Monthly Archives: April 2016

Fighting Corruption, One Bike at a Time

27AFGHANWOMEN-WEB1-master768Photo Credit: Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

Yesterday the story of the ongoing corruption and mismanagement and possible abuse in Afghan women’s sports federations finally was published by Rod Nordland of the New York Times, titled Corruption in Afghanistan All but Cripples Women’s Team Sports.  Our founder spoke with Rod several weeks ago when he contacted her about our withdrawl of support for the Afghan Cycling Federation.  She shared with him our experiences and frustrations and discovered he had found proof of some my accusations against Coach Seddiqi and against the cycling federation that had fallen on deaf ears when we had voiced our concerns.

Shannon had confronted Coach Seddiqi last July in Kabul about the corruption and mismanagement, and as we and she have written about in previous blogposts, not only did he deny any mismanagement to her face, he made it worse with the South Asian Championships debacle in India that he didn’t take the girls to (see previous posts), which denied them the chance to race outside of Afghanistan and represent their country.  The Afghan Cycling Federation’s new Secretary General, Fazli Ahmad Fazli, denied any mismanagement and was insulted that I would even mention the word corruption.  He made it clear that our help wasn’t needed, that the accusations were an insult and unfounded, and thus we made it clear that Mountain2Mountain would remove all formal support from the cycling federation effective immediately.

While the NYT article saddens many people that have reached out, it makes me happy to see the systemic abuse of power be exposed so that those in power cannot hide behind each other anymore.  Change doesn’t happen in silence, voices, many voices, must be willing to speak up to challenge corruption.  Even as I write this, I hear news that there may be a new Afghan Olympic Committee President, this despite the continued disputes since the election last year.  Its just another sign of the lack of leadership, stability, and the corruption that has plagued the sporting institutions in Afghanistan from the very top of the food chain, all the way down.  This affects not just the women, but the men’s teams as well….corruption is genderless in Afghanistan.”  – Shannon Galpin

But as in all things in Afghanistan, its usually worse for the women.  When women are forced to remain in structures were the men are in the positions of power, even something as empowering as cycling, or soccer, or cricket, it becomes another source of oppression and entrapment.  The women in Afghanistan may be breaking barriers, but the biggest barrier to women’s sports in that country is ironically the same institutions that are in place to allow women to compete.

Coach Seddiqi was finally removed in an election last month as the President of the Cycling Federation. He was replaced by a man we met in Bamiyan in 2014 during a training camp for the national team we put together, he was the head of the local Provincial Olympic Committee at the time.  Coach Seddiqi has also been fired by the men’s team, but he remains as coach of the women’s team because they are afraid.  Afraid that if they stand up to him, they will lose their only chance to ride, their only chance to compete.  He holds all the control.  And they know it.  Perhaps this NYT’s article gives enough weight for the allegations of mismanagement and corruption that they can feel confident to speak up.

Just last week, we received information that the Coach was intending to sell the remaining donated bikes, we immediately contacted him through a third party and informed him that we were coming to Kabul to meet with him and fully expected that all bikes donated to the federation would be accounted for when we visit.  He cannot operate in the shadows pretending he is a good man, that he is working on behalf of the girls, he is not.  He is working for himself and himself alone.

Looking ahead, we have been working on plans to bypass the corruption and directly support the girls in several ways.  The tentative plan, determined by visas issued by the US government,  is to bring the girls to the US this fall for a training workshop with the hope of creating a future all-Afghan cycling team here in Colorado in 2017 that could support and train these women to become the next generation of leadership for the team in Afghanistan.  This allows us to bypass the majority of the corruption and empower women to be in charge of developing the women’s cycling program.  This has been being planned for many months with an incredible team of cycling professionals who believe in these girls and in their ability to create a two wheeled revolution that puts women in the leadership positions and provide real coaching and training for those that want the opportunity to race.

Beyond that we plan to meet with the Afghan Olympic Committee leadership and the new leadership of the Afghan Cycling Federation, alongside the men’s and women’s team to discuss the future of this sport in Afghanistan.  We will also be speaking with government officials about the state of women’s sports and the Olympic federations in general.  These talks will determine how we continue to support this program and these girls that have had to endure yet another barrier.

