When Iran had Women's Gymnastics

The Middle East has some of the worst participation rates for women in sports. On the limited occasions that countries from the Middle East do compete in an Olympic sport, they often choose Olympic sports with the most flexible clothing options. For female athletes from these nations, they are not only limited by social restrictions denying them opportunity, but have to work around the physical clothing restrictions as well.

For a sport where its athletes wear leotards, women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) is one of the last sports these nations would ever consider due to modesty standards regarding clothing. Which is why it is surprising that Iran, the nation with one of the worst track records of women’s rights and women in sport among nations from the Middle East once had an Olympian in WAG.

At the 1964 Olympics Iran sent women to the Olympics for the first time in its history. On its Olympic team of 62 athletes, four of them were women. The first three were Nazli Bayat Makou, Juliette Geverkof, and Simin Safamehr. All three of them were between the ages of 17-19 and competed in athletics (track and field). Djamileh Sorouri was different, not only because she was participating in a completely different sport, but because of her age. Djamileh Sorouri was only 14 years old when she competed at the 1964 Olympics and is an example of young Olympic WAGs predating Nadia Comaneci. Djamileh Sorouri wasn’t exactly new to the scene as she reportedly had been an Iranian National Champion at just nine years old.

Juliette Geverkof

When the quartet of female Iranian Olympians arrived at the 1964 Olympics, they did not come with gold medal aspirations. They were champions simply by being there and overcoming all obstacles from sexism to a lack of funding. An example of a time in sports where athletes are to be celebrated not because they win, but because of the progress being made as a result of their general presence and admiration for the adversity they overcame.

Nazli Bayat Makou, Juliette Geverkof, and Simin Safamehr finished last in each of their respective events. Juliette and Simin had even competed in multiple disciplines in order to fill multiple roles. Iran had such a small delegation of female athletes, such an occurrence was necessary.

As for Djamileh Sorouri, she was fighting an uphill battle from the start. Iran had sent a men’s gymnast to the 1964 Olympics. He finished 118th in the All-Around out of 130 total competitors. If that was the best Iran’s men’s program could do, Djamileh Sorouri from the even less funded women’s program had virtually no chance of escaping the bottom of the standings. That’s before considering Djamileh was a 14 year old in an era of WAG where all the top gymnasts were twice her age. She had even been sent to the Olympics without her coach.

In response Vera Caslavska and the Czechoslovakian team stepped in. They took Djamileh Sorouri under their wing and had the young Iranian train alongside them in the buildup to the Olympics. Djamileh Sorouri struggled to comprehend the superior facilities she was seeing for the first time. Sorouri also suffered from extreme bouts of loneliness and homesickness as she dealt with competing in a foreign country, with limited international experience, and without a familiar team or a coach to support her. At 14 years old.

Djamileh Sorouri finished 82nd out of 83 gymnasts in the All-Around. It was effectively a last place finish as the only gymnast she had beaten had scratched (scored a zero) on half her events. Not counting gymnasts who had scratched, Djamileh Sorouri finished in last place on 3 of 4 apparatuses during qualifying. Her weakest event was uneven bars where she scored a 3.000 in compulsories and a 5.000 in optionals. Djamileh Sorouri has the distinction of putting up some of the lowest scores in Olympic history.

Iranian gymnast Mahin Shahabi

But none of that mattered to the crowds who recieved her quite well recognizing the youth of athlete and the significance of her presence. To this day, she remains the youngest Iranian Olympian of all time. The 1964 Olympics would be both the beginning and the end of Iranian Olympic gymnastics. The country hasn’t sent a gymnast from either genders to the Olympics since. As for Djamileh Sorouri, that would be the last time she competed in major competition. I could only find the following picture of her.

The 1964 Olympics was something of a missed opportunity for women’s athletics in the Iranian Olympic program. It could have become a watershed moment, but instead female Iranian athletes would fade back into obscurity. Over the next two Olympics a woman would not make the Iranian Olympic team. But then something happened.

While searching for information on Djamileh Sorouri I came across this fascinating website which has dozens of pictures of Iranian women in sport. Virtually every major sport is represented. Gymnastics, figure skating, soccer, swimming, skiing, volleyball, table tennis, and handball to name a few. All examples of Iran having a viable sports infrastructure for women. The pictures feature teams from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, but there is clearly a spike in the mid 1970s. The reason, the 1974 Asian Games.

