08/03/2012 01:09 EDT | Updated 10/03/2012 05:12 EDT

Far removed from Olympic medal contention, some women running for pride, not podiums

LONDON - The race was never about the finish for the Afghan sprinter.

No, it was about the start of something much bigger.

Tahmina Kohistani finished way back in the 100 metres at the Olympics on Friday and yet with a wide grin.

For Kohistani, her race was about paving the way for other women from her country. In London, she was the only female representative from Afghanistan on the track.

Four years from now, she's hoping for some company.

"I think being here is more important than a gold for me and my country," said Kohistani, who finished last in her heat but in a personal-best time of 14.42 seconds. "We have a lot of problems in our country.

"So right now, I feel like I have a gold medal."

Such is the true Olympic spirit.

Hardly contenders, there were athletes in the opening heats of the 100 and 400 metres who were on the track competing more for pride than podiums.

Zamzam Mohamed Farah of Somalia finished the 400 metres in 1 minute, 20.48 seconds — nearly 27 seconds behind the next closest competitor in her heat. Still, Farah walked off the track with a sense of pride, waving to the crowd as she left.

And then there's Maziah Mahusin of Brunei, who didn't advance out of her heat but set a new national record when she crossed the finish line in 59.28.

"I'm really proud of myself, even though I didn't win anything," said Mahusin, who carried her country's flag at the opening ceremony. "I'm really happy. I'm really, really happy."

The day didn't go as well for Qatar sprinter Noor Hussain Al-Malki.

Wearing a maroon headscarf, long sleeves and leggings, she got out of the blocks slowly and then clutched at her right leg. She stopped after about 15 metres and sat on the track, burying her face in her hands.

A bittersweet finish to such a groundbreaking day. The 17-year-old Al-Malki was among the first four women — the first in track and field — ever selected to represent Qatar at the Olympics.

"I think we should be celebrating today because we have women athletes from two of the three countries who haven't sent women to the games before competing," said Mark Adams, the IOC communications director. "It is a great symbol. It is a great message to women in those countries.

"Did we expect them to win gold medals? Probably not, but they're here, they're competing and I think we should be very happy."

That's the feeling of Kohistani. She's been training in Kabul, but under constant duress. There are some in her country who feel she shouldn't be working out and training because of her gender. They let her know about it, too, yelling at her at practice.

Kohistani is attempting to break down that belief.

"The people don't like what I'm doing. They were not supporting me all the time," said Kohistani, who wore a headscarf when she raced. "There was a lot of times the people were saying this is very wrong for me. One day I was coming to my training when I got in a taxi and the taxi driver asked, 'Where are you going?' When I said I was going to training because I'm going to be in the London Olympics, he said, 'Get out of my taxi. I don't want to drive you.'"

That just makes her more determined to open doors for others.

"When I go back, I'm going to say, 'Come and join me,'" Kohistani said. "It was very difficult to be here, as the only women. I had a lot of challenges. I hope the next generation of Afghans will be proud of me."