When Afghan Paralympic athlete Hossain Rasouli entered the Tokyo circuit on Tuesday morning after escaping from Taliban-occupied Kabul, fellow long jumper Roderick Townsend felt not rivalry but “joy”.
The American didn’t even know Rasouli was competing in the men’s T47 long jump final until he saw 13 names on the starting list instead of the usual 12.
Rasouli had arrived in Tokyo last Saturday, too late to compete in his favorite T47 100m event, having caught a top secret flight from Paris a week after being evacuated from Kabul.
So instead he went to the long jump final and finished last, but for Townsend it symbolized “so much about the Paralympic Games and what it means and what it stands for.”
“With everything going on at the moment, I couldn’t help but feel joy for him,” said Townsend, who took silver in the event with a 7.43m jump.
“We get so caught up in our personal lives, and I’m complaining about a silver medal here and we’ve got someone going around the world to be able to do something that we all love to do.”
Rasouli arrived in Tokyo on Saturday with Afghan teammate Zakia Khudadadi, after leaving their Taliban-controlled homeland a week earlier in what Games leaders called a “major global operation”.
The couple spent a week in Paris at a training center of the French Ministry of Sports after their evacuation from Kabul.
Their arrival came after Afghanistan’s rapid fall to the Taliban earlier this month, leaving them among the tens of thousands unable to leave the country.
At the opening ceremony of the Paralympics, the Afghan flag was symbolically displayed, carried by a Japanese volunteer, and officials initially seemed to rule out the possibility of the athletes coming to Tokyo.
But Rasouli, whose left hand was amputated after a mine explosion, made his first appearance in the country late Tuesday morning at the Tokyo Games.
As he emerged from the athletes’ entrance with a wave to the team officials scattered around the spectator-free Olympic Stadium, he then pointed to the Afghanistan Paralympic Committee logo on his white vest.
With a noticeably shorter run-up than the other athletes, he made jumps of 4.37, 4.21 and 4.46 – far from medal competition and more than a meter short of his closest rival.
International Paralympic Committee spokesman Craig Spence said Rasouli had previously jumped but was competing in the event “in a major competition” for the first time.
“He was super excited to compete today,” Spence said.
“I have to say it was great to see him on TV.”
Rasouli left the stadium without speaking to reporters, and officials have said neither Afghan Paralympics will speak to the press in Tokyo, despite great interest in their story.
Still, Townsend said Rasouli’s presence “wasn’t a distraction at all.”
“It’s not a big deal to anyone — we’re here to compete, we keep politics out of it,” said the flamboyant blue-haired American, who entered the stadium wearing a wrestling championship belt and spraying water in the air.
“We’re here to jump, and when he jumps with us, we all have fun.”
The event was won by Robiel Yankiel Sol Cervantes of Cuba with a Paralympic record of 7.46.
Khudadadi will make his first appearance on Thursday in the women’s taekwondo K44 -49kg category.
Spence said on Sunday that the two athletes made an “extremely emotional” arrival at the Paralympic village and sent “a very strong message of hope” to the world.
But he also said organizers wanted to avoid a “selfie fest” where other athletes would take photos.
After Tuesday’s game, American long jumper Dallas Wise, who finished fourth, said he was aware of Rasouli’s presence.
“It wasn’t much of a distraction, but it was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s the guy who almost couldn’t be here,'” Wise said.
“I know he’s going through a lot right now and I hope he gets through it all.”
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