Afridun Amu, the first competitor to represent Afghanistan at the World Surfing Games, had no illusions about his chances of winning at the tournament which wraps up Sunday in southern France.
But mere participation while chasing the waves on the way to a modest result was enough for Amu, who hopes his exploits will help him tackle a bigger challenge: changing people’s attitudes about his war-torn country.
“I guess for many people, the inputs are always the same,” he told AFP in an interview at the week-long championships.
“If they think of that country, they think of terrorism, war, and just negative things,” he said.
“I can show that Afghanistan is so much more! That we Afghans as well have the same interests, the same joy as everybody else in the world.”
Amu’s family moved to Germany as political refugees from Afghanistan when he was five.
The 29-year-old mounted a surfboard for the first time just 10 years ago at a French Atlantic resort north of Biarritz, an experience that changed his life.
“Somebody gave me a surfboard, I took the surfboard, went to the ocean, tried to catch some waves and immediately at that point, I felt in love with this sport and I knew that it is something I’m going to do hopefully for the rest of my life,” he said.
Amu led the parade to mark the opening of the world championships, his long hair blowing in the sea breeze as he waved an Afghan flag.
He had little chance of a podium finish against top professionals, and eventually, after placing third in his heat, came in joint 129th in a 168-strong field topped by Mexico’s Jhony Corzo.
But Amu said he didn’t feel the jitters of competition, only the thrill of simply being among fellow surfers from 47 countries.
“I’m only happy! I don’t feel stress at all, because there is no pressure on me,” he said prior to his heat.
“I’m an Afghan, living in Germany, in a country where you can’t surf, I’m competing with people who started surfing when they have five years old, living on the beach and many of them professionals, so what do you expect?”
He said that taking part in the event and representing his country was enough of a reward.
“You know, in Afghanistan it’s really a big thing to be able to represent your country in an international event,” he said.
He also harbours a bigger hope: that surfing could one day become a competitive sport in his landlocked country.
He cites the example of cricket, which was relatively unknown to Afghans until just a decade ago.
But refugees from Pakistan brought the sport with them and actively promoted it, “and now everybody is crazy about cricket in Afghanistan,” Amu said.
“So I think we can do the same with surfing.”
With plenty of fast-running rivers lacing the mountainous Central Asian country, even the lack of ocean doesn’t dent his enthusiasm.
“Panjshir, which is in the northeast of Afghanistan, there we have a very strong river, a river full of river waves, so this is one surf spot in Afghanistan!”
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