Olympics: National records as good as gold for Afghan sprinters in Tokyo

Reuters , Wednesday 7 Jul 2021

Afghan sprinters
Afghan sprinter Kimia Yousofi, 25, exercises ahead of 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, at a stadium in Kabul

Afghan sprinters Kimia Yousofi and Sha Mahmood Noorzahi have defied massive odds to be at the Tokyo Olympics, and setting new national records would be as good as gold medals for them, their athletics federation says.

The runners, who hold the 100-metre records for Afghan women and men respectively, qualified for Tokyo under the universality quota, which lets a country send its athletes to the Olympics when they don't have anyone eligible to qualify, provided there are slots available.

An Afghan refugee born in Iran, Yousofi is competing in her second Olympics, but her journey has not been an easy one.

Her family fled during the Taliban's reign and the 25-year-old had to work extremely hard growing up in a foreign land.

"I have always trained hard day and night with the support of my family," she told Reuters. "I have also ignored all my other pastimes and programmes that every girl does in life - for example, going out with friends or spending time with family - and I just practised."

Although Yousofi has had access to training centres in Iran, Noorzahi has had to make do with minimal facilities in Afghanistan.

"We do not have a standard track surface or special shoes to prepare like athletes in other countries," said the 30-year-old, one of five Afghans competing in Tokyo.

He said other challenges, such as fraught security conditions, also made training difficult.

"During the holy month of Ramadan, I would do stretching exercises at home at eleven o'clock at night, then sprint exercises outside my house very quickly, and go back home as soon as I can," said Noorzahi, who is from Farah province.

Noorzahi and Yousofi left Kabul for Japan on Sunday for a 15-day training camp in Fukuoka.

"My only expectation for them is to break their previous records," said Shahpoor Amiri, vice president of Afghanistan's athletic federation and Noorzahi's coach.

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