An Olympic journey for five Afghan athletes

Posted: Friday, June 18, 2004

KALLONI, Greece Five young athletes from Afghanistan have set out on an adventure.

They have no money. They are in a foreign land whose language they do not speak. They rely on a Greek woman who has brought them to this town on the Aegean Sea island of Lesvos.

Their destination is the Athens Games.

This is the first Afghan Olympic team since the 1996 Atlanta Games, and the first to include women. The athletes are doing everything possible on a meager budget to perform respectably for the Aug. 13-29 games.

''The winning and losing is not important for me,'' said Friba Razayee, 18, who will compete in judo. ''The world is preparing four years for the Olympic Games. We are preparing three months ... but we will try our best.''

Razayee and 100-meter sprinter Robina Muqimyar, 17, are the two women on the team. They come from a country where the former Taliban regime banned schools for girls and required the shroudlike burqa for all women.

Their teammates are men: a wrestler, another sprinter and a boxer, who was the only one to qualify for the games. The rest were invited by the International Olympic Committee.

Afghanistan last sent athletes to the Olympics just weeks before the Taliban took the capital, Kabul. The IOC suspended Afghanistan in 1999 for a list of grievances led by the ban on female competitors.

But it is Zoi Livaditou, Afghanistan coordinator of the Greek Rescue Team, who got the team to Greece to train for the Olympics.

Livaditou decided to help after seeing sprinter Masoud Azizi, 18, practicing in worn sandals in Kabul's stadium, which was used for executions during the Taliban regime.

After negotiations with the Greek state Lesvos, Livaditou's birthplace was chosen for the training. The mayor of Kalloni, George Kyratzis, persuaded the citizens to offer free room, board and food. The athletes even got free haircuts.

On June 26, they will travel to Thessaloniki to train until the Olympic Village opens in August.

Athens organizers have not given any money to the team, but persuaded Adidas, a sponsor, to give clothes and equipment, Livaditou said. But the team needs pocket money and she has none left.

''I do not have the ability. My money is finished,'' said Livaditou, whom Azizi calls his surrogate mother. ''They need their vitamins, their supplements.''

Kyratzis gave the athletes $480 and coaches $720 as a gift when they first arrived since they had no money of their own. The team then sent all the money to their large families back home.

''We did not see them just as another team. We saw it as a humanitarian effort,'' Kyratzis said. ''We welcomed the proposal from our hearts.''

The athletes are always accompanied by two undercover police officers. They have tried new things, such as a concert organized by famed Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, whose music was played in Kabul during the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Before coming to Greece the men were training in Iran from October to April with economic support by the IOC.

Razayee, with a fondness for ice cream since tasting it in Greece, said although she is competing in judo, boxing is her first love.

''They are very proud and they encourage that we be brave,'' Razayee said.

Sultani Basharmal, a 19-year-old boxer who will compete in the 152-pound category, has seen many things on this Greek odyssey.

''Greece is the best country. It has a beautiful view, beach and lovely people. In Afghanistan we haven't a pool like here,'' Basharmal said after learning to swim in just one day.

With training, sprinter Azizi cut his time in the 100 meters from 11.74 seconds three months ago to 11.16. Running in the Kostas Kenteris stadium in Lesvos named after Greece's gold medalist in the 200 meters at Sydney has helped. It is better than running on rocks and dust in Kabul.

''I am very proud to be with the other world champions,'' Azizi said. During the games ''I will introduce myself to them.''

But in the end, it is not about the Olympics or about winning. The athletes want to find money to refurbish the stadium in Kabul, to buy sports equipment or maybe a gym.

For the women there is a lot more to accomplish.

''I do not want to be married,'' Muqimyar said. ''I just want to try to be a good athlete. I want to change the history of Afghanistan. I want the other women to watch me and see me and follow me.''

On the Net:

Hellenic Rescue Team: http://www.hrt.org.gr



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