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.