In a refugee camp in Iran, three young men practiced taekwondo. They had been forced from their homes in Kabul, Afghanistan when the Taliban came to power. Rohullah Nikpai and his brother had met Noor Ahmad Gayezabi in the camp, and together they formed a team and spent their days training.
After the US invasion of Afghanistan, the boys returned to Kabul. Nikpai got a modest job as a barber, which was a risky proposition. The Taliban would occasionally reassert themselves, and punish those who broke the strict rules of the Islamic sharia, such as barbers who gave Western-style haircuts. But Nikpai needed the money to fund his taekwondo dreams. In the mornings, he would lift weights, and in the evenings, he would train.
In 2004, Afghanistan sent five women to the Athens Olympics, the first Afghan Olympians since 1996. Many of them competed in bulky traditional dress, but even still they endured death threats. Nikpai, meanwhile, had Olympic dreams of his own. In 2006, he went to the Asian Games and lost in the round of 16 to the eventual silver medalist. In 2007, he placed second in the world taekwondo qualifier, and punched his ticket to Beijing. Leading up to 2008, he and his teammates faced intense criticism from detractors and scrutiny from supporters; the only Afghan female athlete fled to Norway so she could train in peace.
On August 8, Nikpai walked into the Bird’s Nest as a member of Afghanistan’s team of four athletes. He had to wait eleven days for his first match, which he won 4-3. The next day he lost his first match, but won his second, putting him into the consolation round.
On Wednesday morning in Kabul, Nikpai’s old friend Gayezabi turned on his TV. Miraculously, the electricity was on, and his set was receiving a signal. He flipped on the Olympics coverage and watched, teary-eyed, as his old friend and fellow refugee Nikpai defeated the reigning world champion, Juan Antonio Ramos of Spain, 4-1, to achieve a tie for third.
Rohullah Nikpai’s bronze in men’s lightweight taekwondo is Afghanistan’s first Olympic medal. He said, “I hope this will send a message of peace to my country after 30 years of war.”