First Afghan medalist Nikpai returns to hero's welcome


KABUL, Afghanistan -- Thousands of jubilant Afghans
packed the national stadium to give the country's first Olympic
medal winner Rohullah Nikpai a hero's welcome on Thursday.

Nikpai, who won a bronze medal in taekwondo, was met by
Vice President Karim Khalili at Kabul's airport in the morning as
helicopters circled over the city dropping leaflets with
his picture.

"He has made the Afghan people proud," read the leaflet.

Nikpai delighted strife-weary Afghans with his achievement
in Beijing last week by upsetting Spanish world champion Juan
Antonio Ramos in the men's 58-kilogram (122.8 pounds) category.

"I hope this medal can be a message of peace in
Afghanistan," the 21-year-old said after his win.

Nikpai was driven in an open-topped truck from the airport
to the national stadium, where a crowd of 5,000 cheering fans
greeted him as traditional Afghan music blared.

State television broadcast the event live as Nikpai was
paraded around the stadium, where the Taliban once carried out
public executions.

"Today is a very happy day for all Afghans because one of
our Afghan champions won a bronze medal in the Beijing
Olympics," said Amanullah Khan, one of the fans who came to
support their hero. "We Afghans are very proud of Rohullah."

"We feel very happy that an Afghan athlete managed to bring
victory to his country," said another, Mukhtar Hussain Najafi.

Many Afghans were unable to watch the bout live due to
intermittent power supply with few homes having access to cable
television, but a recording of Nikpai's victory was later
played over and over on local stations.

President Hamid Karzai called Nikpai to congratulate him
and has ordered a house to be presented to him as reward.

The head of a local welfare organization had promised
rewards for Afghan medal winners, with $10,000 for the bronze.

Afghanistan's previous best Olympics effort was a fifth
place in wrestling at the 1964 Tokyo Games.