Fifteen seconds." the 17-year-old sprinter laughs self-mockingly as she reveals her time for the 100 m at last week's South Asian Federation Games in Islamabad. She has reason to be embarrassed: her time was more than three seconds slower than the winning Sri Lankan's 11.81. "I don't think that's so good for the Olympics, is it?" She giggles some more, and her head scarf slips down, exposing thick auburn waves. Despite the fact that she is in a restaurant full of men, she leaves it there, too caught up in her own joke to notice. For Robina Muqimyar, Afghanistan's first woman to compete in the Olympics, this is all a game, an adventure that she would never have dreamed of three years ago, shut indoors by a repressive regime that barred women from walking the streets unless accompanied by a male relative forget about permitting them to run competitively.
Muqimyar struggles to stifle her laughter her coach, whose own head scarf is firmly knotted under her chin, shoots her disapproving looks but she is still giddy from her second international race in an eight-month career as an athlete. Muqimyar's best time, nearly four seconds slower than U.S. star Marion Jones' 10.75 at the Sydney Olympics, won't win her country any medals at Athens, but simply stepping into the starting blocks is a triumph for a nation scarred by two and a half decades of war, and where many religious conservatives still object to women stepping outside of the home. "It is not Robina's results that matter," says Stig Traavik, a former Olympian from Norway who is taking a year off from his diplomatic career to advise Afghanistan's National Olympic Committee (N.O.C.). "It is that she will inspire other women, so that in the future we will have an even stronger team."
It will take more than inspiration to train better athletes. It will take time. Years of conflict the resistance to Soviet rule, followed by a decade of brutal fighting between rival warlords that saw the rise of the Taliban, sanctions and the American war decimated Afghanistan's athletic program. In 1999, it was banned from the Olympics for its discrimination against women; only in 2002, after the fall of the Taliban, was it reinstated. The country has never won an Olympic medal and, until an Afghan woman named Lima Azimi made her debut as a sprinter in Paris last summer, had entered the World Track and Field Championship only once in 20 years. Azimi's 18.37 seconds for the 100 m left her half a track behind her competitors, but her entry into the international arena enabled Afghanistan to qualify for Athens. Azimi decided not to compete for a place on the Olympic squad.
Before her race in Islamabad, Muqimyar dreamed of winning a medal for her country. Now she's not so sure. "The other girls, they have been training for many, many years. I can't be discouraged because already we have come so far." Masood Azizi, who will be running the men's 100 m, is also chastened by his performance in Islamabad, and has adjusted his own goals for this summer. "When people think of Afghanistan, they think of war," he says. "Now we can show the world that we have peace." Azizi, 18, only started training competitively last year. "The first time I saw Masood, he was a talented, high school-type runner," says Traavik. "When I compare him now to what he was nine months ago, he has become an athlete. He will run in a way that will make Afghanistan proud."
In Muqimyar, Afghanistan already has a reason to be proud. When the N.O.C. came to her school last summer, seeking athletes for Athens, she was the first to volunteer. "Other girls were fast, too," she says, "but I had the courage." It is a confidence rarely seen in Afghan women, let alone teenage girls. But, like Azimi in Paris, Muqimyar will make some concessions to her country's traditions. While most of her competitors will sport briefs and tight tank tops, she will be showing as little skin as possible, to appease religious conservatives. "It's what I always wear," she says. "We have nothing to gain from provoking people," adds Traavik, "and I don't think it will really affect her time that much if she wears clothes that are considered a little loose." But at the moment, sartorial decisions are the least of Muqimyar's concerns. She has four months to improve her technique and cut down her time. After a week training on Islamabad's rubberized track, she rolls her eyes and clutches her shins in mock pain at the thought of returning to the broken concrete track of Kabul stadium. Then she pauses, and a shadow crosses over her face. "They did terrible things there, you know. They killed people and cut them up." The Taliban used the stadium as a public execution ground. "With my success, and the success of others," she says, "I think we will make those memories disappear."