Female Afghan sprinter in a race against hate

Many athletes at the Olympic Games this summer will undoubtedly have overcome numerous obstacles to represent their country in Beijing. But only one has been forced to endure a hate campaign.
Sprinter Mehboba Andyar has received threatening midnight phone calls, been jeered at by hostile neighbors and harassed by police. The anger is directed at the 19-year-old runner for being Afghanistan's sole female Olympic athlete. In a conservative Muslim society where few women have roles outside the home, many Afghan men believe females should not compete in sports.
"There have been so many phone calls from people saying I shouldn't be an athlete. There are often strange men hanging outside my home," she said. "Sometimes stones are thrown at the windows at night, and we have had threatening letters. I don't worry about these threats, but if my family didn't want me to go (to Beijing), I wouldn't."
Neighbors scream abuse and threaten her with physical harm each time she leaves her small mud-brick home in a Kabul slum to run. Last month, police officers arrested her father after a neighbor complained that Andyar had been entertaining strange men. Even though she was merely giving an interview to a French journalist and his translator, she says the police hauled the three men to the station. They were soon released after the precinct police chief intervened and apologized, she says.
Since the announcement early this year that she would represent Afghanistan in the 800-meter and 1,500-meter races, the determined Andyar refuses to be intimidated.
"I knew that I would have to be strong to be a runner in Afghanistan," she said. "At least my family and fellow athletes support me and want me to run for my country."
To be sure, she does have some male supporters, especially among the young and educated.
"If a woman likes sports, she should do it," said Naimullah, a 24-year-old university student who goes by just one name. "Afghanistan is changing. In a few years, people won't think this is anything unusual."
When Andyar arrives in Beijing to compete against the world's top runners who have honed their skills at some of the world's best facilities, she knows she has little chance of winning a gold, silver or bronze medal.
"We don't expect her to win," said Habibullah Niazi, a member of Afghanistan's Olympic committee. "But participating in the Olympic Games and running as an Afghan woman athlete is an achievement. All sports people support her. Unfortunately, many of the people do not."
Her interest in running began under the fundamentalist Taliban government in 1998, when she began jogging around the family's enclosed yard in Kabul to avoid the patrols of the Taliban's religious police. Aside from banning television, movies, music and kite flying, the Taliban prevented girls from going to school or work and participating in sports.
When the family fled to Pakistan, her father couldn't afford to join an athletic club where she could train properly. Instead, she ran at a park in Islamabad.
Today, Andyar trains on a cracked concrete track in the same national stadium the Taliban used for public executions. The track, bordered by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, circles a patch of dried yellow grass where boys play soccer. She dons a track suit and head scarf and plans to do the same in Beijing.
"I am an Afghan, so I have to dress modestly," she said. "It is my culture."
Her training regimen is often interrupted by dust storms that sweep through the city. And to avoid the neighbors' wrath, she runs along potholed streets near her home at night while they are watching popular soap operas, maneuvering around trash piles and open drains.
Later this month, the Afghan and International Olympic committees plan to send Andyar and the only other member of Afghanistan's Olympic squad - a 20-year-old male sprinter named Massoud Azizi - to Malaysia to train at adequate facilities. There, coach Shahpoor Amiri hopes Andyar will be able to focus on running.
"She is an inspiration," Amiri said. "For us, it is enough that an Afghan girl is going to the Beijing games."