The Taekwondo star who became Afghanistan’s first ever Olympic medalist at the Beijing Games in 2008 wants to repeat the feat in London — in the hope of bringing peace to his troubled homeland.
Rohullah Nikpa’s story is something of a fairytale in a war-ravaged country with few happy endings. As a 10-year-old obsessed with Bruce Lee and martial arts movies, he followed his brother to the taekwondo club while civil war raged in Afghanistan.
“I was crazy about taekwondo from the day I started it. I remember the first day I arrived at the club to practise, I was already able to do it well. I already had the mentality of being determined to reach the top,” he said.
Now 25, he was 14 when the Taleban regime fell at the end of 2001 and began training in Kabul in earnest while a bloody insurgency against the government and its NATO allies raged throughout the country.
Nikpa overcame tremendous problems, not least financial, to qualify for Beijing, where he claimed a life-changing bronze in the under-58 kilogram division. Four years later, the moment is still fresh in his memory.
“I was so happy because throughout the history of my country Afghanistan, no one has ever won an Olympic medal before. I was so happy that I cried right there in the arena,” he said.
“It’s something priceless for our country. With this medal, I can help bring peace to our country. It shows that our people must walk away from all this war and conflict, and look toward the future generation and use sports to help lift our country up.” His friend and training partner Nesar Ahmad Bahawi — Afghanistan’s other great taekwondo hope in London — shares his view of sport as a means of inspiring change in society.
“Taekwondo I’ve done for my country and my people, not so that I could myself become famous, just so that I can let the world hear the name of Afghanistan in a good way and make our people happy,” said Bahawi, who took silver at the 2007 world championships but came away from Beijing empty-handed.
“There’s always been fighting in our country, I want to show the world that we are not people who love war, but we want peace.” Bashir Taraki, the Afghan team’s coach, agrees.