Yesterday’s big wheelchair race to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the ICRC was a phenomenal success. One side of the Olympic Stadium stands were packed with supporters chanting the players’ names and cheering like crazy during each race, and the players proudly put every ounce of their athletic talent on display for the gathered throng. All five provinces represented themselves well, but the hometown Kabul racers fed off the crowd’s energy to dominate the proceedings – a major surprise since the Mazar team had posted superior pre-race qualifying times.

The two favorites coming into the race were Saber of Kabul, a wonderful kid and one of the most improved players this year, and Mujeebullah of Mazar, who is one of the top two or three basketball players in the country. They both did very well but, in a shocking turn of events, were both beaten by Safi – a paraplegic player/coach from Kabul – who used pure determination and a unique pushing strategy (he would make five powerful pushes as rapidly as possible, then rest for one beat before doing it again, allowing him to maintain his speed over the full 200 meters of the race) to post the best times in each of the three rounds of the race. Given his level of injury, Safi was an underdog coming into the race, but couldn’t have been happier – nor prouder – to hoist the championship trophy for his city. Normally a pretty stoic personality, Safi couldn’t wipe the ear-to-ear grin off his face for a full hour after the race concluded.

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The racers sprint toward the finish line in the final with Safi in the lead

It was amazing to watch the winners being surrounded by TV reporters and cameras in the post-race pandemonium. As Alberto said about Safi after watching him field interview questions, “Two years ago, someone on the street taking his picture would have been cause for celebration. Now he will be on every television in Kabul.” I’m getting misty just writing about it!

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From left: Safi (1st), Saber (2nd), Mujeebullah (3rd)