Afghan Olympic athlete does a runner from Italy

Mahbooba Ahadgar was never going to win any medals in Beijing – her best times in the 800m and 1,500m events were so slow it was likely she would have finished a minute or more behind the winners. As an Olympic Solidarity scholar, her role was to bring the lustre of women's athletic prowess to her war-torn country, and prove that the Olympic ideal can shine brightly even in Kabul.

Instead it looks as if Ms Ahadgar is not going to be present at all. Afghanistan's only woman contender in the Olympics has done a runner. She disappeared from the town of Formia, south of Rome, where she had been training with other Olympic Solidarity hopefuls for the previous month. According to Nick Davies, press spokesman for the world athletics governing body IAAF, the group was due to return to a training camp in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on 7 July – but Ms Ahadgar disappeared. "There were all sorts of lurid rumours about her being kidnapped," said Mr Davies. "But now it emerges that she took her passport, stamped with a visa valid for the Schengen countries, and belongings with her. Clearly she's taken a decision."

Ms Ahadgar herself brought the uncertainty to an end when she phoned her family in a poor quarter of Kabul to tell them that she was on her way to claim political asylum in Norway.

For the young runner brought up under Taliban rule, it was the end of an excruciating experience in the international spotlight. Under the Taliban, practically all sports and pastimes other than football were banned. Women were confined to the home full-time: their only experience of the city's football stadium was when those accused of adultery or prostitution were brought to the penalty spot before the crowds of men, forced to the ground and then flogged, stoned to death or shot.

Since the flight of the Taliban in December 2001 the city has regained much of its cosmopolitan flavour, but for Ms Ahadgar's poor, working class family – her father is a carpenter and she has eight siblings – the transformation of their daughter into an Olympic poster girl was a challenge.

She chose to train in a headscarf and tracksuit to avoid being criticised for immodesty, and timed her runs for the evening when most Kabulis are at home watching their favourite soap opera. But when foreign journalists came calling at the family home to interview her, neighbours phoned the police and reported that she was receiving men as a prostitute. Her father was briefly thrown in jail until the confusion was cleared up.

When she spoke to the press, it was clear that Olympic Solidarity had coached her well. "I'm the model for my country, being a woman in a typical Muslim nation," she said in a recent interview. "I'm very proud to say that I will be participating in the Olympic Games. By virtue of these opportunities, many women from my country are participating in many sports, and this will help to develop a better managed country."

Her mother, Moha Jan, added: "We are really scared about the security situation in our country and of the people who have negative views about my family. But these problems cannot stop us from supporting our daughter."

But there was always a lively possibility that she would seize the opportunity presented by her Schengen visa to escape from the grinding poverty of Afghanistan for good. There are plenty of precedents. Many Ethiopian runners have failed to return home after being picked to compete for their poverty-stricken country. Some of them ended up running for Britain. To try to dissuade Ms Ahadgar from vanishing, the head of the Afghan Olympic Federation reportedly threatened to throw her family in jail if she did not return to Afghanistan. Now she has called his bluff.

Four years ago in Athens, Afghani women competed in the Olympics for the first time ever when Robina Muqimyar ran the 100m and Friba Rezihi competed in judo. This year, however, unless Mahbooba Ahadgar has an extraordinary change of heart, her fundamentalist countrymen will have no reason to curse her name; while the outside world will have one less cause to hope that Afghanistan is finally on the move.

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