Against all odds, Nigara Shaheen made her Olympic debut in Tokyo, inspiring others and speaking up for women’s rights in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond.
Shaheen made her Olympic debut as part of the Olympic Refugee Team at the Nippon Budokan on Wednesday in the -70kg category, when she came up against Brazilian Maria Portela. Sadly for Shaheen, Portela proved too much for her, and beat her by a full point.
Born in Afghanistan, Shaheen’s family fled Jalalabad to Pakistan when she was six months old.
Almost two decades later, she returned to her birth country for the first time to study at the American University of Afghanistan.
Practising martial arts was a family tradition, and Shaheen first tried karate, but found what she needed in judo, starting when she was 11 while living as a refugee in Peshawar.
“I found in judo the way that allowed me to find confidence and show my strength when I needed it,” she told judoinside.com.
For Shaheen, the symbolic importance of her appearance at an Olympic Games representing the millions of refugees all over the planet cannot be overstated.
“My presence itself should give hope to all young Afghan girls that are dreaming of the Olympics,” she told Al-Jazeera.
“I have faced all the obstacles they are facing. But If I can do it, so can they. It is hard but nothing is out of the human capacity.
“Find what you’re really passionate about and follow it no matter what.”
Chosen as one of six judoka selected on the 29-strong IOC Refugee Athlete Team to take part at the Tokyo Games, this is a milestone achievement.
At 28 years old, Shaheen can take her Olympics experience with her and build for the future, with Paris 2024 just three short years away.
Currently, Shaheen is studying international trade at the university in Ekaterinburg in Russia.
She says judo has helped her academically. “Judo helped me to strengthen my self-confidence not only in exams but also in my daily life, whether in debates, competitions or more,” as she told judoinside.com.
Afghan Paralympian sparks ‘joy’ with Tokyo debut
When Afghan Paralympian Hossain Rasouli stepped onto the Tokyo track on Tuesday morning after escaping Taliban-held Kabul, fellow long jumper Roderick Townsend didn’t feel rivalry but “joy”.
The American did not even know Rasouli was competing in the men’s T47 long jump final until he saw 13 names on the start list rather than the usual 12, AFP reported.
Rasouli had arrived in Tokyo last Saturday, too late to compete in his favoured T47 100m event, after catching a top-secret flight from Paris one week after being evacuated from Kabul.
So instead he entered the long jump final, finishing last but symbolising for Townsend “so much about the Paralympic Games and what it means and what it stands for”.
“With everything going on right now, I couldn’t help but feel joy for him,” said Townsend, who took silver in the event with a jump of 7.43m, AFP reported.
“We get so caught up in our personal lives, and I’m here complaining about a silver medal and we have somebody making their way across the world to be able to do something that we all love to do.”
Rasouli arrived in Tokyo with Afghan team-mate Zakia Khudadadi on Saturday, after leaving their Taliban-controlled homeland a week earlier in what Games chiefs called a “major global operation”.
The pair spent a week in Paris at a French sports ministry training centre following their evacuation from Kabul.
Officials initially appeared to rule out the possibility of the athletes coming to Tokyo.
But Rasouli, whose left hand was amputated after a mine explosion, finally made the country’s belated first appearance at the Tokyo Games on Tuesday morning.
Emerging from the athletes’ entrance with a wave to the team officials dotted around the spectator-free Olympic Stadium, he then pointed towards the Afghanistan Paralympic Committee logo on his white vest.
Belarussian sprinter opens up about what made her seek asylum
Olympic sprinter from Belarus, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, decided to defect as she was being driven to a Tokyo airport because her grandmother told her that it wasn’t safe to return home.
In an exclusive interview with Reuters in Warsaw, she said her family feared she would be sent to a psychiatric ward if she went back to Belarus, and that her grandmother had called her to tell her not to return.
“I am not one of those people who are scared. I am always staying for the truth. I respect myself. I respect my work.”
“They were using enigmas, they used strange expressions about a net that I would get tangled in, that it would lead to inevitable consequences which would cause other people being fired and that it would be not good for you to. There were no direct threats. But I could understand it.”
The 24-year-old athlete caused a furore on Sunday when she said coaches angry at her criticism had ordered her to fly home from Tokyo. After seeking protection from Japanese police, she flew on Wednesday to Poland instead of Belarus.
Poland, which has long been critical of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko and harbored many activists from Belarus, has granted Tsimanouskaya and her husband humanitarian visas but her grandmother remains there.
“Grandmother called me when they were already driving me to the airport,” the athlete said. “Literally, I had some 10 seconds. She called me, all that she told me was: ‘Please do not come back to Belarus, it’s not safe.”
Tsimanouskaya’s saga, reminiscent of Cold War sporting defections, threatens to further isolate Lukashenko, who is under Western sanctions after a crackdown on opponents since last year, Reuters reported.
The sprinter, who had criticized negligence by her team coaches, spent two nights in Poland’s embassy in Japan before flying out to Vienna and then Warsaw on Wednesday.
The Belarus National Olympic Committee (NOC) had said coaches withdrew Tsimanouskaya from the Games on doctors’ advice about her emotional and psychological state. It did not immediately respond to requests for additional comment on Thursday.
The International Olympic Committee has started an investigation into Tsimanouskaya’s case and said it would hear from the two Belarusian officials allegedly involved.
IOC awaiting report on Belarusian’s dash for refugee status
The IOC said on Tuesday it was waiting for a report later in the day from the Belarusian National Olympic Committee on the case of sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, after launching an investigation into the incident that has rocked the Games.
The athlete took refuge in the Polish embassy in Tokyo on Monday, a day after refusing her team’s orders to board a flight home from the Olympic Games. Warsaw has offered her a humanitarian visa, Reuters reported.
International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams told reporters the body had spoken to the athlete twice on Monday, that she was in a safe, secure place, and that the IOC needed to know all the facts before taking further action.
Tsimanouskaya, 24, had been due to compete in the women’s 200 metre heats on Monday but said that on Sunday she was taken out of her room in the athletes’ village and driven to the airport to board a flight home after criticising team officials.
The incident has focussed attention on Belarus, where police have cracked down on dissent following a wave of protests triggered by an election last year which the opposition says was rigged to keep Lukashenko in power, Reuters reported.
“We have also now contacted the NOC of Poland. In terms of what the IOC can for her future we have talked to them with regard to her sport, after her arrival in Warsaw if that is indeed where she chooses to end up,” Adams said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken blasted Belarus’ attempt to send Tsimanouskaya home.
“Such actions violate the Olympic spirit, are an affront to basic rights, and cannot be tolerated,” Blinken wrote on Twitter late on Monday.
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