Afghans last competed in 1996 Olympics

Updated: May 23, 2004, 2:12 AM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- After an eight-year absence from the Olympics, an Afghan team of five athletes -- including the country's first female participants -- arrived Saturday to train for the Athens Games.

Dressed in their uniforms and carrying the flags of Afghanistan and the Athens Olympics, the team toured Athens before heading for the Aegean Sea island of Lesvos, where team members will train until early July. They will then travel to Thessaloniki, where they will stay until the Aug. 13-29 games.

"On behalf of all the athletes, I want to thank the Greek Foreign Ministry and Athens organizers for making such an opportunity," said Sayed Mohmood Zia, vice president of the Afghan National Olympic Committee.

Afghanistan was banned from the 2000 Sydney Olympics because the Taliban outlawed women from sports. The country participated in the 1996 Atlanta Games, but years of war robbed its athletes of most training facilities. Most of the best coaches fled during the conflict.

Olympic officials gave Afghanistan five wild-cards entries. The Afghan team features three men and two women. One woman is a runner, the other competes in judo.

The women had to train separately because of conservative traditions. Some Islamic clerics strongly oppose women competing in Greece, and the two making the trip are expected to dress in long pants to avoid a scandal at home.

Solar Power
Dozens of futuristic solar cars from several countries were displayed in Athens on Saturday as part of a weeklong rally race to commemorate the Olympics.

The race, known as Phaethon 2004, starts Monday with teams driving south from Athens to the ancient city of Olympia -- where the Olympics were born in 776 B.C. -- then north to the home of the ancient oracle at Delphi, and back to Athens on Friday.

The United States, Britain and Japan are among 18 teams from 10 countries taking part.

The event is organized by the Culture Ministry as part of the Cultural Olympiad, a four-year program of cultural events.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press