Masomah Ali Zada of the Refugee Olympic Team.
Before the names you’ve heard of – the Van der Breggens, the Van Vleutens, the Dygerts – there was just a small figure in white on a ramp at the Fuji International Speedway. The first rider to start the women’s Olympic time trial, riding for the Refugee Olympic Team, was Masomah Ali Zada.
It was her first ever time trial. She finished 25th out of 25 competitors, almost 14 minutes behind Annemiek van Vleuten. Ignore those metrics: they totally miss the point of what is one of the great success stories of this Olympiad.
While the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, Ali Zada’s family fled into exile in Iran, where she was first taught to ride by her father. The family returned to Afghanistan in the mid-2000s where things had improved, albeit not by much: for Ali Zada to practice her sport required braving the inhospitable roads of a country where conservatives believe women should not ride bicycles.
In 2016, a French film crew produced a documentary about Ali Zada and her fellow female cyclists, one of which was her sister Zahra.
That film, ‘Les Petites Reines de Kaboul’ – The Little Queens of Kabul – catalogued the challenges facing the Afghan women’s team faced as they trained in Teheran. In a fractured country, split along religious lines, the squad was a microcosm of multiculturalism, bringing together Pashtun, Tajik, and Hazara riders, but there were stronger ideologies at play.
Abuse was commonplace, with stones and fruit thrown at the riders as they rode, and at one point in the documentary Ali Zada was deliberately run into by a driver who taunted her afterwards.
The French Embassy in Afghanistan organised for Ali Zada to travel to France to ride in a race on International Women’s Day, where she met a retired French lawyer – Patrick Communal – and told him of the pressures faced by female cyclists in her war-damaged homeland. A society that deemed cycling immoral; a land where she was pressured to renounce cycling and get married.
Communal helped facilitate a humanitarian visa for Ali Zada’s family, and a year later they arrived in Brittany. The community quickly rallied around them: they lived in Communal’s holiday home, where retired teachers taught them French, and where neighbours provided them with gifts of food and flowers. Ali Zada and her sister were at last free to ride their bikes. They got a coach and found new friends to train with.
In June 2019, Ali Zada was awarded a Refugee Athlete Scholarship and eligibility to represent the Refugee Olympic Team at the Tokyo Olympics, eventually getting named to the squad in June 2021.
Ali Zada rode in the white and blue of a team comprised of refugees from around the world – not under the tricolour of her adopted home, France, nor the black, red, and green of her familial homeland – but that in itself carried an enormous symbolic weight to it.
“I’m so happy to represent the Refugee Olympic Team because I will send a message of hope and peace for 82 million people who are obliged to leave their country because of different reasons,” Ali Zada said after riding her race yesterday.
“It was so, so good: my first time trial, my first Olympic Games. As a first experience, I’m so happy with it because I worked for it and I tried to use all the sacrifice from several months. I don’t have any regrets.”
“I’m so happy to represent the Refugee Olympic Team. No matter where I finished I’ve given hope and peace to 82m refugees across the world. Dreams can come true”
— Refugee Olympic Team (@RefugeesOlympic) July 28, 2021
Ali Zada is in her second year studying civil engineering at the University of Lille, but wants to build more than infrastructure and grand public works. She wants to help create an environment – a precedent – in Afghanistan where females can ride a bike without fear of persecution.
“When I started cycling, some people in Afghanistan did not agree with it because it’s a new thing for the people to see a girl who rides a bike. I could understand why they don’t want to accept it,” Ali Zada said yesterday.
“Even here [in Tokyo], in the hotel with the other cyclists, they look at me strangely. I think they’ve never seen a girl with a scarf on a bicycle. But in Afghanistan, I’m sure if they see regularly a woman on a bike, they will accept it.”
That change may come gradually, but it will come. There’s an Afghan proverb that Ali Zada draws on: “They can kill all the swallows, but they will not prevent the coming of spring.”
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