By Florencia Montaruli
April 1, 2021
Break down the walls of prejudice. Overcome deep-rooted stereotypes about Iran, its people, and Iranian women. This was what the Iranian champion skier Forough Abbasi helped to achieve when she embarked on an illustrious international career, one that she has since recounted to the Argentine journalist Tomás Padilla and is condensed in this report by IranWire. Almost unwittingly, while on the slopes, Abbasi laid new paths of opportunity for Iranian women to go out and conquer the world.
“There are those Iranian women who give up when things get tough. I am not those women.”
This was how Iranian skier Forough Abbasi described herself in Far From Home: an Olympic Channel documentary about her dazzling career on international ski slopes to date.
As a child, Abbasi says, she did not like to walk on flat surfaces. She always needed to climb some hill or other. She also did not like to play with dolls, either; on the contrary, she was interested in “boys’” activities and extreme sports. While she was still a baby, her father Heidar Abbasi, himself a famous Iranian mountaineer, often placed her on his back in a sling so they could ski down the mountains together.
Forough was born to win. Her athlete’s genealogy began to show through from childhood and many years later, it bore fruit: in 2018, she became the first and only athlete to have represented Iran twice at the Winter Olympics.
Slaloming Past All Obstacles: The Road to Pyeongchang
The story begins in Shiraz, southwestern Iran. Land of the poet Hafez, fabulous buildings, and good wine. Forough Abbasi has something in common with the mythical Pink Mosque of Shiraz, famed for the soft hues that enter through its stained-glass windows: both of them shine bright.
The day Forough was born, her mother Parvin Abbasi dreamed had that she was on a mountain, and there was a segment of the ascent that she could not climb. People were telling her, she later recounted, to try it, and that there was a beautiful light behind the hill.
When she woke up, Forough was there with her in the birthing room. Finally she realised that she had had an epiphany: Forough, which means light in Persian, was the spark that would shine in her life.
“People think she’s tough because she’s tomboyish,” Parvin later said, “and she always played extreme sports, but it’s the opposite.” Since it only snows in Iran for a few months each year, Forough had to travel to unfamiliar places to train. In those days, she missed the family, her principal champions. But she aware of the sacrifices that high-performance sports demanded, and when someone told her that she was not worthy of being an Olympian, she went out of her way to prove them wrong.
The Winter Olympics are preceded by many other ski competitions around the world. Unfortunately this is not true of Iran, due to the lack of infrastructure and necessary funding. Generally, instead of selecting from a wide range of athletes, the country’s Ski Federation chooses the best skiers from just three or four test runs carried out in the months leading up to the event.
Other Iranian female skiers who have visited countries such as Austria and Switzerland say people there have been surprised to learn the sport is practised in Iran at all. “They ask us, ‘Do you ski in your country? Are there not camels roaming the streets?’” says Samira Zargari, another athlete. “We have plentiful natural resources here, four seasons, and magnificent mountains. This [our competing] helps to change what people get from watching television.”
A 2017 documentary called ‘Persian Powder’, which told the story of the Iranian professional snowboarder Mona Seraji, the first from the Middle East to compete in the Freeride World Tour qualifiers, also shed light on some of these misconceptions about Iran. Along with two Australian snowboarders, Amber Arazny and Michaela Davis-Meehan, Mona showed the world the snowy mountains of Tehran.
In her first qualifying event at Darbandsar – one of the country’s largest ski resorts, located in Tehran – Forough came second behind her friend and long-time opponent, Atefeh Ahmadi. “It is a lesson not to be arrogant,” she said. “You have to prepare for the challenges; they defeated me because I thought I was the best.” That day she faced a double difficulty: losing a few seconds on getting stuck on a pole due to the lack of snow, and the energy of the young challenger, Atefeh.
However, against all forecasts in the remaining two days, her 25 years of experience saw her through. She ended up in first place, ahead of Atefeh Ahmadi and Marjan Kalghor – the first Iranians to go to the Winter Games – and made history: she filled out the form to attend the Winter Olympics for the second time a row. Once in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018, Forough again remained within the top 50 (ranking 49th, up from 76th) and came close to matching her personal best in the women’s slalom category: four years earlier, in Sochi, she had ranked 48th out of 88th. To this day, that place continues to be the best result for an Iranian woman in any snow sport.
Following in the Tracks of an Iranian Alpine Ski Pioneer
“Marjan Kalhor,” Forough has said, “was an inspiration to me.” Back in 2005, the Iranian authorities had allowed women to ski professionally for the first time. Five years later, a woman named Marjan Kalhor opened a door into a historically male-dominated sport, becoming Iran’s first ever representative to the Winter Games. Since then, Forough has followed in her tracks.
Marjan’s road to Vancouver had been as winding as Iran’s mountain paths. Due to the lack of snow, since she was four years old, she had trained for much of the time on the grassy slopes of Dizin, the largest Iranian ski resort, located in the Alborz mountain range north of the capital. At 11 years old, she became a national youth champion, and at 16, she earned a bronze medal in Turkey. Two years later she won gold and silver in Lebanon.
In 2009 Marjan Kalhor achieved a personal best at the Vald’Isere World Championships in France. She obtained the necessary points to seal her ascension to the Winter Games. For the first time since the obsessional segregation of the sexes brought about by the Islamic Revolution of 1979, there would be an Iranian woman present on the slopes.
With Marjan’s presence at international competitions came a national paradigm shift inside Iran. The country had participated in all the Winter Olympics events since 1956, but that perfect attendance record had been all-male. From 2010 onwards, Iranian women had proven that they too were Olympians in the making.
Laying Down Opportunities for a New Generation of Women
If Marjan Kalhor made the opening gambit for women’s alpine skiing in Iran, Forough raised the stakes In addition to becoming the first Iranian athlete to go to the Winter Olympics twice and enter the top 50 for the second time in a row, she performed a much more important fear: she set an example for future generations of Iranian women.
“Our women,” she says, “can be as strong as men”, and the more female athletes there are, “the stronger and healthier the country will be”. Winning a medal might be the ultimate goal, but in the Games, she says, “success is crossing the finish line”. As such, Marjan, Forough and those skiers who continue her legacy will always be winners.