Afghanistan has had an oddly central position in sports history
By Frank Deford
For a country that has never won an Olympic medal and is the only nation banned from the Games, Afghanistan had a telling effect on two Olympics. Because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, President Carter ordered the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980 unless the U.S.S.R. withdrew its troops. Four years later the Soviets took obvious revenge by boycotting the Los Angeles Olympics.
The boycotts dramatically changed the history of several sports. A number of American athletes, then at the peak of their careers, would almost surely have been gold medalists in Moscow: notably, hurdlers Edwin Moses and Renaldo Nehemiah and swimmers Rowdy Gaines, Craig Beardsley, Tracy Caulkins and Mary T. Meagher. Ever heard of Stanley Floyd? He was the reigning World's Fastest Human and would have been the favorite in the 100 meters. The boycott pretty much erased him from history. Bill Rodgers and Tony Sandoval would have been threats in the marathon, something the U.S. hasn't had since. Greg LeMond had an excellent chance of winning cycling's road race.
Athletes were among the few Americans who paid a significant price for Carter's unsuccessful attempt to pressure the Soviets to leave Afghanistan. American wheat farmers and a few technology businesses were the only others substantively damaged. Furthermore, the President couldn't get many U.S allies to join the boycott because the argument that sports should not intrude on politics generally carried the day. Even the British allowed their athletes to compete, and Sebastian Coe won the 1,500 and Allan Wells the 100. Most U.S. Olympians opposed Carter's decision, but the public rallied behind the President, and he pressured the USOC board to back him up, by about a two-to-one vote.
Of course, in 1984 some American athletes benefited when the U.S.S.R. and other satellite countries boycotted the L.A. Games. Many American medals in boxing, wrestling and women's track and swimming would have gone to competitors from Communist nations, had those athletes participated. The Soviet Union's Natalya Yurchenko became the Stanley Floyd of '84. She would have been a favorite in the women's all-around gymnastics competition that Mary Lou Retton won to become America's Sweetheart.
As for Afghanistan, not even the IOC -- which loves to include athletically hopeless countries so it can boast a larger membership than the United Nations -- will permit it to participate in the Games. The IOC doesn't recognize the Taliban officials who replaced the Afghans' certified Olympic representatives. Moreover, the fundamentalist Taliban government doesn't allow women to compete in sports, which clashes directly with the IOC charter. The Taliban also forbids men from competing in shorts and without beards, which conflicts with rules in such sports as boxing and wrestling. A year ago, when a visiting Pakistani soccer team dared to show up to play in shorts, a low-level Taliban official ordered the players' heads shaved.
Fans in Afghanistan are not permitted to cheer or clap at matches and may only express approval by shouting, "Allahu Akbar" (God is great). But there's not even much opportunity for that. Afghanistan's largest stadium, in Kabul, is now rarely used for soccer. Instead it hosts public executions.
Issue date: October 8, 2001
For more Scorecard see this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands Wednesday, October 3. Click here to subscribe to SI.