It takes courage to dedicate one's life to one's sport. But at this month's Olympics, one young woman will have leaped more fearsome hurdles than most to compete for her nation. Reports and pictures by Lalage Snow in Kabul.

As Tahmina Khoistani fixes her starting block, a group of young men slow their training runs to look, whisper and nudge each other.

"Some of the boys here find it hard to believe that I can run and are always shouting abuse at me," shrugs the 22-year-old.

Tahmina is to compete in the 100m sprint at the London Olympics this month. She is Afghanistan's only female Olympian.


As she prepared to depart for Britain last week, a video was screened showing a Taleban fighter shooting a woman repeatedly in the back of the head in front of scores of cheering onlookers, barely 70km from Kabul. Her crime: adultery.

This is a country where only the bravest or most foolhardy women raise their heads in public.

Although women's rights have come a long way since the fall of the Taleban, their conservative shadow is far-reaching, and the video highlighted the threats and taboos facing women in today's Afghanistan.

"Most people oppose girls doing any kind of sport here let alone competing publicly and internationally," Tahmina tells the Herald on Sunday. "They think it is un-Islamic. But they are ignorant and want to keep living in darkness."

Poignant words, as she stretches out on almost the exact spot in Kabul's notorious Ghazi stadium where, under the Taleban, women were brutally shot for "immoral" behaviour.

TAHMINA FOUND a love of running after playing basketball at school eight years ago.

"I liked the game but running made me feel free."

With her father's blessing, she registered at the country's Athletics Federation and was selected for the youth team. In 2008 she was selected for the national team but failed to qualify for the Beijing games.

"I was so upset not to make it and promised myself that I would be in the next games."

Federation vice-president Shapoor Amiri says: "When she first joined the team she was shy and barely said a word. But she has blossomed and is full of confidence and laughter."

Tahmina is among a generation of girls determined to stand up against extreme conservative views. This is a major feat in part of the world still ravaged by conflict and cultural taboos.

This week, Saudi Arabia announced it would be sending female athletes to the Olympics for the first time. And Tahmina is only the third woman to represent Afghanistan at the Olympics. After sporting embargoes against Afghanistan were lifted in 2003, sprinter Robina Muqimyar competed in 2004 and 2008; Friba Razayee competed in judo in 2004.

"Every day I come to train I'm faced with a battle," says Tahmina. "A few weeks ago a taxi driver refused to bring me here and left me at the side of the road when he found out what I was doing, and last week someone found my phone number and was threatening kidnap."

She laughs the incident off lightly. But such threats and abuse forced Mehboba Ahdyar, the nation's 1500m Olympic contender for the 2008 Beijing games, to run away from a training centre in Italy and claim asylum in Europe.

Tahmina may dismiss the threats she receives, but even inside the training facilities she faces opposition, like that from the young men who have just passed by, staring.

While her immediate family give their blessing, Tahmina's extended family do not approve.

"They think girls who do sport are immoral and will bring shame on their families, which is why it is so important for me to compete in London; to prove them wrong, to show the world that Afghanistan has potential, and encourage other girls to take up sport."

Discrimination is not the only obstacle Tahmina must overcome.

As the sole female competitor she has chosen her own uniform: T-shirt, long-sleeve jacket, long trousers and, of course, a head scarf.

"People are saying that the clothes will slow me down, but it is important for me to be representing the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and this means dressing accordingly."

While New Zealand's 185 athletes at the games will adhere to a specific diet of protein and carbohydrates, Tahmina and her five fellow Olympians have neither the luxury, nor funds, to eat anything more elaborate than eggs, bread, rice, beans and stew.

Tahmina has also had muscular injuries but with no specialist physician available, she has relied on her local doctor - who simply told her to stop exercising.

WHEN SHE returns from London, Tahmina hopes to train Afghan girls in sport.

"I'm the only girl training to a high standard but sometimes there are things which, as a girl, I can't share with my trainer," she says.

"And, if there was a female trainer, I think more families would let their daughters do sport."

With a best time of 13.40 seconds in the 100m sprint, Tahmina qualified only through a wild card, offered to countries that fail to produce athletes who can meet competition standards.

She has been training for six months. But with limited facilities and only two hours of training a day, fitted around sports education studies at university in Kabul, her chances of success are slim.

"She is determined but I don't expect her to come home with a medal," Amiri says.

"But we both know that just being present and representing the country means so much more than a medal."

That is a sentiment reiterated by Tahmina.

"For me, the winning is not important. It's about doing something for my country and for society."