- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — His best time is just second gear for the 100-meter elite.

But it’s not about medals. It’s all about being back.

“We will be among the sports countries of the world again,” said Afghan sprinter Masoud Azizi, who is training in Iran. “That is a wonderful thing.”

Azizi hopes to be picked as the flag bearer in Athens for the Afghan Olympic team.

Afghanistan last sent athletes to the Olympics in 1996, just weeks before the religious militia known as the Taliban took the capital, Kabul. The International Olympic Committee suspended Afghanistan in 1999 for a list of grievances led by the ban on women competitors.

No one seriously expected Afghanistan to field a team for Sydney anyway. The Taliban had imposed a medieval Islamic code with rules like beards for men and the shroud-like burqa for women.

Azizi and his family fled Kabul and lived a shadow existence as illegal refugees in Pakistan.

“We couldn’t go to school. We were always afraid of the authorities,” said the 18-year-old wearing an IOC-donated track suit with an “Athens 2004” emblem. “Forget running or training. We were basically in hiding.”

They returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban regime was toppled in late 2001. He always knew he was quick. He soon realized he was faster than anyone else around in the war-ravaged city.

“That got me thinking of being a runner,” he said.

His best time is about 12 seconds — which would put him about two-thirds of the way down the track against the world record time of 9.78.

Azizi’s working to get it down below 11. “10.8 or 10.9, something like that,” he said. “This would make us proud.”

So far there are no others to join him on his Athens odyssey. The world governing federations of athletics and swimming allow every IOC-approved country to send an athlete. There are no Afghan swimmers. So Azizi is it — for the moment — and could be the flag bearer by default.

The IOC, however, is determined to expand the team through special Olympic invitations from the other sports federations. IOC president Jacques Rogge has promised the flag bearer will be a woman, but there has not been any firm selection.

It could be one of the two Afghan women — both taekwando athletes — training in Iran since late last year with Azizi and six other male Olympic hopefuls.

One recent morning, some were in a dimly lit gym doing their thing. Azizi leaned on the boxing ring as he stretched. Inside the ropes, the two Afghan boxers took turns sparring with their coach. Two lanky Afghans practiced their taekwando kicks on a mat.

Their women teammates were in the western Iranian city of Mashhad. The lone Afghan wrestler was in another part of the Tehran complex taking part in an international tournament, which included U.S. competitors.

“Going to Athens would be a dream,” said Abdul Hamid Rahimi, who barely missed qualifying for the games in the 152-pound category at a tournament in Manila, Philippines, in January. “It’s already hard to believe we’ve gotten this far after what we were [put] through.”

Rahimi — a 31-year-old with a flattened fighter’s profile — said a few gyms were left open in Kabul during the Taliban rule, but the regime’s morality enforcers were constantly badgering anyone who appeared to put training over praying.

“We were under endless pressure,” he said. “We didn’t have the right diet or any good facilities. How can you really train under conditions like that?”

Afghanistan is not the only story of Olympic revival at the Aug.13-29 Games.

About two dozen athletes from Iraq will come to Athens, said the chief of the Association of National Olympic Committees, Mario Vazquez Rana. Iraq’s Olympic program previously was under the sadistic control of Saddam Hussein’s late son, Odai, who reportedly kept a jail and torture chamber for athletes who fell out of favor.

The world’s newest nation — East Timor — will compete under its own flag. After the former Indonesian enclave voted for independence in 1999, the IOC allowed a mainly symbolic four-member team at Sydney as “Independent Olympic Athletes.”

And finally a Cold War thaw: North and South Korea plan to march together at the Athens opening ceremony as the first step toward a possible unified team at the Beijing Games in 2008.

The Afghan training in Iran is assisted by an IOC program that uses a portion of television rights revenue to help needy Olympic teams. A few other Afghan athletes are training in their homeland.

“We have cultural and historical connections with Afghanistan,” said Fatollah Mosayebi, director of education and research of Iran’s Olympic committee. “They have been through a very horrible time. It feels good to see them doing sports instead of dealing with war.”

The last opening ceremony attended by 20-year-old taekwando hopeful Nisar Ahmad Bahawi in Kabul included a special presentation by the Taliban: limb amputations for criminals under their brand of Islamic law.

“Then we had a sports competition,” he said. “It was all very, very strange.”

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