Work in Sports
Perseverance pays off
Afghan women earn spot in Opening Ceremonies
SYDNEY -- Among the 200 countries in the Olympic movement, only one wasn't represented in Friday's parade of athletes into Sydney's Olympic Stadium. Afghanistan is a jagged-edged swatch of state riven by war and repression. The United Nations still recognizes the besieged Massoud government, but more than 90 percent of the country is now under the control of the Taliban militia, an ultrafundamentalist outfit whose brand of Islam doesn't permit women to get a job, an education or simple health care, much less play sports.
The president of the Afghanistan Olympic Committee, a Massoudite, has gone into exile. His misfortune is now shared by all Afghan athletes, for Olympic rules require the suspension of any national Olympic committee no longer quartered within the country it claims to represent. At the same time, the International Olympic Committee takes its cues from the United Nations; as long as the U.N. fails to recognize its regime, the Taliban can't establish an Olympic committee of its own. So no Afghans are competing in these Games.
But if you looked hard enough, you could find a few Afghan athletes at the Opening Ceremonies. Their presence ended an emotional few days for Hares Haidar, a 24-year-old taekwondo athlete who now lives in Paris; another taekwondo practitioner, Zohra-Lila Ashpari, who's a high school senior in Lathrop, Calif.; and Anissa Froz, nine, a gymnast who came to Australia with her Afghan-French mother.
They converged on Sydney not really expecting to compete in the Games, for that would be a fanciful goal given the lofty qualifying standards the Olympics set. (If he or she is good enough, any athlete "without a country" can always compete under the Olympic flag.) But they did want to march or, failing that, at least be heard.
So on Wednesday evening the three met up with two representatives of Atlanta-Sydney Plus, the Paris-based lobbying group that is trying to make sure every contingent at the Olympics includes female athletes. This nonce "Afghan delegation" showed up at Sydney's Regent Hotel to ask for an audience with IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch. Several IOC officials intervened, briefly heard their visitors out, and asked them to return at noon the next day.
But there was a problem: At that hour they could find no copy shop at which to get their letter duplicated. Then, inside a darkened, locked storefront, they spotted a cleaning woman. They knocked on the door. The woman let them in. And this sympathetic Sydneysider, hearing their story, not only fired up the copying machine, but led them a few steps away to the flower shop where she worked and gave them a motley bouquet.
Back to the Regent the Afghan "delegation" marched. The letters went into envelopes addressed to the IOC membership. The bouquet went to Samaranch's suite.
In the meantime, from New York, the Afghan ambassador to the U.N. was sending a fax to the IOC president. In it the Massoud regime vouched for Haidar, Ashpari and Froz as its representatives in Sydney, and pleaded with Samaranch to let them march.
None of the aforementioned would have happened without the efforts of Atlanta-Sydney Plus. The group, run by Parisian lawyer Linda Weil-Curiel and another Frenchwoman, physicist Annie Sugier, coordinated the trips of the three young athletes and got the Massoud government on board. Four years hence the organization may be back again as Atlanta-Sydney-Athens Plus, with the acronym ASAP indicating the urgency of its cause. But Weil-Curiel and Sugier had to feel a sense of accomplishment as the Sydney Games got under way. After a glaring 26 all-male contingents blighted the Olympics in Atlanta, only 10 countries have failed to send a woman to Sydney. For the first time, a delegation from a Persian Gulf state, Bahrain, included a female competitor. For Atlanta-Sydney Plus, that hyphen has described a path of measurable progress.
And on Friday afternoon, returning to the Regent for its meeting, the Afghan delegation did not get the brush-off. IOC staffers spent two hours listening to the three young athletes describe who they were and what they stood for. They spent a couple more hours hammering out a memorandum of understanding with Atlanta-Sydney Plus. In the end, taking into account "the personal qualities" of the three Afghan refugees and the IOC's desire to offer "a gesture of friendship," the Lords of the Rings agreed to make sure all three would be inside Olympic Stadium as these Games got under way. They weren't guests of the IOC, exactly. But they were refugees, taken in. In French, the verb is assister, to be on hand.
"It was the best that could be done," Ashpari said before the Opening Ceremonies. "I'm pretty happy. They recognized us as something positive."
Those 113 letters may have gotten this small but powerfully symbolic bit of business done. Just as likely, it was the flowers.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Alexander Wolff is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back daily to read Wolff's behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.