September 2, 2010 / 10:32 AM / 10 years ago

Iran's first lady of skiing trains on grass

DIZIN, Iran (Reuters) - Skiing down a grassy mountain in the middle of summer is not the only unusual thing about Marjan Kalhor. She is also an Olympic competitor — a rare thing for a woman in a male-dominated sport in Iran.

EDITORS' NOTE: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on leaving the office to report, film or take pictures in Tehran. Marjan Kalhor (R), the first Iranian woman to enter an Olympic ski event, prepares for grass skiing practice with Morteza Jaffari (L) and Mahdi Solghani (2nd R) as their coach Rostam Kalhor looks on at Dizin Ski resort, 70 km (43 miles) northeast of Tehran August 26, 2010. Iranian authorities first allowed women to ski professionally in 2005. In 2010, Kalhor was the first Iranian woman to compete in the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Due to a lack of snow in the mountains of Iran, the skiers practice on grass to keep fit in the off-season. Picture taken August 26, 2010. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

Two hours’ drive from Tehran, Dizin’s hotel and many flashy chalets cater for skiers and the many winter visitors who want to escape the bustle and pollution of the capital.

But in summer, when temperatures in the city are often well above 40 C (104 F), it remains a training ground for people, like Kalhor, who have devoted much of their lives to the sport.

It is also the home town of the 22-year-old who this year became the first woman skier to represent Iran in a Winter Olympics.

Warming up to whiz down the grassy slope, Kalhor told Reuters she loves her career as a skier despite the fact that, like many Iranian athletes, she receives no financial backing.

“During the Olympics I hurt my knees, but no one even bothered to call and ask how I was doing? I myself paid the whole costs.”

A male colleague, Mahdi Solghani, agreed that life is tough for Iranian athletes, men or women.

“Inviting me to the camps for exercising was the only thing that the (Iranian skiing) federation has done for me ... Although I am a double medal winner, this year I myself bought all my gear which is worth 4 million tomans (2,600 pounds). Passion is the only reason that brings me here, but there is no income.”

Financial problems and a lack of sponsors are not Mahdi’s only problems. He also has to serve military service — obligatory for men in Iran — next year.

For Kalhor the obstacles have been different.

In a country where women are not allowed to watch men play soccer and where women players wear head-to-toe clothing and have to cover their hair in accordance with Islamic law, skiing was once a taboo for women.

Kalhor says attitudes have changed and there are now no restrictions.

“In the past there was a very negative attitude towards a woman who skied in Iran, but time passed and women could prove they had something to say and could be successful.”

At the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, where she completed the giant slalom 21.75 seconds behind the fastest time, Kalhor wore a similar racing outfit and helmet to her competitors.

“Both danger and cold weather play a key role in skiing. Therefore, ski outfits are designed in a way to not impose limitations on anyone. I exactly wear the same outfit in Iran which I wore in the Olympics race.”

As Iran’s flag-bearer at the Vancouver opening ceremony, Kalhor sees herself as a role model for the next generation.

“I am truly happy because like a spark I could make other professional female skiers think about big events like the Olympics and that is so precious for me. I hope this trend continues.”

While her competition career continues, Kalhor plans to get a doctorate in sport physiology and become a university professor, while setting her sights on the 2014 winter games.

“What I wish for is to attend the Olympics one more time.”

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