Afghan Olympian Nikpai heads to home of taekwondo

By Nick HopeBBC Sport, South Korea

"I hope to get a medal, no, a gold medal in the 2012 Olympics."

The words of Rohullah Nikpai, a man to whom a podium place is no longer enough.

There are just over 12 months until the London Games begin - a nervous time for athletes hoping to qualify for their first Olympics and perhaps even more so for those who have not only reached a previous Games, but attained honours there.

For many of them, success is now expected and that brings even greater pressure, particularly for Nikpai, whose bronze in Beijing was Afghanistan's first-ever Olympic medal.

"There is a lot of expectation from the people and they anticipate me achieving something better after going to the Olympics and raising my country's flag," Nikpai tells the BBC.

"I'm expected to now perform better and get higher medals."

From Tiger Woods to Martina Hingis - although for varying reasons - countless sports stars have found distractions away from their chosen sport and ultimately struggled with the adoration that follows international acclaim.

In 2008, crowds greeted Rohullah's return to the country and he became a symbol of hope in a nation, which has rarely seen fighting as something to celebrate.

However, if you thought that all of the attention would have softened Rohullah's approach to the media, then you would be wrong.

"Can we have a quick chat now?" I ask casually after Rohullah has just finished a particularly energetic training session.

"Now, no. I don't want to, maybe after I fight, but not before," he replies.

My producer and I have travelled over half-way around the world to meet Nikpai in Gyeongju, South Korea - the motherland of his sport.

There is still well over 24 hours until his first fight in the 2011 World Championships, but his response is fair and one which leaves me with no doubt that this is a man who, unlike others, will simply not entertain potential distractions.

'Controversies of China'

Taekwondo is a fascinating blend of traditional martial arts, wrapped in layers of ancient traditions, but with a recent acceptance of the 21st century.

The use of cutting-edge technology in the points scoring system is an attempt to ensure the controversies that marred the 2008 Olympics in China do not reappear.

Nikpai himself has also undergone something of a transformation since Beijing.

His achievements there came in the -58kg division. He is not only three years older now, but he has grown and gained strength.

Muscle is heavy though and in addition to a few technical variations in his fighting style, his switch to the -68kg category is a considerable change.

Through winning medals I hope to bring peace and prosperity to the country. Afghanistan has not seen any good times for many years Rohullah Nikpai

"It has been difficult moving from one division to another," says Nikpai.

"I knew a lot of the athletes and how they fought before but now it's different and I have to learn about new competitors, but I feel I'm getting to know them better."

Although Nikpai has very little experience against many of the fighters at the World Championships, he shows little apprehension in the early rounds, defeating athletes from Trinidad and Tobago and then Mexico.

In the following round Nikpai is close to being knocked out, but his coach and team-mates show no signs of anxiety. Instead they look on calmly.

"He's a very special fighter so we don't get nervous," states Afghanistan's 2007 world silver medallist Nesar Ahmad Bahave.

Against Mohammad Abulibdeh from Jordan in the quarter-finals, Nikpai takes knock after knock. Each one momentarily suggests he may not be able to continue.

However, three times he rises from the mat, stands to face his opponent and lands the kicks which secure him a guaranteed bronze medal.

Watching him punch the air and salute his team-mates, Rohullah seems to visibly grow, his shoulders creeping upwards as some of the pressure dissipates.

Battle intensifies

The 23-year-old faces the defending champion in the semi-finals. Mohammad Bagheri Motamed is from Iran, the country which Nikpai fled to in the hope of escaping war in the 1990s.

This is perhaps the only time Nikpai lets his focus slip. After his announcement onto the 'main mat' he takes a moment to look around and find his team-mates in the stands, possibly searching for a little support before he faces the master of the division.

They can do little though as Bagheri Motamed demonstrates his class in a 12-5 victory.

Defeat is clearly not something Nikpai entertains, he ignores post-fight interview requests and slumps away for a somewhat cruelly-timed doping test.

Ninety minutes later he is a little more forthcoming and begins to appreciate that winning a medal at the 2011 Taekwondo World Championships is still an incredible achievement.

"I was training very hard and I wanted to get a gold medal," he says. "I couldn't quite manage that but I am happy with a bronze because it is my first World Championship medal."

If he can match or even better his bronze at the World Olympic Qualification tournament in Baku, Azerbaijan in July, then he would secure his place at the 2012 Games in London.

Nikpai's performances have had a profound impact on the sport of taekwondo in Afghanistan.

The country has risen to an all-time high of seventh in the world rankings and achieved this off the back of receiving less than 20 US dollars from their government every month.

Nikpai does not revel in the media spotlight and whilst he does want his successes recognized, it is not for fame or personal gain.

"When I won my Olympic medal I was really happy, but when I got back [to Afghanistan] people had watched me on the TV, they appreciated what I had brought back and were having parties in all corners of the country," he said.

Since his Olympic medal, record numbers of Afghans have now taken up taekwondo and Nikpai hopes that in just over 12 months time he can do enough to inspire even more youngsters.

"Through winning medals I hope to bring peace and prosperity to the country," he explains.

"Afghanistan has not seen any good times for many years and this is the way that our generation can achieve peace for future generations."

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