First Afghan medalist Nikpai returns to hero's welcome

Updated: August 28, 2008, 8:46 AM ET

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.

[+] EnlargeRohullah Nikpai
AP Photo/Musadeq SadeqRohullah Nikpai's countrymen lifted him on their shoulders when he returned Thursday from Beijing, where he won the country's first-ever Olympic medal -- a bronze in taekwondo.
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.