23 March 2008

Mehboba Andyar - a true Olympian

The Afghan Olympic team has plenty of problems with run-down facilities and a woeful shortage of funds, but only Mehboba Andyar . the sole woman competitor, has had to prepare herself mentally for the biggest challenge of her life while dealing with sinister midnight telephone calls, the open derision of her neighbours and even police harassment.

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.

16 comments:

r morris said...

This lady is a true hero. She may not win a medal, but she is a winner in every sense of the word.
Great story!!

terry said...

an amazing story. Go girl go!!!!!!

jams o donnell said...

hanks, I wish her all the best.

Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

One of your finest, Jams - you really are a top blogger and I'm going to steal from you henceforth.

Nunyaa said...

You do not have to come first to be a winner and Miss Andyar has already shown that with her determination and spirit. One can only hope she receives the recognition and encouragement she deserves.

jams o donnell said...

Thanks Hames. I must admit I mainly just precis news articles but feel free to plagiarise!

I agree wholeheartedly nunyaa

CherryPie said...

I agree with Nunyaa. It also reminds me of an article I read about a group of Afghan women who formed the first Female football team after the fall of the Taleban and how proud they were to be able to have done so.

elasticwaistbandlady said...

I'd be tempted to defect. I wonder if a family is penalized in that country if a child does defect because that would be the only reason to hesitate.

jams o donnell said...

I bet they were proud cherrypie. I can imagine their lot is harder now, what with a swing back to repression of women again

I doubt they would have problems EWBL but it is hard to wrench oneself away from one's home.

Redwine said...

2102 Olympics? I'm afraid she won't be in such a good shape by then...

jams o donnell said...

Oops! Neither will I to watch it Red!

Sean Jeating said...

Virtual gold-medal for ... Jams O'Donnell! :)

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thanks for drawing our attention to this, jams. I'm no sports fan but there is no way this lady should have to go through this for taking part.

jams o donnell said...

THanls Sean!

I agree Welshcakes. Her treatment is disgraceful

Ardent said...

What a great story Jams. I will be watching the Olympic games purely for her. I think she is a winner in life but I also hope she wins a medal.

This story also sadly highlighted the American invasion into Afganhistan has not made a minute amount of difference to the treatment of women in that country. Where is the Liberation?

jams o donnell said...

I doubt she will get past the heats but that's not the point. Participating is what counts

I know what you meant about the state of Afghanistan. Things do not seem much better for women