Following the Taliban’s rapid takeover, Afghan sport has understandably been thrown into confusion. The resilience of all Afghan sportspeople is admirable: whether cricketers still training in Afghanistan despite the mass evacuation taking place, athletes who continued representing their country across the world, or the girls’ national football team who were not lucky enough to make it out of Afghanistan to safety.
The impact of the Taliban is felt most acutely by Afghan women and girls due to their stringent interpretation of Islamic law, which does not allow women to participate in sport. The female football teams therefore sought escape and an agreement with the Australian government meant successful evacuation for the senior side. The youth team, however, was unlucky as a suicide bomb cancelled the girls’ flight as they approached Kabul airport and left them stranded in their now unaccepting country. Several attempts have been made to rescue them since then by an operation led by the US, the country which had been integral in improving women’s rights in Afghanistan including providing sport and schooling for young girls. The international community will continue to do all they can to rescue these girls and their families, many of whom are now in hiding, but the experiences they are enduring must be terrifying and the sad reality remains that life for them will never be the same again.
The Taliban is allowing men’s cricket to continue, despite banning most forms of entertainment, and the new Taliban-controlled Afghanistan Cricket Board has just approved a test series in Australia later this year. While the Afghan women’s team members fled into hiding, the men’s cricket team were training in the days following the Taliban takeover just a matter of kilometres from the chaos ensuing in the capital city. Cricket in Afghanistan, thanks to the creation of global superstars and the spectacular success of the national team on the world stage, had become a beacon of hope and togetherness for the country. Afghan cricketers at home and abroad have admitted to finding it difficult to concentrate on cricket following the Taliban victory. However, their status as ambassadors is confirmed, speaking exceptionally powerfully off the pitch. Rashid Khan, one of the best bowlers in the world, issued a now viral plea to world leaders “Don’t leave us in chaos”.
As if Paralympians aren’t impressive enough already, the story of Zakia Khudadadi might well be the pinnacle of Tokyo 2020. As chaos erupted at home, she fled violence and uncertainty to represent Afghanistan in Taekwondo. Her remarkable journey included evacuation via Paris with teammate, Hossain Rasouli, and permission to compete despite arriving after the games had started. Neither athlete achieved any medal success but the mere fact that they competed is a victory. The feat of performing under such psychological stress should not be underestimated. Khudadadi represents what the Taliban aim to dispel. As a female athlete, she persevered in representing a country whose new government will not afford her the rights she deserves.
Each example is more evidence of sport’s immense societal power in uniting people and communities when they are at their most fractured. We can only hope that a country torn apart once again by war can look to heroes and heroines amongst their sportsmen and sportswomen and dream of a peaceful future.