Afghanistan Team Denied Chance At 2012 Olympics

The eight-man squad of Afghan-Americans was supposed to play this weekend in Uzbekistan in a three-team tournament to decide the FIBA Middle Asia Zone’s berth for September’s Asian championship in Wuhan, China. The winner would represent that continent in next summer’s London Olympics.

But after several days of hectic activity and despite the involvement of the Afghan Embassy in Washington, Uzbekistan’s foreign ministry Thursday did not authorize the visas to travel to the tournament.

That decision — combined with the Afghanistan Olympic Committee’s refusal to release $70,000 in financing before restoring $30,000 in travel expenses at the last minute — may prove costly.

“We will never do this under these circumstances again,” said Coach Mamo Rafiq, who won the South Asian Games’ gold medal last year with a team of college students and men with full-time jobs and families.

“As a coach,” Rafiq said, “I can’t call on these players and have them work out for four months knowing that there’s a question mark whether they’re going to go or not.”

One such player is Haroun Arefi, a 6-foot-4 swingman who just graduated from San Diego State and seeks a career in physical therapy.

“It’s tough to say, ‘We want to keep going’ when we’ve got other stuff to do,” said Arefi, 24. Afghanistan’s Olympic committee and basketball federation submitted the roster and visa requests “three months ago,” said Esmael Husseini, the team’s manager, who served as a liaison between the team and the Uzbek Embassy.

Yet when he presented the players’ Afghan passports to the Uzbek Embassy, Husseini said, he was told that he had to submit American passports because the team did not have an invitation from Uzbekistan’s basketball federation.

“For more than a month, I’ve been calling” the Uzbek Embassy, Husseini said. “I asked, ‘Did you get any confirmation?’ They said, ‘No.’ ”
Americans did not need an invitation to visit Uzbekistan, Rafiq said. But expediting visas for American passports costs $210 per visa. When Husseini notified the players, he said, each sent him their American passports along with $210 by overnight mail. Then the Uzbek Embassy’s consular office questioned the players’ nationality.

“This application was submitted for Afghan citizens,” said Mamam Ismailov, who heads the Uzbek Embassy’s consular office. “But they submitted to the embassy, I don’t know why, U.S. passports.”

Rafiq said: “I actually had to call USA Basketball in Colorado and have them send an e-mail with an official stamp from USA Basketball saying that these players had never played in any type of USA Basketball competition.”

During the week, Hussein and an Afghan diplomat visited the Uzbek Embassy with a letter from the Afghan Embassy. Eventually, Husseini said, an official opened the door and took the letter. The invitation from Uzbekistan’s basketball federation arrived Wednesday.

“They said, ‘The invitation arrived, and we’ll issue your visas in 10 days,’ ” said Atiq Panjshiri, executive director of the Afghan Sports Foundation, a nonprofit organization that represents Afghanistan’s basketball federation overseas.

“We did not receive confirmation from our capital,” said Ismailov, whose embassy returned the check for the visas. New York Times/