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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

To Tahmina, just taking part in the Olympics was her triumph

Tahmina Kohistani crossed the finishing line last when she ran her heat in the 100-metre race in 14.42 seconds on Friday. But, for Afghanistan's only female competitor, the Olympic Games was always about much more than winning.
Afghanistan's Tahmina Kohistani (right) after competing in the women's 100m heats during the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Afghanistan's Tahmina Kohistani (right) after competing in the women's 100m heats during the London 2012 Olympic Games.

LONDON // She didn't win a medal. In fact, she crossed the finishing line last when she ran her heat in the 100-metre race in 14.42 seconds on Friday. But, for Tahmina Kohistani, competing in the Olympic Games in London was always about much more than winning.

Weeping in the aftermath of the race, Afghanistan's only female competitor on the eight-member team said she was crying not out of disappointment, but because of "the journey". "Being here is more important for me than a gold medal," she said.

Later, reflecting on her Olympic experience, she said she knew she was not going to win a medal.

"I am here to begin a new era for the women of Afghanistan and to show people that we can do the same things that people from other countries can do. There is no difference between us," she said.

But there is a very big difference between the obstacles that Kohistani, 23, has had to face, and those encountered by some of her fellow Olympians.

There have been times when she has considered giving up. She was thrown out of a taxi in Kabul when the driver discovered she was training for the Olympics. She was verbally abused by men who oppose her practising sport and her coach had to fight them off outside her training ground.

Even after her race on Friday, hostile comments decrying her as "unMuslim" and not representative of anything but herself were posted on her Facebook page.

"There are a lot of bad comments about me in my country and there are lots of people not ready to support me. But I think I will make the nation of Afghanistan proud of me and they are going to never forget me," she said.

"I just opened a new window, a new door, for the next generation of my country. I can say that they will follow me all the time."

Kohistani is a university student in Kabul studying personal fitness training and began training for the sprint race six months ago. She said she has been touched by the interest her presence at the Games, via a wild card invitation, has sparked since she carried her nation's flag at the opening ceremony.

She ran her heat wearing a headdress and clothing that covered her arms and legs.

"When we had finished everyone wanted to interview me, and not the winner, because I'm the only one from Afghanistan.

"I wasn't pleased with my time - I had trained so much, worked so hard. But it was still a good experience and definitely the most important of my life."

Little wonder that Kohistani admitted to being incredibly nervous when she took her place at the starting line in front of a capacity crowd of 80,000.

"It took me by surprise," she said. "Seeing all those people there and cheering."

The presence of women in all the Olympics delegations has been a key feature of this Gender Equal Olympics and the bravery of some of the women representing their countries for the first time - notably from Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar - has drawn much praise from sports commentators and politicians alike.

For Kohistani, just participating is a major achievement because of the lack of sports infrastructure in Afghanistan.

"Getting medals from the Olympic Games is very difficult for every athlete - and for my country and me, it is even harder. The training facilities are much worse than most other countries so we cannot prepare as well."

Kohistani said that her ambition was to set up a women's club when she returns to Afghanistan. She also wants to become a teacher as there is only one female faculty member at her university in Kabul.

"When I go back to Afghanistan, I will get down to my training even harder than before and I want to use the facilities here more, before I leave, as our track at home is not good.

"I hope to do better for my country and I am going to continue running until 2016 in Brazil."

She said that she would love to gain a Fulbright scholarship, an international educational exchange programme sponsored by the US, to study abroad so that she could return to her home country and "do something for women in sport".

Many would point out that by running in London 2012 she already has done a great deal.

Kohistani knows that when she gets back home "there will be a lot problems".

She anticipates that her critics will be waiting for her but she plans to carry on regardless.

"Maybe one day they will realise that I was right," she said. "I'm here to represent a country with lots of problems right now. Right now we are facing the loss of children, the loss of family. The women in my country have lots of problems right now.

"There are lots of girls in Afghanistan [and] because of some social problems, because of family problems, they cannot do sport.

"But I'm going to say for them: Come and join me, Tahmina, and we can make a very big and strong sport network in our country."

lcollins@thenational.ae