Finally free to run

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

ATHENS, Greece – The greatest 100-meter dash of these Olympics took 14.14 seconds and a 108 years to complete.

As Robina Muqimyar crossed the finish line in her preliminary heat on Friday, she threw her hands toward the heavens. Her hair flapped in the breeze in a way that still isn't allowed on the streets of her native Afghanistan.

There was the crowd, cheering for her not because of her performance – Muqimyar finished a distant seventh – but because she performed at all; Muqimyar is one of two groundbreaking Afghani women who are representing their country and gender for the first time ever here in Athens. The modern Olympic Games resumed in 1896.

There was Gail Devers, the great American Olympic champ, asking to pose for a picture with her.

And there, appearing on television screens throughout her homeland, was the image of Muqimyar at full speed, broadcast to a proud, astonished generation of older women and inspiring the wide-eyed dreams of a younger one.

"I hope I can open the way for Afghan woman," Muqimyar said through an interpreter.

"I did not have an Afghanistan flag but if I did, I would have run with it around the stadium. I am very proud of my country and my people."

Muqimyar is a slim, pretty 18-year-old who, as a little girl, loved to run when she was allowed to play outside. But as she got older she had to stop. The Taliban's repressive treatment of women included banning them from athletic competition.

But when the regime fell under United States attack 20 months ago, Muqimyar began thinking of running again. Her family moved to Kabul, the capital and the most liberal city in the country.

"I was the first Afghanistan woman to decide to run after the Taliban," she said proudly.

But training wasn't easy. As a woman she is not allowed to run on the street. She has old shoes and must cover all of her skin – she ran here in long stretch pants and a stretch shirt.

She mostly practices inside a locked gymnasium, with no men allowed to enter. When she runs in the outdoor stadium she must wear a burqa over her head.

The facilities are terrible. The gymnasium floor is made of concrete. The soccer stadium in which she occasionally runs is riddled with bullets. The Taliban used it for public beheadings.

But she pressed on and, along with judoist Friba Razayee, through ceremonial qualifying selections by the IOC, became pioneers here.

Her participation in Athens is not universally accepted back home, where she could possibly face repercussions.

"The majority of the people do not like her," said Omid Marzban, a journalist for "Good Morning Afghanistan."

"But I don't think they are so against her. Not so hard that they try to do anything wrong with her.

"There are some women who don't like her but most women are supporting her," he said. "The Afghanistan women are fighting for their rights themselves. The target of Robina attending the Olympic Games is to open the women [door] to world sports."

Regarding this potential backlash, Muqimyar is optimistic, and brave.

"I don't know what will come in my life," she said. "But I think nothing will happen."

She thinks. She doesn't know; she thinks.

But it couldn't stop her. It wouldn't stop her. She has seen war, strife, poverty, oppression, dictatorship and death in her young life.

"Thinks" means nothing.

Muqimyar proudly smiled when her name and nation were announced pre-race on Friday. She climbed into the starting blocks like any other athlete.

At the gun she went as fast as she could, finishing more than three seconds behind the winner but ahead of a woman from Somalia.

By just making it to the finish line, she set an Afghani national Olympic record.

"Even if I were 80 meters back from the others I would have been really, really grateful and very happy because I was attending the Olympic Games," she said. "That was the biggest memorable moment for me in my life.

"At least I was ahead of one person."

Now comes the reaction. This is big news back home. "It was on the air in Afghanistan and everyone was watching," she said with glee.

Now comes the return to Kabul, where some see her as a dangerous cultural sea-change and others a vision of things to come.

Now, she hopes, comes the momentum – little girls who want to run, want to compete, want their long hair to flap in the wind too.

Now, perhaps, there will be equipment and facilities. Because as much as Muqimyar appreciated being a symbol in these games, she is too proud for moral victories.

"If Afghanistan has the opportunity," she said, "Afghanistan will be the best in the world."

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