Mehbooba Andyar's choice to compete in a head scarf and full-length, body-covering running suit could not spare her from Taliban taunts and threats. The Afghan middle-distance runner nonetheless trekked on and was on the verge of realizing her Olympic dream. But now Andyar slated to be the only female Afghan athlete at the Beijing Games has gone missing from her training site just weeks before the opening ceremonies.
Andyar has not contacted any Afghan or international track-and-field authorities since disappearing Friday from a training facility in Formia, Italy, 106 miles (170 km) south of Rome, where she and other international athletes were based in June. Italian police are investigating the disappearance, though there are no signs of foul play. Her bags and passport were also gone from her room, a sign that she may have left on her own.
No scenario is being ruled out, and Andyar did not have any special security detail. One possible explanation is that the 19-year-old may be seeking asylum somewhere in Europe, following repeated threats and humiliation from Muslim extremists, including false rumors that she was a prostitute. Nick Davies, spokesman for the IAAF, the world track-and-field governing body, said there had been no signs that Andyar was having second thoughts about competing in Beijing. "It was quite a surprise to us," Davies told TIME. "We don't know where she is. All we know is that she and her bags are gone."
The 800- and 1,500-meter runner, whose best times are far slower than international standards, was an Olympic Solidarity Scholarship athlete, paid for by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and trained by the IAAF, a program that offers special opportunities to competitors in troubled conditions.
An Italian Olympic official said Andyar and other athletes who had previously been training in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, had been in Formia the past month to train, and as a base for European track meets. "We were only the hosts," the Italian official said. "They were in transit here."
The other Afghan track athlete expected in Beijing, a male sprinter, as well as an Afghan trainer were also at the Formia facility, and they told authorities they were unaware of Andyar's whereabouts. TIME contacted both the Afghan Olympic Committee and the country's track-and-field association in Kabul, but neither knew where Andyar was. An Afghan Olympic official said the team holds the right to substitute Andyar with another female athlete, though the IOC would have the last word.
Davies says the runner was scheduled to return to Malaysia with the other Asia-based athletes just a few days after she disappeared. Although she could still wind up competing at the Olympics, Davies says that every passing day makes it more likely that Afghanistan will have no women at the Games.
Four years ago in Athens, Robina Muqimyar ran the 100 meters and Friba Rezihi competed in judo, becoming the first Afghan women ever to compete in the Olympics. If Andyar doesn't make it to Beijing, it will be one more sign that those making the most progress these days in Afghanistan are the bad guys. With reporting by Ali Safi/Kabul