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A member of the Afghanistan women's national boxing team attends a training session in May 2010 in Kabul. (Photo by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

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For Afghan women with Olympic dreams, a long, hard road to the Games

By WITW Staff on July 2, 2019

Somayeh Gholami hopes to become the first Afghan woman to win an Olympic medal. But just getting to the Games will be a battle for the 25-year-old taekwondo star, The Washington Post reports.

Few athletes face more dangerous and restrictive conditions than Afghan women, even in the years since the Taliban was overthrown, according to the Post. Women are required to cover their heads, dress modestly, marry young, give birth to children. Contact sports such as martial arts and boxing are often considered inappropriate for women. Many parents won’t let their daughters practice in gyms with boys.

Athletes who buck tradition can face attacks from extremists. Many Afghans fear that if the extremists manage to return to power after nearly two decades years of war, women could disappear from public life, the Post reports.

Afghanistan first sent athletes to the Olympics in 1936, but women didn’t compete until 2004 — three years after the fall of the Taliban, the Post reports. Since then, 13 Afghan athletes have been sent to the Olympics, four women among them.

At the Olympic facility where athletes now train, there is a soccer field where the Taliban used to perform public executions, including women accused of adultery.

Over the coming year, Gholami and her fellow Afghan athletes will train to try to nab spots at the Summer Games in Tokyo.

For Gholami, her success may stem in part from the fact that she was not raised in Afghanistan. Her family is from Mazar-e Sharif, in the north of the country, but she grew up in Iran as a refugee. She sees living abroad as an advantage, as women in Iran often exercise in public. She joined a taekwondo club there, then got recruited to Afghanistan’s national team. She still lives in Iran, but travels to Kabul for practice.

Her coach thinks she has a shot at a medal if she makes it to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. She won gold at the 2016 South Asian Games. Her Olympic dreams evaporated that year, however, when she tried to compete in a lower weight class and ended up feeling so weak, she failed to qualify. She called it the “biggest mistake” of her career.

Now she is looking to get to the 2020 Games. “If I achieve that goal,” she said, “I’ll have no more wishes.”

Read the full story at The Washington Post.

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