Afghanistan on Edge
|Frud Bezhan and Qadir Habib||July 17th 2013|
Afghanistan's first and only Olympic medal winner, Rohullah Nekpa, united a country in celebration and pride after his sporting heroics at the Beijing and London Games. But now the taekwondo icon is boycotting the sport's world championships to protest discrimination within the sport in his homeland.
Nekpa was part of a seven-member Afghanistan team that is due to take part in the World Taekwondo Championships (WTF) in Mexico, which begins on July 15.
But the 26-year-old, who belongs to the Hazara minority, says he is willing to forfeit the opportunity in order to highlight the ethnic and sectarian bias that is rife within Afghanistan's Taekwondo Federation (ATF).
The two-time Olympic bronze medalist accuses the ATF of overlooking Hazara athletes. Nekpa has indicated that unless the federation changes its discriminatory attitudes, he will never represent the country on the international stage again.
"We have many issues with the federation," he says. "Unfortunately, one of them is that the federation doesn't see itself as a national body. Another problem we have is that the head of the taekwondo federation sees the body as belonging to his own taekwondo club. Many times, he selects fighters from his taekwondo club to take part [in competitions]. The complaints that I have are not just mine, they are shared by many trainers."
Nekpa has also complained about poor conditions and the meager salaries provided by the ATF. Nekpa says his South Korean trainer quit earlier this year over a lack of investment in equipment and infrastructure. He says other taekwondo fighters and their coaches have similarly stopped training out of frustration.
Zahir Aghbar, the chairman of Afghanistan's National Olympic Committee, has rejected Nekpa's claims, insisting that the athlete personally came to tell him he was pulling out of the championships due to fitness concerns.
"[Nekpa] told me that he can't take part in the championships in Mexico," he says. "He said he had pain in his knees and told me to send him for treatment overseas. I told him we could send him to India for treatment but he said he couldn't get the proper treatment there. He asked for us to send him to Germany, which we did for Nekpa."
Aghbar added that he had done his best to help Nekpa -- whom he called a "national hero" -- reach his potential and further his career. The chairman also said he recently secured an $800 monthly salary for Nekpa that was approved by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Nekpa denies that he withdrew from the upcoming championship due to injury. He admits that has had a recurring ankle injury for the last two years, but he maintains that it did not stop him from taking part in the 2012 London Games.
The taekwondo fighter says he took his complaints to Aghbar several weeks ago and, when his calls for the ATF to be reformed were rejected, he told the chairman of his decision to temporarily stop representing Afghanistan on the international stage.
Frud Bezhan and Qadir Habib report for RFE/RL, from where this article is adapted.