Oh, to be the fastest woman in the world.
Other dreams may be equal to this one, but few are as accessible. Every able-bodied human being on the planet can and has run, knows the feeling of running full speed – as fast as you can – and the exhilaration of crossing a finish line, or not.
Unless you’re Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, someone is always faster.
But never mind. Whoever may be faster in the next lane, the fastest person in the runner’s heart is the runner herself. The feeling of fastest possible, though known to most, is indescribable. It is too bad that life eventually slows the sprinter in every former child.
Running is unique in sport by virtue of its utter purity, requiring nothing more than a willing body and force of spirit. No accoutrements: No bats, balls, helmets, motors, masks, goggles, oars, nets, padding, bars or beams. It’s just you against ground, gravity and your own heart, not merely literally.
Sure, some are more genetically blessed than others, but anyone can turn the ignition and churn away. Deprived of wings, running is as close as we humans come to flying. To run is to be alone, free and limited only by the horizon. Whether recreational or functional, to run is to escape.
Such a simple imperative. All God’s creatures run – or get eaten. Or trampled.
It’s a fair guess Fraser-Pryce could escape a pursuer, but not all women are so swift. And, in some places still, women who run are ridiculed and shunned. How dare they express themselves as strong and free, and faster than the men who would punish them? One such runner stands out in London not because she is faster than most but because she runs at all.
Tahmina Kohistani of Afghanistan didn’t even qualify to compete in the 100-meter race that Fraser-Pryce won. But she won an even greater contest against the odds. She made it to London despite being heckled and chastised at home where – as recently as last month the Taliban executed a woman for being accused of adultery – Kohistani is a bad woman. Good women walk behind their men, and sports are for men to enjoy without the company of women – except when occasionally they turn their stadiums into execution fields for noncompliant women.
Kohistani, who ran wearing a headdress and clothing that covered her arms and legs, suffered moments of doubt leading up to her qualifying race. What was the point, after all, if back home she was reviled? But she found strength in that place that runners all seem to have – one imagines a tiny, gossamer village in one of the heart’s chambers where elves in silk streamers perform pirouettes to arias, churning out potions of endorphin-infused joy.
Kohistani found her focus: “I will continue,” she said. “Someone should respond this way. And someone should take these problems and I am the one who is ready for the problem.”
Talk about the travails of destiny.
Imagine if it fell to you to show a nation and a culture that “these problems” are violence against humanity. Imagine that by wanting to run, you are essentially instructing a primitive, misogynist religion – armed and dangerous toward women – that they, the Taliban and its ilk, are the bad ones. If you are that person, you’d better be able to run, all right, and you’d better be fast.
This is the component missing from most discussions of world-class athletes, but especially when it comes to those women from Muslim countries who competed in the Olympics this year for the first time ever, including from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei. For any athlete, it takes enormous courage to step up to the starting line, to risk defeat and the disappointment of one’s country.
But to risk scorn – and perhaps one’s life – is another category altogether. Kohistani may not be the fastest woman in the world, but she is among the bravest.
Run, Tahmina. Run!
Contact Parker, a columnist for The Washington Post, at kathleen parker@ washpost.com.