HYDERABAD: WHENEVER the name Afghanistan gets propped up in a conversation, the topic is most likely to steer in the direction regarding how war-torn and terrorism-stricken the country is. However, there are many signs that indicate that the country might also come up in debates for its strength in sports. The one leading the charge in this direction is the national cricket team — currently engaged at the World Cup in England — that has skyrocketed into a very competitive side in a relatively short period of time.
Another sport that has given Afghanistan many reasons to cheer in the last decade or so is taekwondo. In fact, the only two Olympic medals to their credit have come through this Korean martial arts. Thirty-one-year-old Rohullah Nikpai was the winner both the times bagging two bronze medals — one each at Beijing (2008) and London (2012).
Bashir Taraki, 38, was with Nikpai in London as the national coach when the bronze winner had repeated the feat from Beijing. Currently, Taraki is in the city with a 27-member contingent that has come to participate in the India Open Taekwondo International Championships. It is a G-1 level tournament that gives 10 qualification points to the gold medal winners. Participants from 12 countries have descended to the stadium to show their skills and earn points.
“It (taekwondo) is the most famous sport in Afghanistan. There is a perception that cricket is the most famous, but I can say that taekwondo can easily rival that game in terms of popularity. Youngsters all over the country take part in this sport, and have performed well all over the world. At India Open, we are expecting many gold medals,” Taraki told this newspaper after the opening ceremony at the Gachibowli Indoor Stadium on Tuesday. “Thousands of kids learn the nuances of this sport after school.”
The coach opines that with more help from the sports ministry, taekwondo players from Afghanistan would also attract as many eyeballs as the cricketers do. “We do not enjoy the kind of support the cricketers have. Our athletes have bagged many World Championships and Asian Games medals. With more help, this performance will only get better,” Taraki, who could not pursue career as player owing to war-like situations round the year until 2001, said. There is one more cause of concern for the sport: the minuscule number of women participants. “There is no comparison between the number of men and women engaged in the sport. In this contingent, only five are female competitors. So, there is a long way to go,” he concluded.
The numbers might not be that impressive, but ever since coming out of complete control of Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan has shown that it can develop into a sporting nation.