but the Afghan government did not support her efforts to continue her career.

Last August, Aminzada, whose father and husband died in the war, tried to go back to her native Kabul but ran into a checkpoint manned by the Taliban. They demanded $80,000 for her return.

In 2011, the Olympic officials said that Aminzada could qualify for the Games if she returned and performed. But she was unable to.

“We had no option but to get away,” Aminzada said. “Now we will not feel ashamed as we can tell people that we are fighting for freedom and human rights.”

The 68-year-old Dawlat Waziri, a sports trainer, was hired by the Afghan government in the aftermath of the Taliban and became the first Afghan to coach an international Olympic team.

“The 2012 Olympics were a dream come true. Many athletes had only dreams to take part in the Olympics,” he said. “There were limits, not only physical but also financial. Many had their dreams come true, including me. Now I have a chance to represent Afghanistan in a record-breaking sixth consecutive Olympic Games.”

He described the road to Rio as a “nightmare”. “In some ways it was easier – I had the support of the government – but I did not want to force my family back. It is still too dangerous.”

The athletes had previously trained in a small stadium in Kabul after rebuilding an old public sporting complex.

“After the government built one stadium with sports facilities, one stadium was destroyed. Everybody lost. The country had no money to fix all these stadiums,” Aminzada said.

Another sports trainer, who preferred not to be named, described how the athletes’ fear of death grew when they didn’t receive social security payments for their hard work, and had to continue making more money to provide for their families.

“Before the economy got better, we had to run after the money to feed our families,” he said. “Now the Olympics is a chance to change that.”

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