This post is part of Global Voices’ special coverage London 2012 Olympics.

Afghan Taekwondo fighter Rohullah Nikpai won bronze in the men’s under-68-kg category at the 2012 Summer Olympic in London. The 25-year-old athlete matched his achievement at the Beijing Games four years ago, where he also won bronze. The two bronzes claimed by the fighter are Afghanistan’s first ever Olympic medals, turning Nikpai into a national hero in the war-torn country.

Nikpai’s Olympic success has been quite unexpected because of his background. The New York Times reports that the athlete lived in a refugee camp in Iran, and returned to Kabul four years before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Even after his return, Nikpai could train only in the early morning and late evening because he had to work as a barber to make ends meet. According to The Guardian, Nikpai comes from the Hazara ethnic minority, which has long been discriminated against by other groups in Afghanistan.

Taekwondo fighter Rohullah Nikpai claimed two bronze medals for Afghanistan at 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics. Screenshot from video “Afghan taekwondo star aims high” uploaded on YouTube by AFP on July 13, 2012.

Nikpai’s 2012 Olympic bronze was met with an explosion of excitement in social media.

Ashraf Jawadi wrote on Facebook [fa]:

چقدر احساس غرور نمودم با اشک شادی نیکپاه من هم گریستم. دیشب تا آخرین لحظه ها پای تلویزیون نشستم… اما نشستنم نتیجه داد و قهرمان عزیزما همه ی ما را مفتخر گردایند. نیکپاه عزیز ما بتو ارج می نهیم. تو پرچمدار غرور از دست رفته ای این مردمان هستی…

I felt so proud. I wept too when Nikpai cried blissfully [after the win]. Last night I woke up and watched him on television till the very last minute… But it is alright that I was awake, our dearest hero made us all proud. Dear Nikpah [Nikpai] we applaud you. You are the proud flag-bearer of the [Afghan] people…

Raymond Leong commented on Twitter:

Rohullah Nikpah is an inspiration to many. He won Afghanistan`s first Olympic medal in Beijing and he repeated it again in London!

Afghans around the world believed that Nikpai’s bronze was more valuable than the many gold or silver medals won by other countries.

Fariba Nawa, an Afghan-American journalist and author, wrote in New Media America:

In a year filled with suicide bombings, school poisonings and kidnappings, the bronze for Afghanistan was more than gold.

Nesar Ahmad Bahawi, another Afghan Taekwondo fighter, failed to beat his Italian rival Mauro Sarmiento in the repechage match for a bronze medal in men’s under-80-kg category, finishing a step away from a medal. The 28-year-old athlete who was Afghanistan’s flag-bearer during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, suffered a leg injury during the fight.

Taekwondo fighter Nesar Ahmad Bahawi was a step away from bringing Afghanistan another Olympic medal in London. Screenshot from video “Afghan taekwondo star aims high” uploaded on YouTube by AFP on July 13, 2012.

Nesar Ahmad Bahawi carrying Afghanistan’s flag at the opening ceremony of London Olympics. Screenshot from video “Afghanistan at the London 2012 Olympic Ceremony” uploaded August 9, 2012, by YouTube user aseman1994.

Sven T. Rebbin wrote on Twitter:

Nesar Ahmad Bahawi deserves great respect for having gone through Taekwondo battle after battle at these Olympics with a heavy injury…

Ahmad Farzad Lami, an Afghan Journalist and blogger tweeted:

Nesar Ahmad Bahawi is much more beloved today than he was yesterday. We’re proud of you.

Afghans around the world were proud of the six athletes representing Afghanistan at the London Olympics. The participation of these athletes in the top international competition has been seen as beneficial for the country’s sports. Currently, athletes in Afghanistan lack modern facilities, equipment, and the support needed to master in their sports. Engaging in sports is particularly difficult for the country’s girls and women.

One of the athletes representing Afghanistan at the Games was 23-year-old female runner Tahmina Kohistani. In a post published in the Telegraph, she wrote about her Olympic experience:

Getting medals from the Olympic Games is very difficult for every athlete and for my country and me, it is even harder. The training facilities are much worse than most other countries so we cannot prepare as well. But I knew I was not going to win a medal when I came here; I am here to begin a new era for the women of Afghanistan to show people that we can do the same things that people from other countries can do. There is no difference between us.

Perhaps the most important outcome of the Afghan athletes’ participation in London Olympics and Nikpai’s bronze is a sense of unity that has emerged as hundreds of thousands of Afghans from different ethnic, regional, and religious backgrounds came together to watch the country’s athletes compete in London on TV.

Lina Rozbih-Haidari, an Afghan journalist, wrote on her Facebook page [fa]:

تجربه اتحاد میان تمام مردم افغانستان را در طول مسابقات المپیک خارق العاده بود، آنقدر حس خوبی بود که به گفته تعدادی آرزو میکنم که سیصد و شصت و پنج روز سال المپیک باشد و ملت افغانستان متحد با هم به دری و پشتو و هزاره گی و ازبکی….شعار داده و از یک افغان خود حمایت و پشتیبانی کنند، ایا میتوان این اتحاد را در میان ملتی که همه انها مساویانه از جنگ صدمه دیده اند زنده نگه داشت…به چند روز المپیک فکر کنید که چقدر بدور از تبعیض و تنفر با یکدیگر یکجا بودید، به حس خوبی که این اتحاد در میان یک ملت دارد، به شادی که در پیروزی همه با هم داشتیم، به اندوهی که در شکست با هم تجربه کردیم…افغانستان را تنها همین اتحاد میان شما نجات خواهد داد و نه چیز بیشتر…..

The feeling of unity among the Afghan people during Olympic games was extraordinary. It was so sensational that some wished that the 365 days of the year were Olympic and the Afghanistan nation jointly supported one Afghan [athlete] in Dari, Pashto, Hazaragi, Uzbek [languages]. This would have also made possible the unity among other nations affected by war… Think of Olympic days and remember without spitefulness and discrimination that you were together. [Remember] the sense of unity of the nation, the joy we felt after each victory [of our athletes], the sadness we experienced after [their] defeats… Nothing but this unity can rescue Afghanistan.
Kabul residents watch Rohullah Nikpai facing an Iranian rival at the London Olympics. Image by Kawoon Khamoosh, used with permission.

This post is part of our special coverage London 2012 Olympics. Creative Commons License

Written by Omid Bidar for Global Voices

About the author

Ana Astri-O’Reilly is from Argentina, where she lived until five years ago. She currently lives in Dallas, USA with her British husband, but they move a lot. Previously a translator and English and Spanish teacher, Ana first started writing to share her experiences and adventures with friends and family. She speaks Spanish, English and a smattering of Portuguese.