Even the most enthusiastic of sports fan must occasionally grow weary watching on as their favourite athletes are forever lauded. The very notion that people who run, jump, kick, throw or play catch for a living necessarily make ideal role models is, when all things are considered, something of a ridiculous proposition. And then you meet someone like Zahra Nemati. And you think again.
Nemati – 31, Iranian, wheelchair-bound, seldom spotted without wholly unfashionable glasses and a white hijab – is, at best, an unlikely icon. If anyone truly deserves the mantle of heroine and role model, though, it is surely her. For athletes, women in her own country and for people from all walks of life across the Muslim world, this multi-medal winning archer has become a potent symbol, an embodiment of just what can be achieved.
Four years ago, at the Paralympic Games in London, Nemati beat Italy’s Elisabetta Mijno in the women’s W1/W2 recurve final. Her victory made her the first Iranian woman ever to win either an Olympic or Paralympic gold medal. This month she will be in Rio to defend her Paralympic title. Before that, though, she will be competing in the Olympics. This will see her elevated to the exclusive ranks of those who have participated in both Games.
Exclusive is a key word here. Since the birth of the modern Games in 1896, only 14 athletes have qualified for both the Olympics and its Paralympic counterpart. Perhaps ominously for Nemati, her immediate predecessor was Oscar Pistorious.
Despite this, she seems undaunted by the twin challenges that await her. She says: “I was so excited and happy to get this opportunity. I will do my best to win in both events. I believe this will help to motivate all the archers in my country.”
If that wasn’t historic enough, her homeland gave Nemati the honour of leading out the Iranian team and carrying their flag at the Olympic opening ceremony – an astonishing mark of recognition from a country not widely known for its appreciation of female achievement.
She is acutely conscious of her status as a trailblazer. She says: “Some years ago, no one could predict that an Iranian woman will be able to star in an international arena. Many international events didn’t even allow Iranian women to wear a hijab. I am optimistic about Iranian women’s performance in sport, I see a bright future. I think we can be a role model for Islamic countries.”
Nemati’s prowess with a bow and arrow may now have received both national and international renown, but she has had to overcome many obstacles to reach her current level. Not the least of which was the terrible tragedy which led her to taking up archery in the first place.
As a teenager, Nemati excelled at taekwondo. She was a black belt and dreamt of Olympic success at the sport. But the devastating earthquake which struck the Iranian city of Bam in December 2003, killing 26,000 people and leaving another 30,000 severely injured, took those dreams away.
Nemati was in a car accident caused by the quake. It left her paralysed from the waist down and facing the rest of her life in a wheelchair. She recalls how she recovered from the blow, saying: “I had performed taekwondo from the age of 12 and I really loved it. But then I had the accident which paralysed me. I felt great disappointment when I found out that my legs were paralysed.
“But I decided to be powerful. My disappointment and deficiencies vanished because of my hopes. I said to myself, ‘I can’, and this was the starting point. For two years I underwent physiotherapy sessions to keep up my spirits. It helped me get back to life.”
Keen to return to sport, Nemati looked for an activity where the loss of movement in her legs would not be too much of a hindrance. She recalls: “I decided to do sport again. I said goodbye to taekwondo and hello to archery. I started to like it and the feeling prompted me to do it professionally. The pinnacle of my disappointment in taekwondo was the start of my happy days in archery. In fact, my medals in archery are the medals I wished for in taekwondo.”
” I hope my sporting success will motivate those with disabilities to fight for their dreams”
It was an inspired choice. Within six months, competing alongside able-bodied archers, Nemati had come third in the Iranian championships and been called up to the national team. At international level, she produced medal-winning performances in the prestigious Asian Grand Prix tournaments; and then in 2010, she made her first foray into the field of para-archery, smashing the world record in a tournament in the Czech Republic.
A year later, at the World Para-Archery Championships in Italy, she broke four world records and collected a silver medal in the wheelchair-bound women’s individual event, and a bronze and a gold in the team events.
Then came the Paralympic Games in London, where she simply swept aside the opposition, breaking the games record and scarcely dropping a set on the way to the individual gold medal. She also secured a bronze in the team event, in which Iran’s only defeat was to the eventual winners, South Korea. And it was little surprise when she claimed gold the next year at the World Para-Archery Championships in Thailand, beating China’s reigning world champion Yanhong Xiao in the final of the individual recurve W2 category.
