Running For Her Life: Afghan Athlete Seeks Asylum in Europe

Mehboba Ahdyar was to be the poster-child for the Olympics but the 19-year-old Afghan runner ran away from an Italian training camp last week. She has since told her parents she is too scared of reprisals and plans to seek asylum in Europe.

Mehboba Ahdyar was shouldering the heavy burden of overwhelming expectations. And in the end, it proved more than she could bear. The 19-year-old from Kabul was to be the only female athlete representing Afghanistan in this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing. Now the young woman has run away, leaving a training camp in Italy and telling her family she is applying for political asylum in Europe.

Mehboba Ahdyar has opted to seek asylum instead of competing in the Olympics.
Getty Images

Mehboba Ahdyar has opted to seek asylum instead of competing in the Olympics.

The young runner, who competes in the 800 meters and 1,500 meters, had become the poster girl for the Olympic movement, with her face adorning the International Olympic Committee's Web site.

But being in the international spotlight had attracted the wrong kind of attention. Although Ahdyar always ran in a headscarf and wore long tracksuit bottoms she still received death threats from extremists who objected to a Muslim woman taking part in sports at all.

When she received visits from Western media earlier this year, her neighbors called the police telling them she was obviously a prostitute working for foreign clients. Her father, a carpenter, even spent time in jail until the issue was cleared up.

The attempt to revive women's sport in Afghanistan has been an uphill battle. The 2004 Olympics marked the first time female Afghan athletes had competed in the games since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. The country had been banned from the 2000 games because the Islamist regime had not allowed women to compete.

Afghanistan is now fighting a resurgent Taliban and in a country where women are still regarded as second-class citizens, militants often target organizations and individuals who champion women's issues.

The German coach of the Afghan women's soccer team, Klaus Stärk, told SPIEGEL ONLINE earlier this year that he had to train his players on a small pitch at a US army base in Kabul because it would be too dangerous for them to play anywhere else. He even brought the female players to his native Stuttgart to give them the chance to play on regulation-sized fields.

While those women were happy to return to their lives in Afghanistan, Ahdyar took the decision to flee her country and gave up her chance to compete at the Olympics.

She had been training with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) at a facility at Formia in Italy and was due to travel back to a high-performance center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on July 7. Instead she went missing, taking her luggage and passport with her. There were initially fears that she could have been abducted. The Afghan Olympic Committee then claimed that she had a leg injury. Its deputy chairman Sayed Mahmoud Zia Dashti told the Associated Press last week that she was receiving treatment for her leg in Italy.

However, Ahdyar contacted her family late last week. She told them that she was in Europe and would not be coming back. She said she was scared of reprisals because of her sports career. Her parents are now reportedly under pressure from members of the Afghan Olympic Committee, who say that if she does not come back they will be held responsible and could be thrown in jail.

smd/ap/SPIEGEL

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