The Asian Games are the largest non-Olympic event in the Olympic sports movement due to the large size of the continent. In 1974 Iran would serve as host of the Asian Games. The major sporting event would be a boon for the domestic Iranian Olympic sports, especially women’s sports. At the time Iran’s government was seeking to modernize and Westernize itself, and opening up opportunities for women was part of that policy. Inevitably, women and sport benefited greatly from this.

Women participated en masse for Iran at the 1974 Asian Games but had lost virtually every event they participated in. In badminton the four Iranian entrants were eliminated in the first round. The two entrants in the singles competition had been eliminated without either player scoring a single point. The basketball and volleyball teams lost every match they played. Iranian swimmers participated in nine events and finished in last place in seven of them. Their best result was an eighth place finish in an event with only seven foreign competitors.

Iran’s experiences with women’s athletics at the 1974 Asian Games had turned out largely the same way things had gone in 1964, a streak of last place finishes. It is probable that many of these athletes were extremely young and had been thrown into international competition because that was the best Iran had available. But by simply being there, they had much to be proud of and their performances were commendable in light of of the disadvantages they faced. In every sport where a full list of standings can be found, Iran is represented in every sport that was open to women. In contrast, I couldn’t find a single example of a female athlete from another Middle Eastern country with the exception of Israel.

The inclusion of Israeli athletes was another milestone for the 1974 Asian Games. Whereas past instances of the Asian Games had been disturbed by friction between Israel and certain Muslim-majority nations, the Asian Games had witnessed the participation of Israel in a Muslim-majority nation without a major controversy. It was especially noteworthy as this had happened in the mid-1970s, when Israel had all but effectively lost the ability to compete as an Asian nation and would soon be forced to compete as a European nation instead. The 1974 Asian Games would be the last time Israel was included. And its final Asian presence was in Iran of all places.

Iranian Fencers 1974 Asian Games

But there were more milestones to be had. Whereas Iranian women had fared poorly in most of the sports they had participated in, in one sport they had succeeded. Fencing, gymnastics, and women’s basketball were contested at the Asian Games for the first time starting in 1974. The inclusion of three women’s sports had been a boon for the Iranian women, but for fencing that assertion was especially true.

Iran won the women’s team event and in individual competition the top two Iranians finished with the silver and bronze medals. Two years later four of five fencers who had won medals at the Asian Games made the Olympic team. It marked the return of Iranian women to Olympic competition after a 12 year absence.

The mid-1970s was the high point of Iran’s status within the Olympic movement. The country had been riding a wave of social progress in sport and had a government strongly supporting its own Olympic aspirations. Now the country was on the verge of winning the right to host the 1984 Olympics.

The idea may sound crazy today, but in the mid 1970s it wasn’t. The IOC suffered a series of controversies during the 1972 and 1976 Olympics which had scared away virtually every prospective host city from bidding on the Olympics. Only two cities had put forth major bids on those games, Los Angeles and Tehran. While the United States has frequently won bids to host the Winter Olympics, the country struggled when it came to bidding on the Summer Olympics which were far more competitive.

The United States had bid on every Summer Olympics from 1944-1980 and had lost on every occasion. The IOC had even awarded Olympic Games to Canada and Mexico but not the United States. No country had a worse track record of losing bids than the United States during the Cold War.

To have only one American city to compete against put Iran in a quite favorable position to actually win the 1984 Olympics. It had strong government support and had specifically demonstrated a favorable track record regarding the treatment of female and Israeli athletes. But right as the Olympic bidding process was about to be decided, the Iranian Revolution occurred. The new Iranian government withdrew its Olympic bid and Los Angeles as the last remaining city, won by default.

That would be the beginning in a series of blows for the Iranian Olympic program. As a neighbor of Afghanistan, Iran was especially alarmed when the Soviet Union invaded the country and joined the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. With the 1984 Olympics being held in the United States, the country the new Iranian government considered a sworn enemy, they boycotted again. But the worst loss came to Iran’s women’s Olympic program.

Sahar Khodayari

The new government that came into power after the Iranian Revolution would go on to have one of the worst track records on women’s rights of any country. What little opportunity female Iranian athletes once had was now gone. Women weren’t even allowed to enter a sports stadium as a spectator, let alone as an athlete. Iran’s ban on women watching soccer matches would last for 40 years. In September of 2019 Sahar Khodayari died after setting herself on fire in protest of the ban. Her death proved to be the breaking point and after pressure from international sports organizations, Iran lifted the ban on a partial basis.