Unusually, she attributes some of her astonishing and rapid success to her disability, saying: “I think a disabled limb forces you to rely on your other resources. As I can’t use my legs, I think archery is the sport that suits me best. While archery needs accurate sight, concentration is the key factor. It is this strength that wins me the medals.”
For many, she has done more than just overcome her own personal tragedy. She has also triumphed over the barriers to female success in her home country. Similarly, she has taken gold despite the superior facilities and training programmes enjoyed by athletes in more affluent nations. Taken together, this led to her winning yet another prestigious accolade – the 2013 SportAccord Spirit of Sport Award for Individual Achievement.
Presenting the award, the organisation, an umbrella body for the various international federations of Olympic sports, said her story had radically altered the perception of the disabled, while inspiring countless other women to take up sport. For her own part, Nemati dedicated the award to “my people, Iranian women and all Muslim females”.
Her success has certainly raised the profile of sportswomen in Iran, both able-bodied and disabled. It has also led to a marked increase in women participating in such sports as archery, both in Iran and throughout the wider Muslim world.
Speaking of Nemati, Sima Limoochi, the only Asian member of the International Paralympic Committee, said: “For women – and not just in Iran – it is very important to have role models like Zahra. She brought the idea of women participating in sport to the table of many different organisations in Iran, including the National Paralympic Committee, its national sport federations and even the Ministry of Youth and Sport.
“She has had a great response from the media and from people in Iran. She has become a role model for the whole country.”
Nemati is, however, wary at the prospect of being considered such an icon, saying: “I don’t think I can be considered a role mode. I just try to be the best I can. I only hope my success in international events will motivate those with disabilities to fight for their dreams. I hope that nobody in this world has to face disappointment, especially women and anyone with a disability. Disappointment should not characterise their lives.”
“If I have any purpose, it’s to send this message to all the disabled people in the world – never give up on anything you want to do on account of your disability. Everything is possible.”
One person who is somewhat less shy about proclaiming the significance of Nemati’s achievements is Roham Shahabi, her husband and teammate. He believes she has had a huge impact on those around her, as well as those who look up to her. He says: “Her success gives everyone a sense of pride.”
“Never give up on anything you want to do on account of your disability. Everything is possible”
Being an Iranian woman on an international stage is a huge accomplishment. Zahra truly is a role model for Iran and its women.
“All her efforts and achievements have been seen by a global audience, and this has motivated people, especially among women and those with disabilities.”
The support of her husband is something that Nemati is keen to stress, believing it has played a key role in her success. She says: “When an athlete triumphs, some ignore the fact there are many people behind the scenes. From the beginning, I have enjoyed the support of my husband and family. If I win gold at the Paralympics, I will dedicate it to them.”
Winning that gold, though, is not necessarily a given. For one thing, she’s no longer world champion, having missed out on the championships in Germany last year in order to concentrate on qualifying for the Olympics. It was a no-show that inevitably saw her slide down the sport’s ratings.
In Rio, she will face stiff competition. She not only has the new world champion to contend with – China’s Wu Chunyan, but also Russia’s Svetlana Barantseva, South Korea’s Lee Hwa-sook and her 2012 adversary, Elisabetta Mijno.
Nemati, though, believes that the threat extends well beyond these four. She says: “I think every participant is at their best. They’ve all won many medals and will all seek to shine at the Rio Games.
“Participating in the Olympics is a unique opportunity for every athlete. While my main rivals are typically from South Korea, China or the US, a virtually unknown archer could scoop medals if they have prepared well. I think of every athlete as a rival and I hope to beat them all.”
She is of course aware that, as the current holder of the gold medal, she will be under additional pressure. Acknowledging this, she says: “My past success will undoubtedly make it tougher for me. However, I am determined to shine in the upcoming events.
“All champions can lose their motivation, but my dreams are about more than just winning medals. I love this sport and that continues to inspire me. The main things that motivate me, though, are the expectations of the fans and their ever hopeful hearts.”
However she fares in Rio, though, Zahra Nemati’s achievements to date ensure she will never be seen as ever having