Afghan refugee Masomah Ali Zada hopes to be a beacon for women forced to quit their country or abandon their sporting dreams when she crosses the start line at the Tokyo Olympics. The 24-year-old road cyclist had stones thrown at her and was physically attacked in her homeland for daring to don sportswear and ride a bicycle in public.
She will compete at the 2020 Games for the Olympic Refugee Team — and feels a duty to represent the 82 million people worldwide forced to flee their homes either inside their countries or as refugees. She also sees herself as a representative of women living in repressive societies and sportswomen wearing a headscarf.
But she takes up the burden voluntarily — and with pride. “I am going to represent humanity,” Ali Zada told AFP. “It’s not just for me. It’s rather for all the women in Afghanistan and all women in every country like Afghanistan who doesn’t have the right to do cycling,” she said, as the Taliban hardliners sweep across the country again.
“And also for all the refugees who were forced to leave their homeland. “I would like to open the doors for other refugees who will come after me.” Ali Zada will take on 25 other competitors in the Olympic women’s road time trial. When she sets off on July 28 on the 22.1-kilometer course, it will be the first time she has ever raced in a time trial event.
Fifty-six refugee athletes were given a solidarity scholarship by the International Olympic Committee, of which 29 were chosen to compete in Tokyo. Ali Zada was given a month of intense training at the UCI World Cycling Centre in Aigle, western Switzerland, before arriving in Japan on Wednesday.
Jean-Jacques Henry, her coach at the center, says she is the best female cyclist ever to come out of Afghanistan and is impressed with her rapid progress. – ‘People would hit us’ – From the minority Hazara community, Ali Zada got into cycling while in exile in Iran. After her family returned to Kabul, she joined the national squad aged 16.
She had no idea that cycling in Afghanistan would lead to physical attacks, stone-throwing, family coercion, and verbal abuse. “I knew it was difficult, but I never imagined that people would hit us,” she said. “The first year when I started cycling, someone hit me. He was in a car. He hit me from behind with his hand.”Nearly all the women who did cycling had the same experience. People insulted us.”
While even men in sportswear faced problems in Afghanistan, it was downright “dangerous” for women. Her male teammates rode in a protective ring around Ali Zada to hide her in the pack. Because she kept winning races, her profile rose, and with it the pressure to quit — even from her own relatives. “My uncles told my parents: ‘she has got to stop’,” she recalled.
Eventually, the pressure became too much, and her family left in 2017, claiming asylum in France. “It’s excruciating being forced to leave your own country. But there was no other choice. I think every refugee would understand,” she said. Ali Zada is two years into studying for a civil engineering degree in Lille and juggles her exams with cycling.
Calm, religious, and softly-spoken, her experiences have given her a strong sense of inner belief. “I’m someone who has never found her place and so is always looking to be the best. But thanks to that, I try hard,” she said. – ‘I can fly’ –
In Aigle, coach Henry put her through her paces six days a week. One 60-kilometer flat training route took her up and down the Rhone river valley, passing castles and waterfalls cascading off the mountains, with Henry alongside her in a car giving instructions. A group of workmen cheered, “Go! Go! Go!”. Encouraged, she broke into a smile — a far cry from the roadside interactions in Afghanistan. Afterward, she immediately reviewed the data captured during the session.
“I see that I progress every day. If I continue like this, I will be ready for the Olympic Games,” she said. Henry said despite the brief preparation time, Ali Zada had made huge strides. Her ability to correct mistakes the first time gave her a “considerable advantage”. “She has willpower. She is intelligent. She immediately understands what to do,” he said.
A time trial is an individual event. Ali Zada never rode alone in Afghanistan. But cycling has become her passport to liberty. “With the bike, I can go in the mountains, on the plain, discover new places. You see, life continues. And I feel alive,” she said. “I can go where I like. Like the birds, I can fly. I am free.”