Former Military Police bodyguard and Royal Marines Commando Officer Chris Shirley is the founder of British not-for-profit The Hiatus Foundation, which supports athletes in conflict and post-conflict environments.
The foundation, which is at its heart a philanthropic venture aimed at helping grassroots adventure activists find their feet in war-torn countries, is in the midst of two recently launched projects: Action Cameras for Afghanistan (AC4A) and The Everest Challenge (TEC).
Both projects are rooted in Afghanistan, a country still characterised by war some 17 years after US troops first invaded, where Chris met first-hand young resilient athletes attempting to rewrite the county’s war narrative.
For his first Hiatus Foundation project AC4A, Chris is sending unwanted action cameras to sports teams in Afghanistan to help increase their influence via social media. Chris’s second project, TEC, hopes to facilitate the first summit of Mount Everest in 2021 by male and female Afghan mountaineers.
Chris believes that under the right circumstances, where basic needs like access to food, water and shelter are met, adventure sports can build a road to peace. He says: “What sports can do is counter the threat of violent extremism by providing a strong enough counter-narrative to young impressionable minds.”
In the past three months, adventure sport has established an increasing stronghold in Afghanistan. On 10 August, 24-year-old Hanifa Yousoufi became the first female Afghan climber to summit 24,580ft Mount Noshaq, Afghanistan’s tallest peak. She was supported by not-for-profit Ascend Athletics, which empowers Afghan women through climbing and leadership skills, with the aim of helping Afghan society transition to peace.
And, on 28 August Mountain Bike Afghanistan organised the first Hindukush MTB Challenge in Dragon Valley, central Afghanistan, in collaboration with the Afghan National Cycling Federation, where 50 competitors raced, 20 of whom were women.
Chris says that young athletes in Afghanistan are, in their own words, tired of war: “Adventure sports gives them a focus to distract them from the complex power struggle raging around them.
'Young athletes in Afghanistan are tired of war and adventure sports gives them a focus to distract them from the complex power struggle raging around them.'
“They’re the first generation that’s grown up with the internet, and they’re desperate to show the world that they want the same things as everyone else: peace and self-actualisation.”
In January 2018, the BBC reported that the Taliban are openly active in 70 percent of Afghanistan, and in February 2018 The New York Times reported the rise of Afghan civilians being intentionally targeted by the Taliban.
The threat of violence in Afghanistan makes the development of adventure sports there challenging, but it hasn’t stopped grassroots community groups establishing themselves.
Chris says the Kabul Boys, Afghanistan’s pioneer parkour team, risk their lives to practice freerunning on an 18th-century British fort, and despite this, the team was recently picked up by Red Bull and is appearing in Afghan TV commercials.
One of the first Afghan sports teams to receive a donated action camera through The Hiatus Foundation was the Drop and Ride freestyle mixed-gender mountain bike team, based in Kabul. The team modelled themselves on Danny MacAskill’s Drop and Roll tour and learnt all their skills through watching his videos on YouTube.
Chris discovered that apart from some financial support from small NGOs, most small Afghan sports teams thrive on the entrepreneurial spirit of young millennial leaders.
He says: “The teams don’t receive much notice from the international community, yet see it as their personal mission to redefine their own culture through physical expression.”
Having served in conflict zones for many years, Chris has experienced for himself the powerful effect adventure sports can have on healing impactful experiences of war: “Adventure sports gave me a new goal to aim towards and confirmed my own belief that people are inherently good, and there are alternatives to violent conflict.”
It seems that in Afghanistan adventure sport is flourishing because it provides an escape from war, empowering young athletes and enabling them to make measurable progress. As Chris says: “Sport is a fundamental way to measure progress. Progress increases self-esteem, especially when others notice what you’ve achieved, this then infectiously inspires athletes to aim even higher.”
'Sport is a fundamental way to measure progress. Progress increases self-esteem, especially when others notice what you’ve achieved, this then infectiously inspires athletes to aim even higher.'
Chris Shirley will lead a panel discussion on grassroots adventure activism this Saturday, 13th October at Adventure Uncovered Live, The Crystal, London. Visit www.adventureuncoveredlive.com for more information or to buy tickets.
As a former marine commando and BBC security adviser, Chris has since been travelling the world learning about how adventure and outdoor pursuits can play a transformative role in rebuilding societies shattered by war and other disasters.