Afghan Girl Fights for Olympic Dream

As a young girl living under hardline Islamist Taliban rule, Mahboba Ahdyar could only run around the small courtyard of her house in the Afghan capital.

Now she is getting set to race in the Olympic Games.

Ahdyar is the only woman among four Afghans due to represent the war-torn country at August's Beijing Olympics and the slightly built 19-year-old 1,500 metre runner stands little chance of a medal.

Competing, however, is more about pride and showing the world what Afghan women can do.

"When I was small I used to run in my house and watch my brother who was doing body building. I kept my exercising secret even from my neighbours because of the Taliban," she told Reuters at the Kabul sports stadium where the Taliban held public executions until they were ousted from power by U.S.-led and Afghan forces in 2001.

The Taliban banned women from working or leaving the home without a male relative. Girls could not play outdoors and sport was out of the question.

But while some things have improved for women since 2001 and Afghanistan now has female athletes, a women's soccer team, even boxers, many in this deeply conservative society remain hostile.

"Some people in our society are against sport for women," said Ahdyar. "They want us only to stay at home, but I disagree with them; God gave the same rights to men and women, that is why I don't care what they say."

Ahdyar said she was lucky to have the support of her family. "I'm so proud of my daughter representing Afghanistan at the Beijing Olympics," said mother Majan Ahdyar. "She is so fond of her sport, she even exercises at night outside in the street because our house is not big enough."

NO FEAR

But some neighbours jeer at the athlete as she travels to and from her small mudbrick home in a poor area of Kabul for training.

"My father, mother and brother all support and encourage me that is why I am here now," said Mahboba. "The problem is with my neighbours; they are trying to humiliate me, that is the main problem I have."

The Taliban have now come back to fight an insurgency against the pro-Western government and foreign troops in Afghanistan and many ordinary Afghans have fallen victim to suicide bombs, assassination and kidnapping. But Ahdyar is undaunted.

"I'm not scared of anything because God created me one day and I believe that one day I will die," she said. "Whatever is my destiny will happen. I am choosing the right way which is for my benefit and the benefit of all young people."

Ahdyar trains in a loose tracksuit and headscarf, something she says she will not change to compete in the Olympics.

"I am an Afghan and a Muslim girl and wearing a headscarf is an obligation for Muslim girls," she said. "I will not take off my scarf in China when I race because it is symbol of Muslim women."

Apart from a spell as a refugee in Pakistan, Ahdyar has never travelled abroad, but she and Afghan male sprinter Masood Azizi are soon due to travel to Malaysia for a five-month training camp before going to China.

Facilities there will be a world away from those in Afghanistan. There is not a single proper running track in the whole country and the pair of Olympians train on a concrete track circling the dusty soccer pitch inside the main stadium. The more basic problem of lack of a good diet also dogs Afghan athletes.

Ahdyar is reluctant to predict how she will perform in Beijing. "I don't want to forecast what will happen to me, but I believe in God and I want God almighty to help me."

(Additional reporting by Yousuf Azimy; Editing by Ossian Shine)

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