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'It touches my heart': Olympics bring pride, hope to Afghanistan

Mark Humphrey / AP

Afghanistan's Nesar Ahmad Bahawi carries his national flag during the Opening Ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics on July 27 in London.

KABUL – It’s not exactly Olympic fever in Afghanistan, but there is excitement in the air about the six athletes – including a female sprinter – who are representing the war-torn nation at the London Games. Cheering on their compatriots has given some in the country’s capital a welcome distraction from the summer heat. 

Students at Kardan University in Kabul are in the middle of exams, but that hasn’t stopped many of them from carving out time in the evening to watch the Games.

“I really enjoyed watching the opening ceremonies.  I felt so proud when I saw our country’s flag in the hands of our Afghans in the stadium.  And they were the first country to come in after Greece!” said Mohammad Naeem Mamozai, who is studying English Literature.

“We are a country who has fought for more than 30 years, but when I see my country’s representation in that kind of event, it touches my heart,” he added.  “We Afghans are not fans of war and we can also represent the better parts of life.”

The Afghan athletes do not have state-of-the-art facilities to train in, making it difficult to compete at the world level.  But nonetheless, their countrymen are overjoyed to see them at the Olympic Games.

“I was watching our player in judo, but he lost in 10 seconds,” Muslim Khurram, a business major, said.  “I was trying to call my friends to watch, but he lost before they could turn on their television sets.”

Khurram added that even if their players lose, Afghans are still proud because the Games have given them a sense of unity.

“When I go on Facebook now, I see posts from people who used to talk about politics and supporting various political groups now talking about our Olympic players and supporting them,” he said.  “And they post ‘Long Live Afghanistan!’  I feel so proud when I see our Afghan flag.  We should come together and be united.  We should be supporting our country!”

For the first time ever, all 205 countries competing in the Olympic games are sending female athletes. NBC's Meredith Vieira reports and speaks with sprinter Tahmina Kohistani, the sole woman on Afghanistan's Olympic team.

Hoping to medal
Despite the judo defeat, Afghans still hope for a medal. Next week their best chance for Olympic accolades lies with 25-year-old Rohullah Nikpai, who will compete in the men’s taekwondo events.   

In 2008, Nikpai brought home Afghanistan’s first ever Olympic medal – the bronze.  He was greeted by an overjoyed nation.

This year one woman is on the Afghan team. Tahmina Kohistani, a 23-year-old sprinter, will participate in the 100-meter track and field events.  She’s not expected to medal but her presence alone is seen as a victory by some of her countrywomen.

“It’s not important to me that she brings home a medal, I’m just happy for Afghanistan and especially happy an Afghan woman is participating in the London Olympics,” said Mehr Angiz, a female security advisor at Kabul International Airport.

“During the Taliban we were not allowed to come out of our homes, but today you see a lot of women working, like me,” she said.  “In the future, I hope a lot more women will join sports, like [soccer], volleyball and maybe even a women’s cricket team.” (Cricket is not an Olympic sport at the moment).

Kohistani competed in her heat Friday for the 100-meter track and field events. She finished in 14.42 seconds, a personal best for Kohistani, but not enough to move her into the finals.

The games are being broadcasted by local television channel SABA-TV who won the rights to distribute the coverage in Afghanistan.  The channel said they were not able to set up public viewings of the games for security reasons, but they have still received positive feedback.

“The feedback from people has been very good,” said Abdul Waheed Hamidi, managing director of SABA-TV.  “People have been calling and telling us that they appreciate our service.  Not just by phone, but we were also getting emails and Facebook messages about our broadcast.”

It is the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset and focus on spiritual cleansing – not sports. But that hasn’t stopped some from breaking the fast while watching the Games on TV after the sun has set.  

NBC’s Akbar Shinwari contributed to this report. 

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