Afghanistan’s first Olympic medal winner eyes taekwondo glory

The 28-year-old Rohullah Nikpai, a two-time Olympic bronze medallist in taekwondo, is geared up for the South Asian Games.

Olympic bronze medallist Rohullah Nikpai of Afghanistan during practice at the 12th South Asian Games(SAG) in Shillong.   -  M. Moorthy

Inside the quiet ambience of NEIGRIHMS, an acronym for North Eastern Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Health and Medical Sciences, 13 members of Afghanistan’s men’s and women’s taekwondo teams are practicing under the watchful eyes of a South Korean coach Sin-Hak Min for the 12th South Asian Games.

At first glance, one might dismiss it as a team that has come from a war-torn nation just to participate in the Games. It is anything but that. This is a country that is looking to win most of the medals on offer in the martial art sport. And in its arsenal it has two world class performers, Rohullah Nikpai and Nesar Ahmad Bahave.

Rohullah is the more famous and accomplished of the two. The 28-year-old won his second successive Olympic bronze medal in the 2012 London Olympics, while Nesar is a silver medallist in the 2007 World Championship and the 2010 Asian Games.

After training for nearly two hours, Rohullah spoke about why he is here when he has other bigger tournaments with the Rio Olympics coming up.

“I came here for my National team. And moreover, I want to give a good image of South Asia to the world and to encourage my team-mates,” he said.

Fleeing to Tehran and staying in a refugee camp when the war in Kabul was at its peak, Nikpai returned in the 90s. Guided by his brother, he started to show a keen interest in taekwondo after coming back to his homeland.

With the Afghanistan National Federation ensuring that a sound grassroots programme was in place, players like Rohullah prospered and went on to win many local and National-level tournaments. The hard work and struggle bore fruit when Rohullah bagged a historic bronze medal in the Beijing Olympics - a first-ever Olympic medal for Afghanistan.

“Of the two Olympic medals I won, I would pick Beijing because that changed my profile forever and I became very famous. It was a new record of sorts,” he said.

Recently, Rohullah left the country for Australia, frustrated with the fighting between the National Federation and the National Olympic Committee. The impasse continued for nearly eight months. Only in October last year did the row between the two get resolved.

“Now we have a new president and we convinced Rohullah to come back. All problems solved, we are looking to do well in wrestling, judo and boxing in the 2020 Olympics,” said Ghulam Rabani Rabani, Chef-de-Mission of the Afghanistan team.

Rohullah has his hands full now. He will take part in the Asia Club Championship in Sharjah after SAG, go to Pohang, South Korea, for training and then participate in the Belgian Open in March. Thereafter, he has the Asian Olympic qualification tournament in Manila in April - the one that will decide whether he will participate and win a hat-trick of Olympic medals.

Rohullah is confident of doing well in the Olympic qualification tournament. “I will play in Rio,” he said.