Yesterday we held Afghanistan’s first women’s wheelchair basketball tournament – two three-on-three teams each from Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif – and it was a great success! I couldn’t be prouder of how well the teams played and how much composure they showed in their first public performance.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the female players only just recently decided they were comfortable with opening a portion of the court to allow people to see them practicing. Yesterday they got all the spectators they could handle; there were at least 50 people surrounding the court at 6am for the first games, and more than twice that for the finals in the evening. The crowd was yelling, cheering and doing all it could to distract and/or encourage the players on each team throughout the day, but the ladies played like they’d been dealing with crazy crowds for years.

In a surprising turn of events, the two teams from Kabul – which only started playing basketball a year ago – beat the much more experienced Mazar teams in the semifinals and captured the tournament’s first and second place trophies! Two players from Kabul – Mursal and Mulkara – led their team to the championship by playing harder and faster than any other players in the tournament. I have no doubt that these two are going to be at the forefront of expanding women’s wheelchair basketball here – they play with the kind of tenacity and competitive fire that inspires everyone watching them and will definitely be an amazing example for disabled women and girls across Afghanistan. Mursal was named the tournament’s most valuable player and let out a scream of pure joy when I presented her with the trophy. It was an incredibly gratifying moment.

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Mulkara poses before the games begin

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Mursal knocks down a free throw as part of her MVP performance

The one difficult moment of the tournament was when the second semifinal ended and the Mazar teams knew they wouldn’t be playing for the tournament championship. Most of the players were in tears on the sidelines, unable to accept the first athletic defeat of their lives. I called them together and, with Alberto interpreting, told them that, even though I know they’re disappointed, this event is so much bigger than just winning or losing a game. This is the first tournament of many to come. I told them we will work to form new teams in other provinces across Afghanistan, but Mazar will always be the first; the group that made sports an opportunity for disabled women in this country. That, more than any game or tournament result, is the thing to be most proud of. Now, I said, you have one more game to play. You’re playing each other for the third place trophy, so take this opportunity to show everyone watching what you can do and what great athletes you are.

I was choking to get the last words out and everyone in the group – Alberto included – was crying by that point, but the players pulled themselves together, took the court, and played the best game either team had played the entire tournament. The crowd was cheering every made basket and shouting encouragement as they, just like me, wanted nothing more than to see Mazar end on a high note. At the last whistle, all the players were smiling and laughing, and they all enthusiastically supported the Kabul teams when they played the championship game. It was the best.

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Mazar players (from left) Frishta, Nadia, Liann and Kamela show off their custom made, Islam-appropriate basketball jerseys, hands down the fanciest athletic gear I’ve seen

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Giving a pre-tournament speech to the players

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Up goes the opening tip of the first game

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The eventual second place Kabul team gets psyched up before the tournament final

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After the games were finished, everyone was happy to accept their medals

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Mursal (left, in glasses) and her Kabul teammates hoist the championship trophy

(All photos courtesy of Martina from the ICRC)