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IOC announces aid for athletes in Afghanistan

The Olympic Rings monument in front of the Japan Olympic Committee headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, 24 March 2020. (Keystone/EPA/Franck Robichon)

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has announced $560,000 of aid for members of the Afghan sports community who are still living in Afghanistan.

The aid package was approved by the IOC Executive Board on December 8, in line with UNHCR's winter survival programme to deliver the money directly to up to 2,000 athletes in Afghanistan.

“An aid package of up to USD 560,000 was approved today by the IOC Executive Board; this will benefit up to 2,000 beneficiaries and help them over the winter to carry on their sporting activities,” IOC said in a statement earlier this month.

The IOC has already helped hundreds of athletes leave the country since the Taliban takeover in August. IOC’s president Thomas Bach has said that 300 people within the Olympic community have been granted humanitarian visas at the request of the IOC, including members of the Afghan women’s national cricket, football, volleyball and boxing teams.

“As a result of all our efforts, all athletes who participated at the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 are outside the country. Two winter sports athletes are also outside the country and continue training, hoping to qualify for Beijing,” IOC’s Bach said in a statement.

IOC had begun discussions with the Taliban in November in Qatar about those who remained behind, especially women and girls. During these meetings, the Afghan authorities confirmed that they would welcome the concept of any form of humanitarian assistance or financial support provided by the IOC.

“It is also a result of our talks and our quiet diplomacy efforts with the Taliban. Not only do they accept this help, but they support it,” said Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, said in the statement. “We have clearly explained to them that free access to sport, without any gender, ethnic, religious or other discrimination, is fundamental for the respect of the Olympic Charter.”

The Taliban also confirmed they took part in the negotiations. Dad Muhammad Nawak, head of sports and publications of the National Olympic Committee in Afghanistan told Geneva Solutions the organisation had“tried to reach an accord with the IOC.”

“At the beginning of the new regime in the country, we emailed the IOC, where all the new enacted rules on the framework of the sports and the Olympics were discussed,” he added. “At the same time, we offered our support for any kind of cooperation.”

Following the talks,  Nazar Muhammad Motmaen, head of Afghanistan’s National Olympic Committee, met the International Olympic Committee authorities in Qatar on November 18. Nawak said they discussed the “situation of sports and athletes in Afghanistan and ongoing cooperation.”

In contrast to the relatively gentle steps taken by the IOC, the International Cricket Council (ICC) has taken a different approach.

Afghanistan is one of 12 full members of the ICC. According to the ICC rankings, the Afghan men's cricket team is in the top 10 and considered as one of the best teams in the region. But the ICC has vowed to strip Afghanistan of its membership if the Taliban do not allow the women's cricket team to continue playing.

It is an ICC requirement for full members to also have a national women's team. But the Taliban have banned women from sports, just as they have banned them from working and studying since they took power in August.

ICC has taken a wait-and-watch approach on Afghanistan. Ramiz Raja, who is part of an International Cricket Council working group reviewing the state of the game in Afghanistan, told BBC Sport: “Like everybody else, we are giving them time. They are in a difficult situation.”

“Pressure will be put on Afghanistan. I'm sure they will have to decide in the next six months how they deal with the ICC, ”he added.

But the strife-torn nation undoubtedly risks international isolation following the Taliban takeover. Australia has already cancelled a men's test match against Afghanistan, scheduled to start in Hobart on 27 November, because of the uncertainty surrounding women's sports in the country. But the Taliban insist that they have never said women will not be allowed to play sports forever.

“There is no doubt that women will restart doing sport again, but at the moment there are no favourable conditions. We are waiting for the decision of the top leadership regarding women's sports in Afghanistan,” Nawak told Geneva Solutions.

Regarding the general situation of sports in Afghanistan, Dad Muhammad said that the National Olympic Committee is one of the few organisations that has not had its activities suspended by the recent changes in the government.

“Despite the financial problems that have existed, all our activities have been carried out according to the annual work plan,” he added: “Although it was difficult to get a visa, our athletes were able to participate in all foreign competitions according to the schedule. Some of them even travelled at their own expense, because we did not have enough budget. ”

He also said there had been some improvement for athletes in the country in recent months.

“The security situation is improving, which is another advantage for the players,” he said. “On October 18, some cyclists came to Kabul from Herat province by bicycle which was never done before because of security issues.”

Going forward, the IOC has said it will extend scholarships to all of the Afghan participants of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 so they can continue training. The IOC will also continue to support the two winter athletes who are currently receiving Olympic Solidarity scholarships already.

The organisation has also said it will keep trying to assist other members of the Olympic community who are still in Afghanistan to receive humanitarian visas in order to leave the country.

Outstanding progress in sports including establishing girls' sports teams, wide participation in international championships, and launching training programs for athletes was one of Afghanistan's greatest achievements of the last twenty years.

But now, the Afghan Olympic family has been fragmented, with displaced athletes living all over the world. Only time will tell whether they will be able to resume their sporting activities in their host countries or not.