After nearly having their Paralympic dreams derailed by the turmoil in their homeland, Afghan athletes Zakia Khudadadi and Hossain Rasouli are in Japan and will compete at the Tokyo Games after being evacuated from Afghanistan in an undertaking that involved multiple governments and global organizations.

The pair were evacuated from Kabul to Paris last week and received support there. They boarded a flight to Japan on Friday, arrived at Haneda airport Saturday night and had what was described as an “emotional” meeting with International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons at the Paralympic Village.

“Throughout the week, the situation could’ve changed at any moment,” Craig Spence, the IPC’s communications officer, said Sunday. “I can’t give you a time, place or date where we knew they were coming. Only when the flights were booked and when they got on the plane did it become a reality that they were coming.”

Spence said it took the efforts of several governments and organizations to get the athletes to the Games. Both will be competing at the Paralympics for the first time. Khudadadi will compete in the K44 women’s under-49 kg taekwondo competition, if she makes weight, on Thursday and Rasouli will take part in the T47 long jump event on Friday.

Neither will speak to the media while at the Games.

“Human life is the most important thing here,” Spence said. “Having the athletes here isn’t about getting media coverage. This is about these athletes fulfilling their dream of being able to attend the Paralympic Games.”

​​A female member of the IPC staff who speaks Farsi has been dispatched to assist Afghan Chef de Mission Arian Sadiqi.

Both athletes tested negative for COVID-19 96 and 72 hours before leaving France and were tested again upon their arrival in Japan. Because Afghanistan is a red list country, their movements in the village will be limited initially due to COVID-19 protocols.

Once clear, they will be able to interact with their fellow Paralympians.

“Clearly we don’t want a selfie-fest to begin in the village of athletes running up to them and taking pictures. We spoke to the athletes last night and said, ‘look you will have a lot of attention here.’ But I think fellow athletes will respect them and respect the week they’ve gone through.

“Therefore, we’re not saying you should just stay in your apartments and not go out. We’re saying once you’ve gone through your three days of quarantine, you need to feel this experience of being in the athletes’ village. This is why you’ve come here, to get the experience of a Paralympic Games.”

Afghan paralympic athlete Zakia Khudadadi will compete in the women's taekwondo K44 under-49 kg category on Thursday. | ZAKIA KHUDADADI / VIA REUTERS
Afghan paralympic athlete Zakia Khudadadi will compete in the women’s taekwondo K44 under-49 kg category on Thursday. | ZAKIA KHUDADADI / VIA REUTERS

It’s an experience neither thought they would have this year.

A few days prior to the opening ceremony, Parsons said there was no safe way to bring the athletes to Tokyo after the Taliban took control in Afghanistan, leading to a massive evacuation of foreign nationals and Afghans at risk by the U.S. and its allies. On Aug. 17, Khudadadi shot a video to call for help in getting to the Games from Afghanistan.

“While in Afghanistan both athletes continued to express a desire to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games,” Spence said. “Once that became public, a global operation was kickstarted involving several organizations, several governments from around the world to try and evacuate these athletes from Afghanistan.”

Spence said Tokyo 2020 organizers were onboard with the planning.

“We informed (Tokyo 2020) President (Seiko) Hashimoto what was happening,” Spence said. “There was never any pushback. There was ‘OK, we’re going to work with you.’”

With the understanding there was a chance the athletes could be evacuated safely, the IPC, on Aug. 22, made the decision to allow the Afghan flag to be part of the parade during the opening ceremony.

“This was the IPC’s first step in keeping the door open to the Afghan team to potentially be involved in these Games,” Spence said.

The pair were flown from Kabul to Paris on Aug. 23. Once in France, they spent the week at the French sports ministry’s high performance training center, where they received support. When they continued to express a desire to attend the Games, they boarded a flight from Paris.

“They’ve always expressed a desire to come,” Spence said. “If an athlete wants to come to the Games, we want to try to get them here. The moment we were able, with the help of several governments, organizations and people to get them out of Kabul, obviously it became a more realistic prospect that we would get them to Tokyo.”

Spence said where the athletes go after the game was up to them and, without mentioning names, said several governments at the Games were willing to help.

He said there was no footage of their arrival and that their meeting with IPC officials at the village was a private and emotional event.

“To actually see them in person and think they’re actually here was remarkable,” Spence said.

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