Image Source: Getty / Charly Triballeau
Update, Aug. 30: Taekwondo athlete Zakia Khudadadi and track's Hossain Rasouli arrived in Tokyo on Aug. 28 after being evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, thanks to humanitarian visas from Australia. It was first reported that the athletes would seek refuge in Australia, though they were flown to Paris, where they trained for a week at the National Institute of Sport Expertise and Performance (INSEP), the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) said.
The athletes underwent COVID-19 protocol prior to and after arriving in Tokyo. According to the IPC, Khudadadi will compete in the K44 -49kg event for taekwondo on Sept. 2 and Rasouli will run in a Sept. 3 heat of the men's T47 400-meter dash. "Through their participation in the Games and performances on the field-of-play, the athletes call for hope, peace and solidarity for the people of Afghanistan and the world," the IPC wrote in a press release.
Prior reports stated that Khudadadi is the first woman Paralympian from her country, but the IPC has noted since then that she is in fact the second woman to represent Afghanistan in the Paralympics. NBC Sports further reported that Mareena Karim, who competed in the women's T46 100m dash at the 2004 Games in Athens, was the first Afghan woman Paralympian.
Update, Aug. 24: Zakia Khudadadi, one of two Afghan Paralympians unable to get out of Kabul, Afghanistan, ahead of the Tokyo Paralympic Games due to the Taliban's seizure of power, has secured protection in Australia, The New York Times reports. She, fellow Afghan Paralympic team member Hossain Rasouli, and around 50 other athletes and their families were granted humanitarian visas. Olympian-turned-human-rights-lawyer Nikki Dryden teamed up with Alison Battisson, head of Human Rights For All, to conduct the rescue operation with the help of other organizations, governments, and athletes around the world, reports the Australia Broadcasting Corporation.
Dryden said she was not sure if Khudadadi and Rasouli would compete in the Paralympics - as of now, there are no updates stating the two athletes are set to participate in the Games. The Afghanistan national flag was carried at the Paralympic opening ceremony on Aug. 24 to symbolize "solidarity and peace," according to International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President Andrew Parsons. Khudadadi would have made history as Afghanistan's first woman Paralympian.
Original post, Aug. 17: Zakia Khudadadi, who was set to make history as Afghanistan's first woman Paralympian, and fellow Afghan Paralympic team member Hossain Rasouli, a track athlete, are currently unable to leave for the upcoming Games starting Aug. 24, following the Taliban's takeover of Kabul, Afghanistan, and all other major Afghan cities. This came after longstanding United States military forces began departing from the country.
The Afghanistan Paralympic Committee's chef de mission (aka leader), Arian Sadiqi, based in London, told Reuters that he'd been scheduled to fly to Japan to meet Khudadadi and Rasouli, who were due to land in Tokyo on Aug. 17. However, ticket prices out of Kabul soared in the midst of the Taliban's siege, then flights were canceled. Ensuing turmoil at Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport meant the athletes couldn't leave the country as planned.
"Due to the serious ongoing situation in the country, all airports are closed and there is no way for them to travel to Tokyo," the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) told NPR on Monday. "We hope the team and officials remain safe and well during this difficult time." An IPC spokesperson further told POPSUGAR that the athletes are still eligible to compete and confirmed that it's up to the National Paralympic Committee of Afghanistan to change the athletes' participation status.
Khudadadi still hopes to get to Tokyo. "I request from you all . . . on behalf of all Afghan women to help me," she said, according to The Wall Street Journal. "My intention is to participate in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, please hold my hand and help me." She continued, "Please, I request you all - especially all the women from around the globe and the female institutions and the United Nations - to not let the rights of a female citizen of Afghanistan in the Paralympic movement to be taken away so easily."
In an interview with Reuters, IPC President Andrew Parsons said he had watched Khudadadi's video and "seeing what's happening in Afghanistan and this is shattering the dreams of one of our athletes, it is really sad and it really breaks my heart." Parsons noted that the IPC would work with the Afghan national team to support Khudadadi if she were to have her sights set on Paris 2024 but that it's too soon to make plans.
Khudadadi gained recognition for her winning performance at the first-ever African Para-Taekwondo Championships in 2016, and she received a taekwondo wild-card berth for the Tokyo Paralympics, which she told Paralympic.org she was "thrilled" about. She'd been set to participate in the under-49-kilograms competition for the K44 classification.
"This is the first time that a female athlete will be representing Afghanistan at the Games and I'm so happy," Khudadadi, now 23, said in the Paralympic.org interview published on Aug. 10. She added that she was inspired by taekwondo Olympian Rohullah Nikpai, who won back-to-back bronze medals for Afghanistan at the 2008 and 2012 Games. This year marks taekwondo's Paralympics debut.
This is the only instance to date that Afghanistan, which has never won a Paralympic medal, may not be represented at the Games other than in 2000, when the country was barred due to the oppression of women under the Taliban rule that was ousted in 2001. "Previously during the Taliban era people couldn't compete, couldn't participate, especially female athletes," Sadiqi told Reuters. He added that he's heartbroken for Khudadadi, who was "very passionate" about competing. "This was history in the making."