Athens 2004

Commentary & Perspective

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Friday, August 20

Afghan woman's win was being there

ATHENS, Greece - Whoosh, goes the blur of true Olympic speed.

Progress, like Afghanistan's Robina Muqim Yaar, needs a little more time.``I don't know how much I'll be respected in Kabul,'' Muqim Yaar said through an interpreter. ``But I'm really, really happy that I finished ahead of one person.''

For all the unforeseen consequences in our contentious war on terror, a tangible victory occurred Friday at Olympic Stadium. An Afghan woman let her heart and her hair fly free, running in public without fear of retribution or shame.

Muqim Yaar, 16, became the second female to compete for Afghanistan in the Olympics, just days after Friba Razayee lost her judo match in 45 seconds.

Razayee sobbed uncontrollably after the defeat, even though the black belt she wore was merely an Olympic formality.

Razayee's training had been so brief that she had achieved only a brown belt.

Yet defeat did not touch Muqim Yaar's ebullient spirit. She had ditched her scarf out of defiance. She wore a bodysuit out of deference to longstanding traditions. And when the gun went off in the 100-meter preliminaries, her metaphorical race to freedom began.

She finished second to last, clocking the second-slowest time in the preliminaries (14:14). But like freedom, time is in the eye of the beholder, and Muqim Yaar already gained the only podium she craved.

``Just standing on the track was my gold medal,'' she said. ``I'm a symbol for women. I am here to represent Afghanistan and Afghan women. I don't want Afghan women to stay indoors. They must come out and participate in sports.''

Of course, it wasn't that long ago that Muqim Yaar couldn't even imagine the wind on her face or waving to an appreciative crowd. That was back in Kabul, the capital city where she lives. That was back when the Taliban took control in 1996 and turned out the lights in Afghanistan.

On the track where she occasionally trains, Muqim Yaar can still see bullet holes in the crumbling concrete. She has heard tales of how dissidents were hung from the goalposts at soccer matches. She lived that life of darkness, where women couldn't walk outdoors without a male family member, where ruthless beatings awaited any female daring to laugh in public.

It was that backward social policy that prompted the International Olympic Committee to kick Afghanistan out of the Olympics.

``I had no opportunities to do anything during the Taliban,'' she said. ``I was living at home, not doing anything, just homework and chores. Under the Taliban, I didn't know what sport was.''

When liberation came in 2001, the clouds slowly started to break. Muqim Yaar ran her first competitive race in September 2003. She wore sandals, a black robe, baggy pants and a scarf around her head.

She lost that race but insisted that she was the best. Her feistiness went a long way, and here she is in Athens, where she has been treated like a rock star by far superior athletes.

After her performance on Friday, even American track star Gail Devers requested a picture with Muqim Yaar, telling the Afghan competitor how proud she was of her persistence.

``I will never forget this moment in my life, and now I'm sure about myself,'' Muqim Yaar said. ``If I get the facilities and the opportunity to train well, I am sure I'll be the best.''

Sadly, that opportunity is not a certainty.

Omid Marzban is a visiting journalist from Kabul, sports editor for a radio program called "Good Morning, Afghanistan." He said the female illiteracy rate in his country is still 85 percent. He said that, despite social changes and Muqim Yaar's sudden fame in Greece, the majority of people in Afghanistan don't appreciate her efforts.

``Kabul is more open (minded), and some of the people think she's a hero for opening the way for women,'' Marzban said. ``But the majority of people don't like her. They'll say she's the `Idiot Lady.'''

It is still so volatile that Muqim Yaar can't run in the streets, even if she's covered from head to toe. She can't train at the dilapidated stadium in Kabul unless it's completely empty. When spotted in public, she is still subjected to ridicule, insults and general groping from unenlightened males. To this day, she must train at an indoor gymnasium.

``She has had a hard life,'' Marzban said. ``Not a good life.''

You wouldn't have known that on Friday, when Muqim Yaar basked in the moment and the roar of the crowd. She said her family will celebrate the achievement, and that she will keep training for the 2008 Beijing Games, where she wants nothing less than a bronze medal.

Her dreams are as big as her newfound smile, and she's convinced that she will one day be the Jackie Robinson of her homeland.

``I didn't have the Afghan flag with me,'' Muqim Yaar said. ``Otherwise, I would've been running with it across the whole stadium.''

After all, 14:14 may be a snail's pace for world-class sprinters, but when it comes to sparking social revolutions, it could go down as an Olympic record.



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