Truman National Security Project

Afghanistan’s Olympic Buzz

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Afghanistan competed in its first Olympics in 1936 in Berlin and has participated in most Summer Olympics ever since. The country was, however, banned from 2000 Sydney games because of its Taliban government and only reinstated in 2002, following the Taliban’s fall.  The 2008 Beijing games witnessed Afghanistan win its first ever medal – a bronze in Taekwondo — when Rohullah Nikpah defeated the then-world champion, Juan Antonio Ramos of Spain. Nikpah became a national hero overnight. He competed again in the 2012 London games, along with five other Afghan athletes:

 

Nikpah won his and Afghanistan’s second Olympic medal – another bronze in Taekwondo – on  August 9, 2012. The outpouring of support for him from within Afghanistan and the Afghan Diaspora worldwide was significant.  There was an uptick in social media support for him, especially on Twitter:

As the Guardian notes, Nikpah “is an unlikely champion: a poor former refugee, he is from the Hazara ethnic minority, which has long faced discrimination from more dominant groups.” Yet his ethnicity does not appear to be preventing him from serving a unifying figure and someone all Afghans can be proud of. He is one of the very few Afghan public figures in Afghanistan who can claim this. Numerous Tweets echo the sentiment expressed below:

Nikpah has developed quite a following on Facebook, too. Pictures of him on the Afghanistan Olympics FB page routinely received large numbers of likes and numerous comments. Below is an example from his arrival at the Kabul International Airport on August 14, 2012:

Nikpah’s own FB page receives even more attention and has nearly 10,000 followers. He posted the following picture from the closing ceremonies, which has garnered nearly 1,000 likes to date. The comments – also excerpted below – illustrate how proud Afghans and members of Afghan Diaspora are of him:

Nikpah is not the only Afghan Olympian to attract attention in social media. Tahmina Kohistani – Afghanistan’s only female Olympian – has also generated some buzz. Many have commented on what an inspirational figure she is for Afghan women and girls:

Other tweets were so exuberant that they wrongly identified her as Afghanistan’s first ever female Olympian (that honor is shared by Robina Muqimyar and Friba Rezihi, who competed in 2004 Games). Fans also tweeted supportive words despite her poor showing in her race, the 100 meters:

Not all of the social media buzz is positive, however. Several tweets focus on how the U.S.  boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, but now “occupies” Afghanistan itself.

Not unsurprisingly, such tweets fail to acknowledge the myriad differences between the ISAF presence in Afghanistan and the Soviet occupation and some sarcastically suggest that the U.S. would have won even more medals has Russia boycotted the London Games:

Afghan public pride is important given the numerous challenges facing the country. National heroes like Rohullah Nikpah – who inspired half of Kabul to stay up late to watch his final bout — help Afghans  unite together behind a shared vision for a better future. Unfortunately, such figures are exceedingly rare in Afghanistan’s increasingly frayed political discourse.  Hopefully, other unifying figures will emerge as Afghanistan approaches its 2014 Presidential election. Prospective candidates would be wise to follow Nikpah’s example and strive to represent the whole of Afghanistan instead of a singular ethnic group and/or region.

Eli Sugarman is a Truman Security Fellow.