Freed from Taleban rule, Rubina hits the ground running
Afghanistan's first female Olympian has triumphed before she's even set foot in the stadium, writes Greg Bearup
Three times a week, after school, Rubina Muqimyar walks to Kabul's Ghazi Stadium to meet her coach. Inside, she removes her headscarf, changes into a tracksuit and limbers up before heading out on to the track for sprint training.
It is a simple act, yet it means so much, and you can be sure that when this confident 17-year-old walks out into the arena for the opening ceremony at Athens in August, the cheers will be deafening.
'I will get much courage from the cheers,' she said. 'I am looking forward to that moment, and know I will be so proud.'
Rubina will be Afghanistan's only female athlete at this year's Olympics and is likely to be the flag bearer for her country at the opening ceremony. Her story is one that not even the ponytails at Nike could script. She will also be the first woman ever to compete at an Olympics for her country.
Rubina trains at Ghazi Stadium, the venue where, at the time the Sydney Olympics were under way four years ago, the Taleban were hanging people from the goal posts and chopping off their limbs. It was at Ghazi that the world saw how brutal the Taleban had become. Back then, she'd have been publicly flogged in the stadium for doing what she does now. 'We are so glad that we have regained Ghazi Stadium for sport, for something that is good,' Rubina said. 'It was a place of so much killing.'
Sometimes, after training, Rubina and the other athletes would sit and talk about what had happened at Ghazi in the past, and how they used to 'cut people up and kill them' where she now trained. However, she seemed not to be upset by this history - Ghazi was just the public face of what happened under the Taleban, and she and the other athletes had become accustomed to death during their youth.
But they had survived, and in their own ways, triumphed. Sport loves a good story, and at Athens, Rubina will be it.
In her event, the 100-metre sprint, she will be a good three seconds slower than the star sprinters, but she is fully aware of what it means for her just to be competing. While the others on the blocks at Athens will be competing in body-hugging suits and sports bras, she will run in a baggy tracksuit, possibly with a headscarf. 'I am so proud to be running in Athens. I will be representing the women of Afghanistan, and Muslim women around the world, who have been deprived of their rights for so long.'
The International Olympic chairman, Jacques Rogge, said the flag bearer for Afghanistan during the opening ceremony this summer will be a woman. Afghanistan was banned from the Sydney Games because the Taleban regime outlawed women from competing in sports.
Four years ago, Rubina had no knowledge that the Sydney Olympics were even on. Under Taleban rule she had barely been out of the house for several years.
Her father's textiles business in Kabul had been looted - she believes by the Taleban - and they survived for a number of years through the generosity of friends and by selling off assets. Rubina's memories of those years are of utter boredom. Education was banned for women, books were hard to come by and dangerous to be caught with, and she spent her time helping her mother with chores and remembering the time when she was free. 'I used to dream of the time when I was a little girl and I was able to run - that was one of the things I used to think about all the time while I was stuck in the house,' she said.
When she returned to school, two years ago, her teachers encouraged her to take up running. She said she loves the feeling of sprinting along the track. 'My times are improving, bit by bit.'
Rubina said she felt only joy when the Taleban were ousted from Kabul. 'The Taleban destroyed so much,' she said. 'They destroyed the country and we are thankful for what the Americans have done. But we don't want them to stay in our country for a long time. We want them to leave. We want to run our own country.'
She said the lives of women in Afghanistan had improved greatly, and the fact that she would be able to travel in a team with male athletes was in itself a major advance.
Rubina has returned to her studies after missing out on five years of schooling and eventually wants to become a doctor. 'Education is the only way forward for women,' she said. 'We must be educated.' She would also like to become a spokeswoman for Muslim women.
This month, she travelled to Pakistan for the South Asian games, where she ran second-last in her race. But from Rubina, there wasn't the slightest hint of disappointment at the result.