Contingent to represent Afghanistan for first time since '96

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan's Olympic team left Friday for a Greek island training camp, where they'll hone their skills in hopes of putting this war-ravaged country back on the sporting

This summer in Athens, the contingent of three men and two women will become the first athletes from their country to compete in the Olympics since 1996.

"I want to bring back a good result for Afghanistan," said boxer Bashamal Sultani, the only athlete who came close to qualifying for the games on merit.

Olympic officials gave Afghanistan five wild-cards entries.

The highest hopes are pinned on Sultani, a wiry 19-year-old welterweight who began boxing four years ago. He clinched third place in the Asian Championships in February, but was hampered by a
thumb injury during an Olympic qualifying competition in Pakistan this month.

Afghanistan was banned from the 2000 Sydney Games because the Taliban regime barred women from participating in sports, but the country competed in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

The Afghan team was to fly Friday to Istanbul, and then to the island of Lesbos, where Greek authorities set up training facilities.

Years of war robbed Afghanistan's athletes of most training facilities. And most of the best coaches who fled during the conflict haven't returned.

Fariba Rezahi, an 18-year-old student from Kabul competing in judo, has been undergoing intensive training at a gym on the base of Kabul's international peacekeeping force. She said she was looking forward to her first bout in the Aug. 13-29 games.

"I'm relaxed. It's a good thing for the women of Afghanistan and the world to see," said Rehazi, wearing a tracksuit and posing with her teammates for photos in a garden at the airport.

Her father, Ghulam Reza, clutching his daughter's suitcase, said he initially hesitated to let her go abroad.

"In the end," he said, "I relented for the sake of Afghanistan, to help end its isolation."