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Commonwealth Games 2002

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Monday, 12 November, 2001, 14:38 GMT
Farce amongst gravity
A Northern Alliance fighter resting near the frontline near the village of Quruq in Takhar province
The Northern Alliance are more used to serious fighting than martial arts displays
By the BBC's Ian Pannell

The scene was the garden of the governor's house, which by the time we arrived was packed with most of the commanders of the local opposition Northern Alliance and sage-like turbaned tribal elders.

The loudspeaker crackled away with Afghan music and the crowd sat solemnly waiting for the proceedings to start.

Pot after pot refused to smash, plank after plank refused to splinter, and body after body began to break

Our translator explained that first of all there would be a display. After an interminable welcoming speech, the local karate team, dressed in various shades of white, emerged from behind a sequined curtain to demonstrate their particular interpretation of the ancient art.

First came the hand and foot thrusts coupled with the prerequisite cries. There was polite applause.

After more than an hour of this, another troupe of martial arts experts stormed in, this time a Tae Kwon Do group dressed in black.

An assortment of pots and planks were wheeled onto the stage. These, clearly, were to be smashed as part of the display.

But first, there was a very un-martial squabble on stage as the whites had only reached their 400th manoeuvre and clearly felt there was much airtime left to fill.

One could not help but think that the whites were probably the only ones among the 300 or so of us who felt that this was a premature end.

Before the two groups came to blows, a compromise was agreed and a group of greased-up but somewhat flabby body-builders were ushered centre stage to engage in five minutes of sumo-like grimacing and grunting.

Limited skill

Having witnessed what could only be described as a somewhat mixed display of skill, perhaps now we were to be entertained by the real experts.

Perhaps, but then again perhaps not.

First came the compulsory display of kicks and punches, accompanied by a quaintly different vocabulary of hyaahs and hees.

Unfortunately one of those chosen to fill the key front row position had neither mastered the art of telling his left from his right nor indeed of any recognisable form of martial art.

After making contact with one of his colleagues rather than the air he was unceremoniously hyaa-ed to the back row.

If it was not a great day for the whites, it was about to go spinning out of control for the blacks, in particular for their hapless black-belted master.

Pot after pot refused to smash, plank after plank refused to splinter, and body after body began to break.

One of the team came forward to leap over two of his kneeling colleagues, jump through a crepe hoop with the words "death to terrorists" scrawled across it and smash an earthenware pot being held on the other side by the master.

His heroic leap fell rather short.

He landed foot first in that part of the body that gentleman prefer to leave to more tender attentions.

Having thrown the master back a good few paces, he let go of the earthenware pot which finally smashed on his head and body, sending blood gushing from his scalp and wrist.

Dangerous hobby

Still with no sign of a press conference, the Tae Kwon Do team pressed on into dangerously unchartered ground with their audience warming to the entertainment.

A pot full of burning oil was brought centre stage.

Another hapless member of the Keystone Tae Kwon Do team came forward and smashed it.

It's always dangerous to think things can't get much worse when they clearly can

For once that was the easy bit. Snuffing the burning flames now engulfing his lower arm was not.

Exit brave fighter stage left.

It is always dangerous to think things cannot get much worse when they clearly can.

Having endured a bruised groin and severe lacerations, with blood dripping all over the stage, the master was clearly failing to share the audience's mirth.

With a very shaky hand, he was given a long rusty sword and a man on the verge of a premature visit to the toilet was invited to kneel on the stage.

A kind of pumpkin was placed on his head and the master was blindfolded. The pumpkin fell off.

Sword at the ready. The pumpkin fell off again. The trembling of the volunteer was clearly not helping. The audience tittered and gasped.

Arm raised, a pause and a strike. The tiniest shaving came off the top of the pumpkin and the volunteer leaped to his feet clapping and crying Allah Akba, and dashed off stage.

God indeed is great and somewhat merciful.

Suspect symbolism

And so to the grand finale.

An urn was held over one person's head and after a good few flailing and failing kicks it finally broke, sending a flapping mass of feathers crashing to the ground.

It was a pigeon, with the Northern Alliance flag attached to its leg.

It was meant to soar into the sky, full of symbolism. But the clearly dazed bird had no intention of leaving terra firma.

Northern Alliance soldiers
The display was a stark contrast to everyday life for the Northern Alliance
Someone tried to give the pigeon encouragement by throwing it way up into the air. It came back to earth with a deathly thud and was hastily removed.

Clearly unconcerned about either the bird or this obvious symbolic failure, the previously sombre crowd was now roaring with laughter.

There was no press conference.

After two more hours of equally amusing disasters, it became clear that this was some kind of sadomasochistic sports day, far more entertaining than yet another tedious press conference.

It was not so much Enter the Dragon as Exit the Pigeon.

Ian Pannell
"First came the compulsory display of kicks and punches, accompanied by a quaintly different vocabulary of hyaahs and hees."
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