Afghan Woman Runs Toward Olympics Despite Jeers, Potential Danger

The neighborhood boys shout at Mehboba Ahdyar when she leaves home. "Hero, hero! Look at the hero of our country," they yell at Ahdyar, one of Afghanistan's fastest female runners.

But the boys are not saluting a top athlete. Their sarcastic jabs are meant to poke fun at a teenage girl trying to realize Olympic-sized dreams.

Ahdyar, a 19-year-old middle-distance runner, is the only female on Afghanistan's four-member Olympic team.

"I feel bad about all these things that happen to me every day, but I'll still march forward," Ahdyar told the AP Wednesday. "I never show weakness. I'll fight through these challenges."

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Afghanistan, which has never won an Olympic medal, was banned from the 2000 Games in Sydney because the Taliban regime outlawed women from taking part in sports. The country participated in the Atlanta Games in 1996, before the Taliban came to power, and the Athens Games in 2004.

Ahdyar faces an uphill battle for Olympic success. Practice facilities are Spartan at best in Afghanistan, which is still fighting its way through a violent Taliban insurgency six years after the hard-line regime's ouster.

Although women's rights have improved dramatically since 2001, women here are still second-class citizens. Most wear the all-covering burqa in public and would need male family members' permission before tackling anything remotely as ambitious as trying to become an Olympic athlete.

More ominously, Ahdyar's mother worries about the security situation in the country. Taliban militants often target organizations and individuals who champion women's issues, and the taunting by neighborhood boys — a mere nuisance in other societies — could draw the attention of militant suicide bombers.

"We are scared, really scared about the security situation in our country, and of the people who have negative views about my family," her mother, Moha Jan, said. But she added: "These problems cannot stop us from supporting our daughter."

During practice — held inside Kabul's main sports stadium, where the Taliban used to carry out public executions — Ahdyar wears a headscarf, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, keeping in the tradition of the modest dress of women here.

Though she has won competitions in Afghanistan, she has never competed outside the country. She and Afghan sprinter Masoud Azizi will soon travel to Malaysia for five months to train before the Beijing Games in August.

Her times are not exactly world-class. Ahdyar runs 1,500 meters in about four minutes and 50 seconds, a full minute slower than the Olympic record. Her 800 meter times are not much stronger, but Afghan officials say they do not expect the country's athletes to win any medals.

"The presence of Afghan athletes is more important for us than bringing home medals," said Mohmood Zia Dashti, the Afghan National Olympic committee's vice president.

Ahdyar may draw the neighborhood kids' scorn, but she is a champion in her own home.

"I admire my daughter. She is a hero and a very good athlete," her mother said. "My wish is that she comes back with a good result for Afghanistan."

Ahdyar's family of eight lives in a mud brick house in one of the poorest parts of the capital, Kabul. In a sign of the potential dangers Ahdyar's family might face in this conservative country, Jan said she was concerned neighbors might think the family was operating a brothel because she was hosting a group of male journalists at home.

Afghanistan's first female runner to participate in the Olympics was Robina Muqimyar, who ran in the 2004 Athens games wearing a T-shirt and long green track pants. Ahdyar said she would not run in Beijing if organizers force her to wear tight-fitting track clothing.

Another of Afghanistan's Olympic athletes is Azizi, a 20-year-old male sprinter who competed in Athens. Azizi said he has been training hard the last four years and hopes to win a medal in the 100 meters in Beijing, though that might not be likely. His best time is 10.90 seconds, about a second off the world record.

Still, the country's athletes might even be inspiring Ahdyar's name-calling neighborhood boys to give sports a second look. After Ahdyar won US$1,000 by coming in first place at a track event held in Afghanistan, Ahdyar said she overheard some of her neighborhood detractors wonder aloud if they shouldn't lace up their running shoes.

"Look at that girl, she won (US$1,000) from running," Ahdyar recalled a boy saying. "Why are we sitting here doing nothing? Let's start running."