Afghan officials shielding Asian Games athletes from domestic issues

A man passes a signage at the media center ahead of the Asian Games in Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia, August 2018. (Reuters pic)

JAKARTA: Afghanistan officials are trying to shield their athletes from trouble brewing back home as the war-ravaged country chases its first Asian Games gold in Indonesia.

Afghan forces killed four out of nine insurgents who launched mortar attacks on Tuesday in areas around the presidential palace and diplomatic district of Kabul, officials have said.

“Athletes are always affected whenever something bad happens to the country,” president of the Afghanistan National Taekwondo Federation Najibullah Sekandar told Reuters on Wednesday.

“It naturally has a bad effect on their performance. It’s always better to perform in normal conditions, without any worry.

“They are worried about what’s going on back home. In the camp, we try to think only about the competition and nothing else. We know it’s our job to go and perform.”

Athletes from Afghanistan, a country embroiled in conflict with the Taliban militants, have had to overcome massive odds to represent their landlocked country at multi-sport events like the Asian Games.

“Sports in Afghanistan are improving every day. We hope the security will be good and our athletes will be in a better frame of mind to practise and perform,” Sekandar, a doctor by profession and also an international referee, said.

Cricket reflects that growth. Afghanistan became only the 12th nation to play test cricket in India earlier this year, while their spin bowlers are sought after in Twenty20 leagues across the cricketing world.

Afghanistan won the silver in cricket and a taekwondo bronze in the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon.

The Korean martial art brought no such joy for the Afghans on Wednesday, though, with Ramesh Hussaini falling to Nikita Rafalovic in the men’s 80kg quarter-final and Ahmad Bakshi losing to Nepal’s Mahara Bir Bahadur in the 63kg round of 32.

Cricket’s rapid growth notwithstanding, Sekander said taekwondo remains Afghanistan’s most popular sport with significant potential to win international laurels.

Rohullah Nikpai’s 58kg bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games was Afghanistan’s first Olympic medal. The taekwondo fighter won another bronze in the 68kg division in the London Olympics four years later.

Afghanistan drew a blank in the 2016 Rio Olympics but Sekander said the fighters were training hard and should do better in the 2020 Tokyo Games.

“We believe taekwondo will get us medals in Tokyo. We have the experience of the two medals, we hope to win again in Tokyo,” he added.