As Afghanistan's sole Olympic medallist, Rohullah Nikpai carries the hopes of a nation to London 2012
By Kevin Bishop
Series Producer, World Olympic Dreams
Rohullah Nikpai is, in many ways, the epitome of what World Olympic Dreams is about. The 2008 Beijing bronze medallist in taekwondo was Afghanistan's first Olympic hero.
I first fell in love with Afghanistan at dawn on a bone-cold February morning in 1989. Nikpai would have been just 18 months old.
Perched uncomfortably on a Soviet tank, wrapped in green army fatigues and a felt shapka hat, we waited patiently to leave Shindand Airbase as the Soviet Army began its final withdrawal from the country it had invaded nine years earlier.
On the tank next to us a young soldier was feeding a young puppy potted meat from a can, its lid forced crudely open with a Red Army penknife.
ROHULLAH NIKPAI - THE FACTS
Region: Kabul, Afghanistan
Career highlight: Bronze medal at Beijing 2008 - Afghanistan's first Olympic medal
In what has always seemed to me the most appropriate of cliched moments, the sun rose over the mountains as, somewhere in the distance, a tape recorder was blaring out a tinny recording of Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits.
The previous night had seen a terrifying firework show of mortar and shell bombardment as the Mujahadeen (the self-styled "Holy Warriors") whipped the tails of the retreating Soviet forces. These opposition forces - the dukhi, or ghosts, as the Russians called them - were soon to take over running Afghanistan.
Their bitter armed squabbles blighted Afghan life for the next decade until the Taliban and later Western-backed governments, took over. Neither brought peace to this beautiful, troubled land.
The fierce battles that raged for control of the Afghan capital Kabul were a backdrop to Nikpai's early life. I remember driving through the city in 1993 - street after street of destruction and despair. It brought to mind images of London after the blitz.
Rohullah Nikpai received a hero's reception on his return to Afghanistan
This was the living nightmare that Nikpai's family fled from - escaping the war and heading west to the sprawling refugee camps across the border in Iran.
Some two-and-a-half million Afghan refugees are thought to have been living in Iran at the height of the conflict; an estimated five million more in Pakistan.
It was in the Iranian camp that Nikpai first took up taekwondo, soon becoming a member of the sport's refugee team.
Back at home, meanwhile, the darkest days of Taliban rule saw sport all but banned. Kabul's Ghazi stadium was being used for public stoning and hanging.
When Nikpai and his family returned to the city in 2004, the Taliban had been banished (but not conquered) by US-led forces and the uneasy building blocks of a new society were being levered into place.
My single Olympic medal has helped bring Afghans together and unite a wide variety of ethnic groups into one
Peace had not returned, but the sports stadium was restored to its intended use and the Kabul Taekwondo Federation moved in. They welcomed the former refugee fighter and he was soon a national competitor.
His third place in Beijing in the 58kg category was a turning point in Afghanistan's sporting history. Korean coach Min Sin-hak had spotted him three years before and immediately singled him out as a future medal winner.
Training for seven hours a day, Nikpai went to Beijing as an unknown 21-year-old athlete from a country that had never won a medal.
He returned home a national hero. Crowds met him at the airport, followed him through the streets and he was officially honoured in the Ghazi stadium.
"My single Olympic medal has helped bring Afghans together and unite a wide variety of ethnic groups into one," said Nikpai.
"Now taekwondo has emerged as the symbol of peace in Afghanistan."
BBC World Class is linking schools around the globe, including those attended by World Olympic Dreams athletes
His hopes may be wishful thinking. The country has filled me with great inspiration and deep disheartenment for many years. The decimation of its towns and cities, the extreme poverty and loss of human dignity have brought me close to tears.
But drive from Gardez towards Kabul in the early evening, when the light catches the chaff in the air as farmers separate it from the wheat and you are transported to another world.
A stunning landscape with beautiful people, where life seems to have a simplicity that gladdens the soul.
"Taekwondo has given hope and dreams to the Afghan people, especially youth." added Nikpai. "The sport has given Afghans a can-do spirit and a great confidence."
He now has his sights set firmly on London 2012 and winning the gold.
Afghanistan is a country that is long overdue its fair share of sporting heroes.
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