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Nikpai aims for a hat-trick in Rio Olympics

Inside the quiet ambience of North Eastern Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Health and Medical Sciences (NEIGRIHMS) here, a 13-member-strong men and women taekwondo teams from Afghanistan are practicing on Sunday under the watchful eyes of South Korean coach Sin-Hak Min.

At first glance, one might dismiss it as a team that has come from a war-torn nation just to participate in the Games. It is anything but that. This is a country that is looking to win most of the medals on offer in the martial art sport. And in its arsenal are two world-class performers — Rohullah Nikpai and Nesar Ahmad Bahave.

Nikpai is the more famous and accomplished of the two. The 28-year-old won his second successive Olympic bronze medal in 2012 London Games, while Nesar was a silver medalist in the 2007 World Championships and a 2010 Asian Games silver medalist. After training for nearly two hours, Nikpai spoke on why he is here when he has other bigger tournaments with the Rio Olympics coming up.

“I came here for my National team. And moreover, I want to give a good image of South Asia to the world and encourage my team-mates,” he said.

Fleeing to Tehran and staying in a refugee camp when the war in Kabul was at its peak, Nikpai returned in the 1990s and, guided by his brother, started showing a keen interest in taekwondo.

With the Afghanistan National Federation ensuring that a sound grassroots program was in place, players like Nikpai prospered and went on to win many local and National-level tournaments.

The icing on the cake for all the hard work and struggle came when he bagged a historic bronze in Beijing. It was the first-ever Olympic medal for Afghanistan.

“Of the two Olympic medals I won, I would pick Beijing because that changed my profile forever and I became very famous. It was a new record of sorts,” he said.

Recently, Nikpai left the country for Australia frustrated with the in-fighting between the National federation and National Olympic Committee. The impasse continued for nearly eight months and only in October last year did the row got resolved.

“Now we have a new president and we convinced Rohullah to come back. All problems solved, we are looking to do well in wrestling, judo and boxing in the 2020 Olympics,” said Ghulam Rabani Rabani, the chef-de-mission of the Afghanistan team.

Nikpai has his hands full now. He will next take part in the Asia club championships in Sharjah, go to Pohang, South Korea for training and then participate in the Belgian Open in March.

Last but not the least, he has the Asian Olympic qualification tournament in Manila in April. Nikpai is confident of doing well there. “I will play in Rio,” as he eyes a historic hat-trick.—(The Hindu)

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