IOC-backed Afghan athletes pay to flee as threats from Taliban rise

The Taliban have vowed to kill any athlete they charge during the 2020 Olympics, but a panel of commanders made safety a top priority for those desperate to join the country’s first games in 25 years

When the last torch was lit in the sandy streets of Kabul 25 years ago, the Afghan people hoped that sport would earn them respect and teach them how to live in peace. Many hoped to join and participate in their first Olympics.

Then in 1998 the Taliban came to power and sport disappeared. Among the athletes, sports officials and families who fled the security risk: 86 representatives of international athletics federations, all of whom had received international accreditation.

The family of a Canadian couple that sat out the last Olympics is among those who turned to “guerrilla banditry” to leave the country.

Under Taliban rule, Najibullah and Gulconda Soheli had been politically active and traveled internationally. But the Taliban banned women’s sports and access to social media. Najibullah was detained by the Taliban for interrogation in April 1995. At the time, he was a cricket referee with a UEFA status.

Also forced to flee: 20 sports coaches who fled Afghanistan during the 1990s Read more

“I need to do something to escape the fear,” Najibullah Soheli said, recalling the days before he was arrested by the Taliban in 1995. When he refused to accept his sentence and lodge a complaint, the Taliban arrested him and his family. “You don’t know if they are coming to you. You don’t know if they are coming to your relatives or to you personally.”

In January 2001, they were smuggled by a ragtag group of militants from Kabul to Quetta. The International Olympic Committee paid for the Sohelis’ passage to Canada. Their first stop was Tel Aviv, where they received treatment for their son from the only member of the Israeli Olympic Committee who had invited them.

When Najibullah finally returned home in 2004, he met a former soccer player, Dawlat Adidzoda, who risked his life to protect the IOC during his husband’s escape from Iran to Afghanistan. “I was a hockey player and I played for the Kabul province. That’s when the Taliban started to tighten the noose around our necks,” Adidzoda told the Guardian. “In 2003, we came to the conclusion: these people are dangerous people, there is no security, and my friends were dead.”

From the meeting, Adidzoda and other members of a Kabul-based network of smugglers founded the Freelancers, an NGO that has opened its doors to many fleeing Afghans. For the relatives of the Sohelis and Adidzoda, the Freelancers’ risk-management network and support were crucial. In a departure from protocol, the Freelancers open its gates to unapproved-by-the-IOC athletes and coaches seeking safety and asylum.

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