But Nikpai has proven it can be done: On Wednesday he won Afghanistan's first Olympic medal ever.
"I hope this will send a message of peace to my country after 30 years of war," Nikpai said after winning the bronze in the men's under 58-kilogram taekwondo event.
The victory brought immediate congratulations from President Hamid Karzai.
"The president personally called Rohullah Nikpai and congratulated him for this achievement," presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said.
For his accomplishment, Nikpai will be given a house at the government's expense, Hamidzada said. Nikpai, he said, serves as a "role model for many other Afghans."
Back home, the news sparked applause, wide smiles and laughter in homes, restaurants and ice cream parlors around the country.
"When I saw that he won, I jumped up and hugged and kissed my son," said Noor Ahmad Gayezabi, a former teammate of Nikpai's who had a lucky few hours of electricity that allowed him to watch on the family's small TV with his 13-year-old son.
The victory comes at an especially difficult time. Afghanistan was under high alert Monday for fear of attacks coinciding with Independence Day, and the capital, Kabul, has had limited electricity. So following the Olympics has been a challenge even for those Afghans who care.
But given the war, lack of power and economic woes, many Afghans perceive the Olympics as a distant spectacle for other nations to enjoy.
Only four Afghan athletes came to Beijing, representing a country that had never won an Olympic medal and is sinking ever deeper into war as the Taliban insurgency escalates.
But Nikpai, who is 21, has claimed a spot among his sport's elite. He won the medal with a stunning victory over taekwondo world champion Juan Antonio Ramos of Spain.
With the help of his family and other supporters, he got to travel to international competitions, and last year won silver at one of the sport's premiere events -- the world qualifiers in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City.
With success came better training conditions. After being selected for the national team six months ago, he has been able to use a special gymnasium.
The country has another chance at a medal in taekwondo. Nesar Ahmad Bahave, the silver medalist at the 2007 world taekwondo championships in Beijing, is competing in a heavier weight class.
And for Nikpai, there is an added bonus.
Along with the president's offer of a house, Nikpai's bronze medal also brings him a $50,000 prize from a mobile phone company in Afghanistan.