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Afghan Athletes Dream of Rejoining Olympic Competition

The International Olympic Committee announced recently that it will send an envoy to Afghanistan, thereby raising hopes that athletes from the wartorn country will be allowed to compete in the 2004 games in Athens. Afghanistan is the only country barred from the Olympics by the IOC. But Afghan sports teams also face enormous hurdles in their quest to become world class competitors.

Sixteen-year-old soccer player Sayyed Mushtaba trots out on the field to join his teammates for a friendly game with another local team. Wearing jerseys, shorts and knee socks, the players look like any other soccer players the world over.

But Sayyed says the fact that they are dressed like real soccer players is a major achievement in itself. "Under the Taleban, we could not wear shorts," he says. "Everyone was forced to wear traditional Islamic clothes. They got in the way of running and kicking and made it almost impossible for us to play."

Wearing the long dress-like tunics was not the only mandatory Taleban requirement. Soccer players also could not play once morning prayers were called. Punishment for violating the rules was jail time for up to several days.

But the Taleban did not just hate soccer. They hated all things associated with sports.

Until they were chased out of Kabul a month and a half ago by Northern Alliance troops, the Taleban used the city's only stadium as a venue for mass public executions. The chief of the Afghan Olympic organizing committee, Sayyed Mamood Zair Dashte, says he believes the Taleban deliberately used the stadium for executions, to show their contempt for sporting events. He says the Taleban wanted people to know just how little they thought of sports and athletes. It was the ultimate show of disrespect.

Mr. Dashte says more than five years of Taleban rule have decimated what little there was of Afghan sports training programs before 1996. Prior to the Taleban, 17 years of war in Afghanistan made proper training difficult, at best. Only two athletes - a boxer and a marathon runner - represented the country in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta in the United States. The boxer and his trainer defected to Canada at the start of the games. The marathon runner set an Olympic world record for the slowest men's marathon ever.

In 1999, the IOC banned Afghanistan from participating in the Olympics, in part because of the Taleban's policy of prohibiting women from competing in sports. But now that the Taleban are gone, Mr. Dashte says he hopes Afghanistan will soon be reinstated. But, he says, Afghan athletes will need a great deal of international help for the next three years if they are to participate in the Olympic Games in Athens. "We have athletes who would love to compete internationally," he says. "But unfortunately, we do not have clothes for them. Right now, we don't even have enough food to feed them properly."

For the moment, the goals of the Afghan Olympic organizing committee are modest. It wants to find former athletes living abroad and persuade them to come back to Kabul to help train a new generation of athletes. The committee is hoping to have at least 60 athletes - half of them women - ready to compete in soccer volleyball, basketball, boxing, tennis, cycling, and badminton.

Hoping for a spot on the Olympic soccer team is Sayyed Mushtaba who now practices up to three hours a day with his friends. "I want to first make the national team and then the Olympics," Sayyed says. "It is my dream to become the best soccer player in the world."

He grins as he snaps the elastic band on his shorts and shows how fast his legs can move without a tunic.