Afghanistan's Olympic flag-bearer tells of escape from Kabul

Taekwondo champion Farzad Mansouri, 19, put his life on hold when the Taliban entered Kabul

Afghanistan’s Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games flag-bearer Farzad Mansouri has been flown out of Afghanistan.

In an exclusive interview with The National, the 19-year-old Taekwondo champion confirmed on a call that he and four members of his family departed Kabul on Monday morning and are now in a safe location, where they are considering their options.

One athlete I know has been going to the airport in Kabul for several days. He said that he was hurt, he tried to get near the airport but he was badly injured
Farzad Mansouri

Just one month ago, in what was undoubtedly one of the proudest moments of his life, Mr Mansouri paraded his nation’s flag at the opening ceremony of 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

He had no idea that just a few weeks later, that honour would put him in grave danger.

Taliban sport crackdown

“I was under threat because the Taliban hates the past government, and I was a flag-bearer for them,” Mr Mansouri said.

The Taliban have swept to victory in Afghanistan, completing their shockingly rapid advance across the country by capturing Kabul, Mr Mansouri's home city, on August 15.

It comes after foreign forces announced their withdrawal following a deal between the US and the Taliban, two decades after US forces removed the militants from power in 2001.

The suddenness of the Taliban's advance sparked a rush to escape the country, with tens of thousands of Afghans and foreign civilians attempting to board flights at Kabul airport.

When the Taliban previously held power between 1996 and 2001, Afghanistan was banned from participating in the Olympics because of the militants' discrimination against women and prohibition of sports of any kind.

As soon as areas across the country began falling to the Taliban, Mr Mansouri sought ways to escape Afghanistan.

After a harrowing wait, he managed to secure an flight out with several members of his family. But, like so many others, Mr Mansouri is wracked with concern for those who have been left behind.

“It is really difficult. We have all cried, days and nights, about this situation,” said Mr Mansouri.

Mr Mansouri said he is in touch with other elite athletes who are among the thousands still trying to leave.

“One athlete I know has been going to the airport in Kabul for several days. He said that he was hurt, he tried to get near the airport but he was badly injured.”

Relieved that he and his immediate family are safe, Mr Mansouri still faces an uncertain future. At just 19, his dreams of continuing to represent Afghanistan are crushed.

He now faces the challenge of trying to find a new home for him and his family.

Mr Mansouri has a brother with British citizenship who lives in the UK, but it is not clear that he will be accepted under the UK’s current resettlement scheme.

“Right now it's not clear, but I want to go to a country that can support me and my family, and of course, I want to keep up my sport.”

At only 19, there are no limits as to what Mr Mansouri can achieve. In 2018 and 2019 he topped the podium in the Korean and Indian junior opens, respectively, and in 2019 he picked up a silver medal in the Asian Junior Taekwondo Championship in Amman.

However, like so many other Afghan athletes, Mr Mansouri’s energies will now be focused on finding a place where he and his family can live safely and free from persecution.

Updated: August 25th 2021, 6:12 PM