When she competes against some of the finest runners in the world, with skills honed at the best facilities, Miss Andyar knows that she has little chance of a medal in either the 1,500m or 800m competitions. Just getting to Beijing will be more of an achievement than most athletic stars will ever know, even if she will be noticed on the racetrack mainly for wearing traditional Islamic dress instead of skin-tight Lycra, and for the novelty of being an Afghan woman.
Her interest in athletics began during the Taleban regime when she had to run in the closed yard of her family home so that enforcers from the religious police could not see her. When the family fled to Pakistan she was able to run in a park in Islamabad but she could not afford to join an athletic club. By those standards things are much better these days.
Miss Andyar trains on a cracked, concrete track in the National Stadium during gaps in the dust storms that sweep through the city. The track, bordered by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire to keep out over-enthusiastic fans during matches, circles a patch of dried, yellow grass where boys play football. The stadium has yet to capture the attention of international sports fans but it is known across the world for being the former public execution site of the Taleban. The support of her coach, family and friends has buoyed her considerable inner reserves of determination but Miss Andyar’s wish to run for Afghanistan has meant putting up with a lot in the past few weeks.
She said: “There have been so many phone calls from people saying I shouldn’t be an athlete. There are often strange men hanging around outside my home. Sometimes stones are thrown at the windows at night and we have had threatening letters.” The catcalls and derision from her neighbours when she runs in the potholed streets around her home are so bad that she only runs at night when they are watching television, despite the risk of falling into a pile of rubbish or down an open drain. Top of FormBottom of Form
She believes that one of the mystery callers has Taleban sympathies and a neighbour who reported her to the police is from the anti-Taleban Panjsher valley. “I don’t worry about these threats but if my family didn’t want me to go, I wouldn’t. They are very afraid about all this,” she said.
Her father was arrested on Monday when police raided her house because the Panjsheri neighbour said that she was entertaining strange men — a French journalist and his translator. The police took all three men to the station but Miss Andyar refused to go. They were released and the police apologised after their chief ordered them to, but Miss Andyar wants the neighbour to be arrested.
Miss Andyar will travel to Malaysia soon, where she will train for five months before the Games. Her coach hopes that this will allow her to focus her mind away from the difficult environment of Kabul. “I don’t care what it is like there,” she said. “As long as I can train hard to do my best at Beijing.”
Her fellow Olympians, a sprinter and a tae-kwon-do competitor who has a good chance of winning a first Olympic medal for Afghanistan, are supportive, and so is Shahpoor Amiri, her coach. He said: “For us it is enough that an Afghan girl is going to the Beijing Games. She doesn’t have to get first or second place, she has overcome so many problems and she is already an inspiration.” He admitted that he was not sure if it would become easier for Afghan women to compete in the future. “A lot of educated people admire her. But the ordinary people, some of them really hate her,” he said.
The show ponies of the Premiership and other massively overpaid sports should count their blessings and get a sense of perspective. It doesn’t matter a jot whether Mehboba comes last in her heats or not, the important thing is that she takes part and performs to the best of her ability. I don’t care if that sounds quaintly Corinthian in this day and age but that is what any sport is truly about.