My latest story in The New York Times, a feature on Rohullah Nikpah, Afghanistan’s only Olympic medalist.
No Longer Unknown, Afghan Athlete Has Eyes on Gold
By ANGELA SHAH
KABUL — It was only by chance that a 10-year-old Rohullah Nikpah found taekwondo.
Unlike most Olympic athletes, Nikpah was not groomed from an early age to compete. Rather, he grew up in a refugee camp in Iran, and one day he accompanied his brother to a makeshift gym for a taekwondo sparring session.
The connection was immediate, a little like love at first sight.
“I just enjoyed practicing this sport,” he said simply.
He does more than enjoy it. Just four years after returning to Afghanistan from life as a refugee, Nikpah was standing on the podium at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a bronze medal around his neck. Unlikely as it may seem, that day produced Afghanistan’s first Olympic medalist.
When Nikpah defeated the Spanish world champion Juan Antonio Ramos in the 58-kilogram, or 128-pound, category, he became a national hero in a place that has seen few in the past 30 years. To welcome him home, thousands of his countrymen gathered in Ghazi Stadium, which, until then, had been known more for the Taliban’s public executions, including stoning women to death.
When the preliminary round in taekwondo starts Aug. 8, Nikpah will no longer be an unknown but a returning champion. And this time he has his eyes on the gold. “I don’t have any stress for this competition, and I hope to Allah to go there and I will bring a good achievement back to the country,” he said.
Having moved up two weight classes since the Beijing Olympics, Nikpah is ranked 13th by the World Taekwondo Federation in the men’s 68-kilogram category.
If Hollywood is looking for its next hero, Nikpah fills the bill. Born two years before the Taliban took power in 1989, his family — ethnic Hazaras, a minority community that suffered discrimination under the Taliban — had to escape to Iran, where Nikpah grew up among fellow Afghan exiles and discovered taekwondo, a hugely popular sport there.
His family returned to Afghanistan in 2004. At age 21, Nikpah not only competed in his first Olympics, he took home a medal. He is tall, fit and blessed with movie-star looks. Even his haircut is popular with young men eager to imitate their hero. For a nation synonymous with the destruction of war, he is a welcome face of a new Afghanistan.
“We are the young generation and can introduce our country to the world through the sports,” he said one morning at the Kabul home he shares with his family, a gift from President Hamid Karzai for his showing in Beijing.
Expectations are high in London. “He will definitely medal,” said Usman Dildar, an Afghan member of the London Organizing Committee who runs a large taekwondo studio in London. “What color? Inshallah, we’re hoping for gold.”
Nikpah’s celebrity aside, the Munir Ahmad Taekwondo Association Club in Kabul seems spartan compared with the facilities used by most Olympic athletes. Gym equipment lies at one end of a rectangular room. With a military precision, Nikpah kicked, struck and blocked across the interlocking red and blue floor mats as his coach, Mohammed Bashir Tareki, looked on.
The club bears some witness to sporting success. Trophies crowd the top of a set of cubbyholes, and posters of athletes line the walls, including one of Nikpah. He is wearing his Olympic medal. One hand clutches a bouquet of flowers while the other waves to the crowd. In between the posters of athletes are colored illustrations of taekwondo moves drawn in a style that reflects 1950s physical education textbooks. Missing were the typical Olympian’s entourage of trainers, nutritionists and medical doctors who monitor and tweak an elite athlete’s physical dashboard for maximum performance. The Afghan National Olympic Committee pays its athletes about $21 a month. Nikpah runs an electronics business with two partners to make ends meet.
“We don’t have enough facilities to do the training in our country,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I just use what we have.”
Despite the lack of resources, taekwondo has blossomed in Afghanistan, partly because of Nikpah’s stardom, and also because of the popularity of the sport in neighboring Iran, which has about 4,000 taekwondo gyms. Today in Afghanistan, about 500 clubs are active. Taekwondo is a key way to provide young Afghanis with options outside of the criminal world, said Mirwais Bahawi, acting secretary general of the Afghanistan Taekwondo Foundation.
In Nikpah’s lifetime, Afghanistan has hardly figured at the Olympics. It sent just two athletes to Atlanta in 1996, during Taliban rule, before the International Olympic Committee expelled it in 1999 because of its treatment of women. Afghan athletes returned to the Games in Athens in 2004, with a team of five, including two women. In Beijing, Nikpah was one of four Afghan athletes.
“We can’t provide everything they want right now,” Bahawi said. “And they are not always thinking about the things we don’t have.”
The athletes also have access to Afghanistan’s national Olympic team facilities at Ghazi Stadium, renovated partly with U.S. aid and reopened in December. And the taekwondo foundation has received training and equipment from its counterpart in South Korea, the birthplace of the sport. In late May, Nikpah traveled there for training before heading off to London this month.
The day before he left for South Korea for training, Nikpah was on a Kabul sidewalk outside a supermarket. Passersby recognized him, offering smiles and pats on the back. Two women, clad in blue burqas, approached him in a polite conversation. Nikpah basked in their attention with a delighted smile, and he put his hand over his heart in the traditional gesture of thanks and respect.
Does he feel pressure to not let his compatriots down? “Yes, of course, I feel 100 percent responsible for the people,” he said. “It’s the support of the people who give me energy and I hope to make them happy.”
Gabriela Maj contributed reporting