Cyclists given a sporting chance by the Taliban

Kabul - The ruling Islamic Taliban sought yesterday to prove that it is not against sports - by organising a bicycle race and display of martial arts in the Afghan capital.

Fourteen cyclists took part in the three-mile race between the airport and the Ariana Hotel. The starting line was in front of a tank that guards the approach to the airport.

Most of the cycles were of Soviet vintage, serving as humble load carriers in between stints as racing machines. With an escort of traffic police riding motorbikes, the cyclists set off down the cracked tarmac.The policemen cleared the route of carts and pedestrians as the cyclists swung through a roundabout and on to the final stretch.

With a cry of "Allah-u-Akbar" (God is great), Amanullah, Afghanistan's premier cyclist and an employee of the Ministry of National Security, won the race, and with it a battered nickel-plated cup. A citation, written in felt-tipped pen on cardboard, was taped to the base of the trophy.

Almost all Kabul's sports facilities have been looted and destroyed in the fighting, and Amanullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name, said that during the almost five years of war that has wrecked Kabul, the team had trained indoors on stationary bicycles.

"We need everything; cycles, clothes, shoes, everything," he said after his victory.

He added: "My message to the outside world is that they should invite us to take part in international races, and help us with equipment."

After the race there was a demonstration of wrestling, boxing and other martial arts in the disused Istiqlal High School. Motmayn, one of the young pugilists said: "Normally we would do this on mats, but we do not have any, so they can only show the technical moves."