In the meantime, a huge thanks to our sponsors, Liv Cycling, Skratch Labs, Osprey Packs, and Hogan Lovells and the individual donors and sponsors that have supported us over the past three years.   In the past three years, three new bike teams and clubs for women have started, Afghanistan saw its first women’s bike races and ‘right to ride’ pubic events, the girls raced in Kazakhstan, and they were recognized by National Geographic Adventurer for their bravery and courage.  This article doesn’t take any of that away – it gives us the ammunition needed to bring change and the fight corruption that impedes the opportunities and dreams of these young women, and all the female athletes in Afghanistan.

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Corruption in Afghan Sports Federations

As we continue to look at ways to support the Afghan Women’s National Cycling Team, we delve a bit deeper into the issue of corruption and how it affects all the sports federations, not just cycling.

In an Al Jazeera report last year, a journalist looked at how Afghanistan’s endemic corruption, warlordism, and power politics were beginning to erode Afghanistan’s athletic establishments too.  Corruption weaves its way through every facet of life in Afghanistan, and lies at the heart of the ability or inability for Afghanistan to move forward.

This isn’t just an issue in Afghanistan, “In 2012, the IOC suspended India Olympics Association for failing to comply with the world sports body’s regulations for holding independent elections without the government’s interference. Indian athletes thereby lost the right to compete in any Olympics event under Indian national flag.

Beyond the region all we have to do is look at the recent scandal rocking the international governing bodies of FIFA for soccer, or the UCI with cycling, even the International Olympic Committee itself has been plagued with scandals of corruption in the past. Sports is not immune to corruption, especially not when we are operating in a country where corruption is a daily part of life.

According to research done by Women’s Regional Network, women in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India agreed that they find corruption unremarkable because it is so pervasive that they did not think it could change.

We have navigated corruption throughout our eights years of working in Afghanistan, whether it was in the women’s prisons, trying to secure a land donation for a school for the deaf in Kabul, even remote mountain school supplies deliveries were subject to corruption.  It should be no surprise then that our work with Afghan Cycling Federation is not exempt from corruption or mismanagement.  Going further, the majority of the women’s sports federations are controlled by men – perverting opportunities for empowerment through sport subject to the same structures of oppression and misogyny as any other program in the country.  When men control women’s sports federations, the women and girls that participate at the highest levels of Afghan sports find themselves in another form of dependence and potential oppression.  It also creates opportunities for sexual harassment and potential assault to occur without a system to protect the girls.

A recent report about the sex scandals of the USA swimming program in Outside Magazine highlighted that again, this is not endemic to Afghanistan.  If female swimmers in the US are sexually assaulted by their coaches, why would be shocked to see misogyny and corruption play out anywhere else?

The question becomes for us, as an organization that believes in the power of sport to empower young women, and the sport of cycling in particular to catalyze a change in the taboo of women riding bikes, how do we support the athletes affected by this corruption? How do we say ‘NO’ to a corrupt system but still support the girls that risk their lives and their honor to ride a bike?

When we contacted the Afghan Cycling Federation to report recent instances of deliberate corruption and mismanagement with the Coach and the federation, I was rebuked.  When I removed our support of the federation they shrugged it off.  Meanwhile, I looked at how a change of leadership could potentially change support for the girls.  This is slowly happening, after years of control by Coach Seddiqe of both the mens and women’s cycling teams, the Coach has been removed from control of the men’s team.  There are calls for an election to replace him as the President of the Cycling Federation – something he has refused to step down from amid ongoing calls of corruption.  Time will tell if he can also be replaced as the coach of the women’s team.

In the meantime, we have found some solutions and working towards getting the girls serious coaching and training here in the US are putting them into action.  We will return to Afghanistan to meet with the families of the team, the new President of the Afghan Olympic Committee, and the new President of the Cycling Federation in hopes that we can navigate the pervasive corruption that has hamstrung this team, preventing them from racing while parading them around like a dog and pony show to embassies and Kabul organizations that want to congratulate them on their Nobel Peace Prize nomination. They are cyclists that deserve to be coached and to race at every possible opportunity, they deserve to be treated as athletes, not shown off around town like the Coach’s private harem.

For those that have asked, are we giving up?  Absolutely not, in fact the last year has helped develop some very real solutions outside of Afghanistan that can address many of the issues they are faced with.  We will need the support of our community more than ever as we prepare to announce our next steps with the team, and we know that you will love what we have planned.  In the meantime, these girls, and others like them, need to know none of us are giving up on them.