At the Olympics’ opening ceremony a number of nations were being watched, but one flag bearer garnered a lot of attention: Iran’s Zahra Nemati.
Not only was she a woman carrying Iran’s flag, but she was in a wheelchair. The archer became the first Iranian to compete in both a Paralympic and Olympic games and she will again appear in the Paralympics which begin September 7. Between her two Games, Nemati returned to Tehran and took time out to speak to Excelle Sports about both Games.
A former taekwondo star, who seemed destined to head to the Olympic Games in that sport, Nemati suffered spinal cord injuries in a 2003 car accident, ending her Taekwondo career. “After speaking with some friends and watching the archers, I decided to compete in archery,” Nemati told Excelle Sports in a phone interview.
Nemati refuses to see herself as anything special, but rather just accepts that she has been in a position of great honor. This is especially true when talking about being a flag bearer. “Every athlete that is a flag bearer is proud being there,” she said. “But I should add this, especially so as a para athlete being Iran’s flag bearer.”
Being a woman in Iran, in such a prominent position on the world stage, has given Nemati an opportunity to speak about women’s sports in Iran. Nemati sees an opportunity for women to break through in this area. “There are some women athletes in Iran who really do something special,” she said. “I was just the first woman to win a medal for my country in the Paralympics or Olympics.”
Nemati wants to use her stage as an opportunity to change Iran, and even the world. “I try to be a role model for all people with a disability around the world, especially women. After winning my medals, in Iran there has been a change of view of women in sport.”
This is backed up by an increase in the number of Iranian women participating in sports—since 2004 Iran’s women’s contingent at the Olympic and Paralympic Games has been steadily increasing.
On the field Nemati had a lot of support in Rio, with dozens of Iranian flags being flown by fans at the archery events. It was clear this had an impact on the Iranian.
“I want to thank all who supported me. Their energy gives me motivation to try more and more,” she said.
While at the Olympic Games, Nemati got to compete, while her Paralympic opponents didn’t, but Nemati didn’t see it as an advantage. “These two events are different to compete in, they have their own trends, but my coach and support team always guide me to appear at the games in my best condition. The results are hard to predict but I always try my best.”
Still, the first-time Olympian stressed just how significant the competition was for her. “It’s the first time I’ve experienced the Olympic Games, and competing with iconic able-bodied athletes is a challenge because it is so competitive.”
The fairy tale Olympic ending was not to be for Nemati, who fell in the opening match to Russian Inna Stepanova, 6-2, after claiming the first two set-points. “I don’t know what happened,” said Nemati about the loss. “The results can be unpredictable.”
Nemati will be coming into the Paralympic Games as the defending champion in the Women’s Individual Recurve W2 (the W2 classification is for wheelchair-bound athletes). Iran is a formidable team, coming in as the defending team W1/W2 bronze medallists.
It’s been a busy summer for Nemati, who was one of the most popular athletes in Rio during the Olympic Games. But she’s been taking all this extra media attention in stride.
“After any competition all the media turned to me to have some news, especially for Iran, to give their support and also to motivate people,” she said.
Nemati is fairly young for the sport at 31, but she plays her cards close to her chest regarding her future. “I will take a short break (after Rio),” she said, “but I will continue my training, let me talk about the future later.”
In the meantime, her present is giving the world plenty to discuss.