From fleeing Afghanistan to the Tokyo Olympics

Masomah Ali Zada is on a mission to reform attitudes and bring a new perspective throughout the cycling world and particularly in her home nation of Afghanistan after being selected to ride in the Tokyo Olympics time trial as an International Olympic Committee (IOC) refugee athlete.

Masomah Ali Zada, UCI

Masomah Ali Zada in a recent UCI feature on her journey to an Olympics start Source: UCI

Masomah Ali Zada used to ride on the roads of Afghanistan, dodging hurled insults and stones as she attempted to pursue her cycling dreams along with a group of like-minded women supported by an enthusiastic coach.

Already sticking out as a member of Hazara minority within the Taliban-enforced conservatism of Afghanistan she had to leave her homeland to be given the opportunity to pursue her goals in France.

A 2016 Arte TV documentary entitled 'Les Petites Reines de Kaboul' ('The Little Queens of Kabul') showed the all-women team training in the capital city of Afghanistan despite being assaulted and threatened by some within the country. Ali Zada was deliberately hit by a car during the filming for the documentary and there were other death threats aimed at herself, colleagues and their coach, the now-deceased Abdul Sadiq Sadiqi.

French lawyer Patrick Communal watched the documentary and managed to contact the Ali Zada sisters via the Afghan Cycling Federation and then helped organise an asylum claim. In 2017, the siblings were granted asylum in France where they have been able to train on their bikes and study at Lille university, with Masomah studying civil engineering.

Ali Zada received an IOC Refugee Athlete Scholarship and used that to help defray her racing expenses enroute to successfully achieving selection to the Olympic Games where she aims to fight stereotypes both from her home and abroad.

"By taking part in the Olympic Games, I want to convince those who think a woman on a bicycle is inappropriate or find it strange that a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf is a cyclist that no, it's normal," said Ali Zada. "I want to show that women are free to do whatever they want."

Ali Zada spent her early childhood in Iran with her family exiled there while the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, learning to ride a bicycle there after being taught by her father. 

After enduring persecution on return to their homeland the Ali Zada sisters and another 'Petite Reine' from the documentary, Frozan Rasooli, were able to obtain refugee status for themselves and their family. The trio have subsequently been able to ride as IOC refugee athletes and enroll at the University of Lille as part of a special program for refugees.

"For my country, I think that I am the only girl who is going to take part in the Olympic Games in cycling," Masomah Ali Zada, 24, said in an interview published by the UCI. "There haven't been any before, but I want to show all the men who thought that cycling isn't a women's thing, that I have made it all the way through to the Olympics. And if I can do it, any woman who wants to be involved in cycling, they can do it, from any country, like Afghanistan.

"It is quite simply a passion, it's our choice to wear any kind of clothing, whatever we feel comfortable in. And above all for Afghanistan, it's for all the countries like Afghanistan where they think that women have no rights to be involved in cycling, I'd like to prove that it's not true and we have the right to cycle."

The pandemic disrupted preparation for Masomah Ali Zada, and there also news of the death of their former coach, Abdul Sadiq Sadiqi, who was also president of the Afghan Cycling Federation. His death has served as a drive to further ambitions for Ali Zada, saying in an interview with Paris Match, "When I return to Afghanistan, I will organise a great cycling race for women and for men. It will bear the name of Abdul Sadiq Sadiqi.

"As an Afghan saying goes: 'They can kill all the swallows, but they cannot prevent the coming of spring'."

Ali Zada is one of two cyclists selected to the IOC refugee team, alongside Ahmad Badreddin Wais, formerly of Syria, who will compete in the men's individual time trial held on the same day.

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4 min read
Published 9 June 2021 at 11:41am
By SBS Cycling Central
Source: SBS