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Olympics: Female Afghan athletes in exile seek pathway

  • April 21, 2023

Maryam was beaten up by members of the Taliban, purely for training in the sport she loves. 

It’s the kind of thing that happens to women in Afghanistan who are passionate about sport. Draconian measures await those who break the laws of the country’s radical Islamic rulers. 

For female athletes like Maryam (a pseudonym for the protection of her family) the only way out of the predicament was escaping from their homeland. 

Now that they are out, many female Afghani athletes, spread around the globe, have one goal: to qualify for, and take part in, the 2024 Summer Games in Paris. “It is…important that Afghan women athletes take part in the Olympic Games,” Friba Rezayee told DW. In 2004, Rezayee was one of the first women to represent Afghanistan at the Olympics. 

Friba Rezayee
Judoka Friba Rezaye, became one of Afghanistan’s first female Olympians in 2004.Image: Darryl Dyck/empics/picture alliance

She says the conditions for her potential successors are extremely difficult. “There are hundreds of female athletes who have fled from the Taliban’s persecution and are stateless in different countries now.” she said. 

Athletes in exile

To improve their situation, she wants to establish a direct line to the International Olympic Committee. In a letter to IOC President Thomas Bach seen by DW, she has called for Afghan female athletes to be able to compete in the Summer Games, entirely without the Taliban government’s say.

But therein lies the crux. In response to a DW query, the IOC offered a statement that read, in part, “in accordance with the principles and rules of the Olympic Charter, the selection and entry of the Afghan athletes to the upcoming Games falls under the responsibility of the IOC-recognized leadership of the Afghan NOC (National Olympic Committee).”

However, Rezayee is convinced that the Afghanistan NOC is controlled by the Taliban. Accordingly, there is no chance that an athlete regarded as a fugitive will be given permission to compete in the Olympics under the Afghan flag, she says. DW has contacted the NOC without a response at the time of publication.

The only alternative for such athletes at the moment is the IOC Refugee Olympic Team. But places are limited. “The IOC continues to support athletes aiming to qualify for and participate in the Olympic Games Paris 2024,” it wrote from IOC headquarters in Lausanne. “Ten athletes (male and female) are currently benefiting from an Olympic Solidarity scholarship, and the majority of them are training abroad with the help of the NOC of their host countries.”

IOC threatens exclusion 

As things stand though, those ten athletes could also be the only Afghan participants in Paris 2024. The IOC’s Executive Board has threatened Afghanistan (and Iran) with Olympic bans after it “strongly condemned” discrimination against girls and women. 

Sanctions, however, have not followed the threats. It is “premature” to decide on such sanctions, the IOC wrote to DW. 

Activist Rezayee is on board with a move against the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee. “The IOC should ban the Taliban Afghan NOC,” she told DW. “Period.” 

No Sports – The Taliban’s suppression of Female Athletes

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Women’s rights have been shown to play no role for the Taliban, said Rezayee. “They have violated the IOC Charter about human rights.”  There can be no return to Olympic competition, she added, “unless, and until, there is full and meaningful participation of Afghan women athletes” within Afghanistan. Otherwise, “the Taliban NOC have no rights or legitimacy to be a member of the IOC.”

That view coincides with the IOC’s own stated demands. But it is difficult to imagine such a turnaround anytime soon. Rezayee is therefore campaigning for more support. Then, she says, Afghan female athletes and coaches in exile, like Maryam, would be perfectly capable of taking their concerns into their own hands. 

“However, Olympic participation alone will not solve the problem,” she says. IOC should develop a long-term strategy to help Afghan women athletes.

This article was adapted from German

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