Tokyo, Japan: When Afghan Paralympian Hossain Rasouli stepped onto the Tokyo track on Tuesday morning after escaping Taliban-held Kabul, fellow long jumper Roderick Townsend didn’t feel rivalry but “joy”.
The American did not even know Rasouli was competing in the men’s T47 long jump final until he saw 13 names on the start list rather than the usual 12.
Rasouli had arrived in Tokyo last Saturday, too late to compete in his favoured T47 100m event, after catching a top-secret flight from Paris one week after being evacuated from Kabul.
So instead he entered the long jump final, finishing last but symbolising for Townsend “so much about the Paralympic Games and what it means and what it stands for”.
“With everything going on right now, I couldn’t help but feel joy for him,” said Townsend, who took silver in the event with a jump of 7.43m.
“We get so caught up in our personal lives, and I’m here complaining about a silver medal and we have somebody making their way across the world to be able to do something that we all love to do.”
Rasouli arrived in Tokyo with Afghan team-mate Zakia Khudadadi on Saturday, after leaving their Taliban-controlled homeland a week earlier in what Games chiefs called a “major global operation”.
The pair spent a week in Paris at a French sports ministry training centre following their evacuation from Kabul.
Their arrival came after Afghanistan’s swift fall to the Taliban earlier this month left them among the tens of thousands unable to leave the country.
At the Paralympics opening ceremony, the Afghan flag featured in symbolic fashion, carried by a Japanese volunteer, and officials initially appeared to rule out the possibility of the athletes coming to Tokyo.
But Rasouli, whose left hand was amputated after a mine explosion, finally made the country’s belated first appearance at the Tokyo Games on Tuesday morning.
Emerging from the athletes’ entrance with a wave to the team officials dotted around the spectator-free Olympic Stadium, he then pointed towards the Afghanistan Paralympic Committee logo on his white vest.
Taking a noticeably shorter run-up than the other athletes, he recorded jumps of 4.37, 4.21 and 4.46 — far from medal contention and more than a metre less than his nearest rival.
– ‘Super excited’ –
International Paralympic Committee spokesman Craig Spence said Rasouli had done long jump previously, but was competing in the event for the first time “in a major competition”.
“He was super excited to be competing today,” said Spence.
“I have to say it was great to see him on TV.”
Rasouli left the stadium without speaking to reporters, and officials have said neither Afghan Paralympian will speak to press in Tokyo despite huge interest in their story.
Still, Townsend said Rasouli’s presence “wasn’t a distraction at all”.
“It’s not a big deal to anybody — we’re here to compete, we keep politics out of it,” said the flamboyant blue-haired American, who entered the stadium wearing a wrestling championship belt and spraying water into the air.
“We’re here to jump, and when he’s out there jumping with us, we’re all having fun.”
The event was won by Cuba’s Robiel Yankiel Sol Cervantes with a Paralympic-record jump of 7.46.
Khudadadi will make her first appearance in the women’s taekwondo K44 -49kg category on Thursday.
Spence said Sunday that the two athletes had made an “extremely emotional” arrival at the Paralympic Village, and were “sending out a very strong message of hope” to the world.
But he also said organisers wanted to avoid a “selfie-fest” with other athletes taking pictures.
After Tuesday’s competition, American long jumper Dallas Wise, who finished fourth, said he was aware of Rasouli’s presence.
“It really wasn’t a distraction, but it was like ‘Oh my God, that’s the guy who almost couldn’t be here’,” said Wise.
“I know he’s going through a lot of things right now, and I hope he gets through everything.”