The taekwondo star who became Afghanistan’s first ever Olympic medalist at the Beijing Games in 2008 wants to repeat the feat in London — in the hope of bringing peace to his troubled homeland.
Rohullah Nikpa’s story is something of a fairytale in a war-ravaged country with few happy endings.
As a 10-year-old who was obsessed with Bruce Lee and martial arts movies, he followed his brother to the taekwondo club while civil war raged in Afghanistan.
“I was crazy about taekwondo from the day I started it. I remember the first day I arrived at the club to practice, I was already able to do it well. I already had the mentality of being determined to reach the top,” he said.
Now 25, he was 14 when the Taliban regime fell at the end of 2001 and began training in Kabul in earnest while a bloody insurgency against the government and its NATO allies raged throughout the country.
Nikpa overcame tremendous problems, not least financial, to qualify for Beijing, where he claimed a life-changing bronze in the under-58kg division. Four years later, the moment is still fresh in his memory.
“I was so happy because throughout the history of my country Afghanistan, no one has ever won an Olympic medal before. I was so happy that I cried right there in the arena,” he said. “It’s something priceless for our country. With this medal, I can help bring peace to our country. It shows that our people must walk away from all this war and conflict, and look toward the future generation and use sports to help lift our country up.”
His friend and training partner Nesar Ahmad Bahawi — Afghanistan’s other great taekwondo hope in London — shares his view of sport as a means of inspiring change in society.
“Taekwondo I’ve done for my country and my people, not so that I could myself become famous, just so that I can let the world hear the name of Afghanistan in a good way and make our people happy,” said Bahawi, who took silver at the 2007 world championships, but came away from Beijing empty-handed. “There’s always been fighting in our country, I want to show the world that we are not people who love war, but we want peace.”
Bashir Taraki, the Afghan team’s coach, agrees.
“The Olympic logo with its five rings shows that the world is unified. Yes, so the sport of taekwondo can show the world that we asking for peace and we don’t want war, we want to live as one with the rest of the world,” he said.
Thanks to Nikpa and Bahawi, taekwondo has become one of the most popular sports in Afghanistan. About 25,000 competitors — up to 38,000 according to Bahawi — practice in hundreds of clubs around the country, though facilities are sometimes basic.
The elite Afghan squad, paid about US$15 a month, train in proper facilities at the Ghazi Olympic stadium in Kabul, where the Taliban used to hold public stonings — a marked improvement on the fourth floor building site where they prepared for Beijing.
However, Nikpa and Bahawi do not care about the training setup — they are dreaming of Olympic gold. And once they have the medals round their necks?
“I will continue taekwondo as long as I can, and when I’m no longer strong enough to do it myself, I will use the experience I have to teach our youth so that they can grow up to be even better at taekwondo than me and win more medals for Afghanistan,” Nikpa said.