WHISTLER (Reuters) - Marjan Kalhor knows she has no chance of winning a gold medal in next week’s women’s slalom but before she even steps out of the gate she has already claimed a first place.
As the first Iranian woman to enter an Olympic ski event, the 21-year-old finds herself a role model for a generation of female skiers in her homeland and it is a position she is proud to occupy.
“I will be very, very happy when I am there (at the start gate) and one of my targets is to tell Muslim women that there is no limitation for them, even with hijab they can do whatever they want and they can get here like me,” she told Reuters in an interview.
The interview with Reuters television took place inside a small rented apartment and Kalhor was dressed in a conservative Islamic fashion with headscarf and an additional scarf around her neck.
Before the interview began, she was instructed to tighten up the wrap of her neck scarf by one of the five men present throughout and the same man interrupted on at least two occasions, with comments in Farsi to Kalhor before she answered questions through a translator provided by the local Olympic organisers.
Despite her nerves and a somewhat tense atmosphere — after all the issue of women’s opportunities in Iran is one for which the Islamist government is frequently criticised — Kalhor did not duck questions about whether she encountered encouragement or hostility towards her choice of career.
She said her family were always behind her desire to compete in skiing right from the age of 11 when she won her first junior national title.
“It was because of their encouragement that I am here — they always encouraged me to do this,” she said.
But surely in Iran, a country with a strict Islamist government, she encountered some negativity for her choosing to be an active sportswoman?
“Not in my family but between my friends sometimes I heard it,” she said. “I heard from some that ‘it’s not proper for you, don’t do that’ but I never listened to them,” she says.
“It’s not important to me what they say but at the same time it can make me more determined,” she said.
“People are different. Some people don’t know how precious it is to be a winner or competitor. I try not to listen to them but why they say so and why they advise women not to do that — it’s their problem.”
Kalhor, who intends to be a physical education teacher, says she loves the sport of Alpine skiing, which she began on the slopes of Dizin, not far from Tehran and believes her journey from a small kid playing in the snow to an Olympic slalom skier was a natural progression.
“I grew up close to a ski course, that’s the main reason, the same as anywhere in the world — if you grow up near the slopes you are always going to be interested. All the champions come from nearby ski slopes and it was the same for me.” she said.
Her brother Rostam, now a coach, was an avid fan of the sport and in particular Italian former Olympic champion Alberto Tomba, who was also a favourite of Marjan,
Now the Iranian finds herself training at the same gate as seven-times world champion Anja Paerson and Austrian slalom specialist Kathrin Zettel.
That is an experience she hopes that other Iranian women will get in the future and she is aware of her status as a pioneer for the next generation.
“The number of women who are interested in ski is increasing quickly and I am so happy about that.
“This generation and the next one are thinking about competing, not just having fun, and one of the reasons that I am so happy about being here is to be a role model for all of them,” she said.
Editing by Jon Bramley