Going for gold: Farzad Mansouri targets taekwondo success for Olympic Refugee Team

Afghan's journey from fleeing the Taliban to asylum in the UK has steeled him for medal tilt at Paris 2024

Powered by automated translation

His sparring partner lunges in with a kick aimed at Mansouri’s midriff, but before he is able to make contact, Mansouri has spun, evading the kick while countering with his own powerful blow, a heel to his opponent's ribs, all in one swift movement – it impressed his coaches.

“Whoa! Yes, Farzad!” reverberates in the training hall of the National Taekwondo Centre in Manchester. His opponent swapped out, and Mansouri found his stance again, he was tired but he was ready.

This intense sparring comes at the end of a tough training session, the room is buzzing in anticipation as the fighters are working hard in preparation for the Paris Olympics 2024.

For many athletes across all sporting disciplines, getting to the Olympic Games is a lifetime achievement. For Mansouri, who last week was one of the 36 athletes selected for the Olympic Refugee Team, the goal of getting to Paris was more than that, it was a dream that got him through a prolonged period of darkness and uncertainty.

“When I train or when I go to a competition, I leave everything [behind],” Mansouri tells The National, “all I'm thinking about is winning a gold medal.”

Mansouri had only returned to his home in Kabul for a few weeks having competed in the last Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2021 when the Taliban swept to power in the central Asian country, following the end of a 20-year US occupation.

Having proudly paraded the flag of the collapsing regime during the opening ceremony in Tokyo, and given his ethnic minority status and his father’s career in the Afghan army, Mansouri and his family were forced to flee.

He remembers the panic of joining the tens of thousands of his countrymen who were also trying to escape at an overwhelmed Kabul airport.

“Some of them didn't have any documents, nothing, they were just trying to get outside the country,” he says,” and sometimes the Taliban attacked the people with their guns.”

After waiting for 24 hours, and with the help of some connections, Mansouri and five of his family members were permitted to board a flight. They were among the 114,000 Afghans who were evacuated from Kabul as the city fell to the Taliban.

Far away from the Taliban, Mansouri and his family found relief at a housing accommodation centre in Abu Dhabi. Due to Covid-19 regulations, they had to spend the first two months living in a single room, only allowed outside for an couple of hours a day, less than ideal conditions for an elite athlete.

On hearing his story, Team GB Taekwondo offered Mansouri the chance to train in Manchester alongside Britain’s best fighters. A glimmer of hope, which he accepted. However, it would not be an easy journey.

The UK has a notoriously complicated and lengthy process for immigration and asylum seekers, and even though Mansouri had a brother who had lived in the UK since 2001, it was not going to be straightforward.

This hope was enough to give Mansouri the belief he needed to keep going. At just 20 years old, he was determined that, despite the immense hurdles that lay before him, he didn’t want Tokyo to be his last Olympics.

While immigration lawyers, the IOC and GB Taekwondo worked out his route into the UK, he turned the hallways and courtyards of the refugee camp into his gym.

“Some days we could only do running and skipping, and sometimes I would train in taekwondo with my brother,” he says.

In April 2022, eight months after fleeing Kabul, Mansouri was given permission to travel to the UK, and entered the country on a sports visa. The visa only covered his entry, so as he began a new life in the UK, his family eventually were permitted entry to the US. Although being in regular contact with his family, he has yet to see them in the flesh.

“I was thinking I have to start again, because I know one day, I can go back to competition, and I should be ready.”

Difficult as it has been over the past two years, Mansouri found his feet in Manchester. His English has developed and he has a small community of friends, as well as his brother in Reading who he is able to see regularly. He smiles and laughs during sparring and listens intently to his coaches.

Given his time away from training, it didn’t take him long to find winning form. In 2022, he picked up gold medals at the European Club Championships in Tallinn and at the Serbia Open in the men’s -74kg category. In 2023, it was gold again at the European Club Championships and British Open.

Meanwhile, his battles in the ring were matched in intensity with his battles in Britain’s immigration system. Unable to compete for Afghanistan, and unlikely to be able to return safely under Taliban rule, Mansouri began his application for asylum in the UK, and could therefore eventually take part in competitions under refugee status.

One of the problems about applying for asylum in the UK is that, for as long as an application is under way, an applicant is technically unable to travel. This is less than ideal for an elite training programme in which athletes are required to travel for training camps and to compete with the world’s best fighters.

“That is unless you can get some special dispensation from the Home Office,” says Paul Buxton, chief executive of GB Taekwondo, who oversaw Mansouri’s immigration struggles over the past two years.

Due to the travelling restrictions, and with the complications of securing visas for each travelling opportunity as a refugee, Buxton says Mansouri had missed out on some competitions and training camps.

“It just exposed at each step, the challenge of sporting rules around refugee status, and what it means in these countries where there is difficulty,” he says.

It wasn’t until the day before Mansouri was due to travel to the European Olympic Qualifications in Bulgaria that his refugee status was eventually granted. He was able to compete in Sofia as a UNHCR registered refugee, necessary to compete for the IOC Olympic Refugee Team. He picked up a bronze medal, which all but secured his place in Paris.

“I am very excited,” said a delighted Mansouri. “It has been hard for me, but I trained really well every day.”

When asked about his feelings about not competing for Afghanistan any more, Mansouri did not feel comfortable answering. However, he said he is still in touch with some of the athletes who stayed in Afghanistan. “The situation is not good for them, they cannot travel at all.”

He also worries about his female friends and colleagues, nearly three years into the new Taliban regime. “Life is not easy, especially for the woman because as you know, the woman can't go to school or university for work.”

It’s not been an easy road for Mansouri. But the future is bright for the 22 year old who hopes to keep competing not only in Paris, but at Los Angeles 2028 – where the rest of his family now resides – too.

The Olympic Refugee Team has never won a medal. Mansouri very much hopes he can make history.

That is my focus, to win gold.”

Updated: May 14, 2024, 2:32 PM