Athletics: Life after the Taliban - 18.37sec of free running

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The Independent Online

There is no more seasoned competitor at these championships than Merlene Ottey. The Jamaican sprinter who now competes in the aquamarine of Slovenia won an Olympic bronze medal in 1980. As she settled into her starting blocks for the third heat in the first round of the women's 100m yesterday morning, the 43-year-old was getting ready to go through the old, familiar routine. But there was a problem.

Seven lanes inside the grand dame of world athletics, at the head of the home straight in the Stade de France, a young woman in a grey T-shirt and a pair of navy-blue tracksuit bottoms gestured for help from one of the trackside officials. She pointed down towards the starting blocks in lane two and gave a shrug of the shoulders.

Lima Azimi, evidently, had never seen their like before, let alone used them. After some rudimentary advice, and some repositioning of the blocks, the Afghan athlete with the No 1 pinned to her T-shirt (out of 1,000 participants in the eight-day global competition) got down to her marks and, on the sounding of the starting gun, set off on her own personal competition.

To roars of recognition from the small crowd gathered for the morning session in the French national stadium, she battled to the line at her own modest pace. Ottey finished second, clocking 11.26sec, the same time as the race winner, Kelli White, the United States champion. Azimi finished seventh and last. Her time was 18.37sec. It had, though, been a pretty momentous 18.37sec. It was a personal best and an Afghan national record. It was, in fact, the first time an Afghan woman had run 100m, or competed in any event in international competition. It was also, it transpired, the first time Lima Azimi had run 100m.

"This is the first time I have seen a track," the bright-eyed 22-year-old revealed - despite her frequent apologies, speaking in excellent English and patently surprised by the interest in her. "I train in a gymnasium in Kabul. I only started three months ago, when the Afghan federation made a team of girls for athletics. There are now seven or eight of us. We train once a week in the gymnasium at Kabul University. One week ago, a teacher came to examine us and I was a little faster than the other girls. Because of this, they chose me to come here."

Azimi is a student of English language and literature at Kabul University. Until the recently formed Afghan Athletics Federation received a visa on Wednesday to send Azimi and Assas Ahmadi, a male 100m runner, to Paris, she had never been outside her homeland. In fact, until the fall of the Taliban last year, she had not been outside her family home - not without fear of retribution, at least. "It was very difficult for girls," Azimi said, reflecting on Afghan life under the repressive Taliban regime. "We were not allowed to go outside. I was at home. I tried to find some books. I studied at home. Sometimes I did get out, but always with 'the tent' [the all-covering burqa worn by orthodox Muslim women]. Even then, you faced problems if the Taliban saw you."

Yesterday, the watching world saw an Afghan woman running in international competition for the first time - dressed in school sports-day garb. "At home, I'm not allowed to wear this outside," Azimi said, tugging somewhat disdainfully at the short sleeves of her T-shirt. "We are Muslim, and outside we still wear 'the tent.' Inside the gymnasium I wear a T-shirt, but I could never wear shorts."

The novice sprinter was, however, persuaded to make one concession to traditional track-and-field wear. "I came here with my training shoes but I was told they weren't suitable," Azami said. "Yesterday they bought running spikes for me, but they didn't help me, as you could see. I couldn't run fast."

The engaging young Afghan woman was more than fast enough, though, to blaze a glorious trail. "It's not important to get a position," she mused. "It's important to participate. It's important for me, for my family and for my country."