As the IOC started making women’s participation a priority, Iran was forced to again create opportunity for women in Olympic sports. At the 1996 Olympics Lida Fariman became the first female Iranian Olympian in 20 years and the first under Iran’s current regime. Over the next three Olympic quads Iran would send one token female athlete to each Summer Olympics.

But as the IOC has continued to toughen its stance on ensuring female participation, Iran has been forced to increase the number of female athletes on its team. The three women Iran sent to the 2008 Olympics was the same number Iran had sent to the Olympics in the 30 years prior. Since the 2010 Olympics, Iran has had 22 Olympic team spots filled by women. Iran has even used a female flag bearer on five occasions and is currently alternating between the genders at each Olympics.

All of Iran’s breakthroughs on gender at the 1964 Olympics, 1974 Asian Games, 1976 Olympics, and 1996 Olympics came with female athletes who were almost always at the bottom of the standings. But since then the quality of your typically Iranian female Olympian has improved dramatically. At the 2016 Olympics 18 year old Kimia Alizadeh became the first and to date, only Iranian woman to have won an Olympic medal.

Kimia Alizadeh

Now 21, Kimia Alizadeh recently defected and posted a scathing rebuke of Iran’s regime on her Instagram account. Calling herself “one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran.” Kimia Alizadeh criticized the compulsory wearing of hijab headscarves and would go on to say “I wore whatever they told me and repeated whatever they ordered. Every sentence they ordered I repeated.”

Kimia’s words echo those of Tonia Valioghli. Tonia was one of the girls who swam for Iran at the 1974 Asian Games. She now coaches in Germany. It is through Tonia where the story of what happened to women’s athletics after the Iranian Revolution is widely available. She described the “immediate” downfall of women’s athletics, the loss of government support, and dwindling access to facilities. She inserted herself as an example of what Iran lost as many had to leave the country if they wanted to remain involved in their chosen sport.

Tonia has expressed sympathy toward the women’s movement against compulsory hijab and has encouraged “prominent women” to take action. A call Kimia Alizadeh would later answer.

This article is not to make the claim that Iran was a bastion of women’s athletics prior to the Iranian Revolution. Not even Tonia Valioghli believes that. She stated women had government support, but were still subjected to limitations from their families and social mores. In Tonia’s era the status of female athletes was decades ahead of what was going on in every other Muslim-majority nation of the Middle East, but still decades behind the standards of Western nations as well as most of the Cold War era communist nations.

Tonia Valioghli

But there is one last insight from Tonia that must be noted. She explains why Iran had such a strong swimming and gymnastics program and specifically invoked gymnastics as an example. In team sports you need high participation rates to produce a schedule. A group of 21 athletes isn’t even enough to have a regulation soccer match. Even if the required 22 participants is met, that’s still only a single matchup and an entirely different set of 11 athletes is needed every time you want to create another game that isn’t identical to the last game.

Individual sports are different. In gymnastics and swimming, if you can find 20 athletes, that’s more than enough participants for a competition. And you can use those same 20 athletes to host a gymnastics competition over and over again and produce a wide range of different winners each time. Both sports have a wide range of events. More events translates to more opportunities to produce a winner and more opportunity to produce a diverse set of results with a small group of athletes.

Gymnastics and swimming have one further advantage, an athlete can train all by herself. Serious training in a sport like soccer requires a full team to replicate a practice game. In swimming and gymnastics, an athlete can train on her own without needing a single teammate. All she needs is access to the proper equipment. An invaluable trait in regions with low participation rates. The athletes only need to meet up in an organized fashion on the same day a competition is being held.

It is for these reasons that individual sports have been the trailblazing sports in Olympic history, NCAA history, and are currently the sports most common for women in Iran. But for those women, they are now limited only to sports that can meet certain clothing requirements. Gymnastics and swimming offer the least flexible clothing options. The two sports that had once brought young athletes like Tonia the ability to participate in the sport they love have been completely dismantled at the elite level. The two sports have never recovered. As for Iran’s Olympic WAG program, a story of what once was, a relic of the past, a byproduct of a different time.

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