Parisa Jahanfekrian's Olympic dream has returned | Photo:
Parisa Jahanfekrian's Olympic dream has returned | Photo:

Parisa Jahanfekrian and Yekta Jamali fled Iran, a decision full of great risk and personal sacrifice. But systematic oppression and discrimination left the weightlifters no choice.

Her biggest sporting dream was so close and then suddenly it was gone. Parisa Jahanfekrian wanted to be the first weightlifter from Iran to compete at the Olympic Games, in Tokyo in 2021. But the Iranian weightlifting association (IRIWF) and the national Olympic committee prevented the now 27-year-old from doing so by suspending her from the Games, robbing her of a "childhood dream."

"Since I started weightlifting, I have always been fighting for the realization of this childhood dream," Jahanfekrian told DW in Berlin, where she fled to. Instead, her dream "was just destroyed."

The systematic oppression of female athletes in Iran has brought weightlifters and many other athletes, to the point where they make such dramatic decisions. Even after fleeing to Germany, Jahanfekrian's future remains unclear. But at least her hope has returned.

"I came here to Germany to show how much an Iranian woman living in freedom can develop personally," she said.

Parisa Jahanfekrian is a medal winner | Photo:
Parisa Jahanfekrian is a medal winner | Photo:

After qualifying for the Olympics, she hardly had any opportunities to train in Iran. "I repeatedly pointed out these grievances to the officials, but they ignored even the simplest of requests from me," Jahanfekrian said, recalling a difficult time and adding that the decision to leave was "sadly the best option for me."

$90 in three years

One of the main factors behind the decision was financial discrimination against female athletes in Iran.

"Once I had qualified for the Olympics, I should have received a bonus from three organizations; the association [IRIWF], the national olympic committee and the ministry for sport and youth," the 27-year-old told the online magazine "inside the games." Only the ministry paid, the others refused, "even though they said they would pay."

Jahanfekrian received the equivalent of around $90 (€84) in three years, while male athletes received multiples of that amount on a monthly basis. The association had not fulfilled its financial obligation, said Jahanfekrian after she left, adding that they also ban external sources of income such as sponsors. Inadequate financial support, a lack of respect and the discrimination of women ultimately convinced her to leave the country.

Departure despite constant surveillance

It was not a decision Jahanfekrian made alone, either. Around 20 to 30 Iranian athletes are said to have taken the opportunity to flee during competitions abroad and are currently in various countries where they have applied for asylum. That includes famous judoka Saeid Mollaei, who competed for Mongolia at the Games in Tokyo and is the only Olympic medal winner (bronze in 2016 in Rio) from Iran. Taekwondo star Kimia Alizadeh lives in Aschaffenburg, Germany today, but after fleeing in 2020, described herself as "one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran."

Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin won bronze in 2016, before fleeing to Germany via the Netherlands in 2020 | Photo: picture alliance/T. Zenkovich
Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin won bronze in 2016, before fleeing to Germany via the Netherlands in 2020 | Photo: picture alliance/T. Zenkovich

Weightlifter Yekta Jamali is another to follow the same path, and the teenager fled at the same time as Jahanfekrian. Her life also took her to Germany, after she became the first Iranian to win a medal at the World Youth Championships (silver in 2021 in Jeddah). The 17-year-old disappeared from her hotel in the city of Heraklion on May 10, after the World Youth Championships in Crete, where she won another silver medal. The Iranian delegation confirmed this and contacted the local police and Jamali's family, but didn't learn anything about her whereabouts. "I don't know what happened," IRIWF Vice-President Zahra Pouramin said.

IRIWF President Ali Moradi, who was a part of the delegation in Greece, apparently personally searched for Jamali after her disappearance. Jamali told the London-based Iranian broadcaster "Iran International" that she was under constant surveillance after her escape. Her minders had "not thought it possible that I would abscond from the national team's quarters". Early in the morning, however, she managed to disappear unnoticed from the hotel: "I had to wait for the right moment to flee. When it came, I went to the airport in Athens," Jamali said.

A big deposit

Her case made waves across Iran, with even state-run television reporting on the 17-year-old's escape. The enormous personal risk that female athletes like Jamali are ready to take so as to avoid oppression and discrimination is an indication how dramatic the situation is for women in sport in Iran. The risks of being caught and punished during an escape are combined with the tragic difficulty of leaving family behind.

"The absence of my family will hurt me a lot. I will do all I can to make them proud with my performances," said Jamali.

Yekta Jamali fled to Germany after the Youth World Championships in Greece | Photo:
Yekta Jamali fled to Germany after the Youth World Championships in Greece | Photo:

Families are already involved when it comes to travel for competitions abroad because they have to financially support their children. To get an exit permit, the Iranian state demands deposits.

For example, handball player Shaghayegh Bapiri absconded from the team during the Women's Handball World Cup in Spain in December 2021 and applied for asylum. Afterward, she reported that before the trip to the tournament every player on the Iranian team had to pay a deposit of a billion Toman ($30,000). Real estate and other valuables are also said to have been used as deposits to discourage athletes from fleeing.

Future in Germany

Even in the face of difficulties for family and potential struggles in a new country, many Iranian athletes don't turn away from departure.

"In Germany, I will almost certainly have to face a tough time as a refugee," said Jamali. "But that is far less problematic than the kind of discrimination I had to endure in Iran."

Her goal is to develop her sporting ability so much in Germany that "the begrudging officials in Iran realize who they have lost from their ranks."

A dream realized in Paris?

Parisa Jahanfekrian paid a high price, like many others, to flee to Germany. But she is looking forward now and told DW she is "overjoyed to live in a free country."

Jahanfekrian says she is now living without stress or concern and that her move to Germany is "sort of a start for the condemnation of the repressive measures to which women in the Islamic Republic of Iran are subjected to by those in power." Jahanfekrian wants to "be the voice of progressive Iranian women who are not given the opportunity for personal fulfilment."

Jahanfekrian also has a lot of plans for her sporting future too and is currently training in Berlin. "I will do everything possible to be at the 2024 Olympics," Jahanfekrian told DW. "A huge dream of mine would be realized if I could make that happen."

Jahanfekrian wants to obtain a permanent residence permit for Germany and perhaps even citizenship so that she might compete for Germany in Paris in 2024. "It would be a great honor to wear the eagle on my chest," said the 27-year-old, who has lost an old dream but gained a new one.

Author: David Vorholt, Farid Ashrafian

Edited by: Matt Pearson

First published: May 25, 2022

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