This story has been corrected.
KABUL — Swimmers at the Shahan Gym sprinted toward the locker room when they saw the clock approaching 3:30 p.m. They had precious little time to towel off before the biggest sporting event in Afghanistan since 2008.
Cricket may be king in Afghanistan but the nation’s undisputed No. 1 sports hero does not bowl a ball or wield a bat. Rohullah Nikpai grabbed the country’s first Olympic medal at the Beijing games in 2008 — a bronze in taekwondo — and was gunning for gold in London. Thursday was his first match and televisions all over the country were tuned to him.
“All the Afghan’s eyes are on this,” said Hussain Rafat, a 25-year-old government worker who fidgeted as the match began.
Few things unite the people of Afghanistan, a country of far-flung villages and a history of resisting central authority, but Nikpai’s popularity seems near universal. His status as a minority Hazara has done nothing to diminish his star and throughout Kabul now there are billboards for Taekwondo classes, a sport that has gained popularity with Nikpai’s success.
“Anywhere in the country, when an Afghan watches they feel he is one of them,” said Anil Ahmad, 19, an employee at the gym who, like the rest of his co-workers, took a break to watch the match. “It’s the unity of Afghans that encourages him to go and compete.”
At the gym, more than 20 people gathered around two televisions to see the match, cheering and clapping every time Nikpai scored a point, and groaning on the rare occasion his opponent, Poland’s Michal Loniewsky, was successful.
Later in the day, Nikpai squared off against Iran’s Mohammad Bagheri Motamed, and lost 10-8, but with repechage -- the chance to move on when losing by a small margin -- was able to get to the medal round. He defeated Britain's Martin Stamper to win the Bronze.
There’s been little to cheer for in Afghanistan in recent years, with violence a daily fact of life in much of the country, an insurgency that seems entrenched, and grinding poverty for many. It would be trite to say sport has an impact on such dire problems, but it provides a respite for Afghans aching for something to root for, something that comes out in their favor.
“You know what’s happening in our country we are hungry to see this kind of thing,” Rafat said.
In the end, his first match was a rout, with Nikpai winning 12-5, even with a three-point headshot taken away early on, which elicited groans from the Shahan crowd. It’s unclear how many Afghans made the long journey to London, but the crowd gave a big cheer when Nikpai walked out draped in the green, red, and black of Afghanistan and the crowd was clearly on the Afghan’s side throughout the match.
“It was excellent, it was great,” Ahmad said after Nikpai’s opening-round win. “He’s the one who’s making us proud, making the whole nation proud.”
CORRECTION: Due to a research error, an earlier version of this story said Rohullah Nikpai was out of medal contention. In fact, an obscure rule allowed him to continue despite the single-elimination format, and he won the Bronze Medal.