Nobody expected Sadaf Rahimi, the Afghan woman boxer selected to go to the London Olympic Games next week, to do well in the ring. The mere fact that she would be representing her country was triumph enough. But even that chance has been snatched away in the final days before she was to make her journey to London. On 18 July, the International Boxing Association (AIBA), decided that Sadaf would not compete, citing concerns that boxing against opponents of much higher standards might threaten her safety in the ring. Not only is this a disappointment for Rahimi, her family and the aspirations of Afghan women athletes, it strikes a blow to the International Olympic Committee’s oft-stated goal to have women athletes represented from every country, just a week after Saudi Arabia, the last hold-out, reluctantly agreed to send two women athletes.
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Rahimi has been preparing for the Olympics since February, when she was first notified that she would receive what is known as a wild-card invitation a special berth granted to nations that would not otherwise be able to qualify an appropriately skilled athlete. Later that month she traveled to the UK to train in a special AIBA boxing camp, where she had her first taste of Olympic-caliber boxing. At first, she tells TIME, she was getting knocked down “two to three times a day.” But by the end of the two-week program, she was starting to hold her own in the ring. Still, she was sanguine about her chances in London. “I am sure I will be punched like a bag. Like I am a pillow being pummeled,” she told TIME in April. “Whether I win a medal or not, I will be a symbol of courage as soon as I step into the ring.”
It is unclear why the AIBA waited until just over a week before the Olympics to evoke Rahimi’s initiation. In May, when Rahimi attended the women’s world boxing championships in China, her fight was stopped short, after a minute and twenty seconds, because she was doing so poorly. Her coach, as well as the Afghan Olympic Committee, felt that her performance in China was an aberration, saying that she had performed well in other international competitions. Rahimi, say close friends in Kabul, is disappointed. But she is looking forward to competing in other international events, and still holds out hope that with a few more years to train, her chances in Rio 2016 will be even better. She may not be boxing in London this year, but she has not given up the fight.