Written by Staff Writer Staff Writer
This story first appeared in Travel + Leisure.
Courtesy Hugh Butler
In the aftermath of a diplomatic failure that saw a deal to ease Taliban militants from the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan’s international Olympic committee had to adapt.
So it started by getting out of Mazar-i-Sharif itself.
“The worst would happen, and there was no way to evacuate the entire team.”
If the deal had gone through, after nearly a century as the Afghan Olympic Association, the country would have hosted the 2020 Olympic Games.
Instead, Afghan officials are recalling all national Olympic athletes and officials, along with their family members from the country, to the capital, Kabul.
“For a country that has been trying to host Olympic Games for the last two decades, it was extremely important for us to have a deal with the Taliban,” a senior Afghan official tells the International Olympic Committee.
In other words, the Afghan Olympic Committee is partly holding its Olympic games in the bunker of the Taliban.
“The threat of security, really,” says Paul Jenkins, an Olympic historian and media representative for the IOC.
The threat of an attack is particularly acute for the moment because of the enduring Taliban presence.
In mid-August, the Taliban launched a campaign to tighten their grip on Afghanistan’s countryside, aiming to permanently root out foreign influence.
In response, the US and Afghanistan have invaded the country’s second largest city, Kunduz , and are working to dislodge the Taliban from its last major city stronghold, Helmand, in Afghanistan’s southwest.
‘Time is of the essence’
Due to the new security situation, officials in Afghanistan and the US decided it was too dangerous to continue with the delicate “compromise” on transferring control of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif to Afghan security forces.
Faced with the possibility of an unprecedented embarrassment and possible exile from the Olympic Games, the Afghan Olympic Committee scrambled to find a Plan B.
“The only way they can move the whole team is by air,” says Jenkins.
“When you’re dealing with such a ragtag group of athletes, you can’t wait for someone to get there; you can’t take the chance that they’re going to go missing, either physically or because they don’t have accommodations.
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“The bigger risk was in order to get to Kabul, the team needed to leave by helicopter.
“If the security situation improves, it’s possible that they could return, but if it doesn’t, it’s far more likely that they’ll all be stuck in Afghanistan.”
After the failed peace deal, officials said they faced the impossible situation of trying to evacuate the athletes, who included 13 participants in this summer’s Commonwealth Games, the world’s oldest.
“The risk wasn’t just that the movement would be a target, but also that the Taliban could retaliate and kill everyone in this ragtag group of 76 members,” says Jenkins.
“That’s why this whole operation is so important — not just for the country, but also for the Team Afghanistan athletes who want to go down in history as the first team to ever compete without Taliban interference.”
Interviews with BBC News, Reuters