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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 September 2005, 16:33 GMT 17:33 UK
Polo comes back home to Iran
By Frances Harrison
BBC News, in Tehran

Iranian polo players
Women were an integral part of the sport in ancient Persia
It has been called the Game of kings, but polo is being revived in post-revolutionary Islamic Iran.

And it's not just men who are playing this dangerous sport - women are now competing too but observing Islamic dress restrictions.

As the female riders prepare for the first ladies' polo tournament in Iran for at least 100 years, the sports commentator gives the audience a history lesson - reminding them that polo originated in the royal courts of ancient Persia 2,500 years ago.

The queen and her ladies-in-waiting would play against the emperor and his courtiers.

Indeed the main square in the historic city of Isfahan was a royal polo ground whose dimensions were copied for all other polo grounds around the world.

Polo spread to India with the Mughals and then across the world with the British, but ironically it almost died out in its country of origin in recent years.

Traditional sport

"The main point is it's our national game so we have to try to win it back," says Mehdi Zulfiqari whose family have been playing polo for decades.

In the last two years the Iranian Polo Federation has struggled to bring about a revival - enlisting 75 members - 12 of them women.

"Polo was an Iranian cultural tradition, part of our tradition," says Siamak Ilkanizadeh Iran's representative at the International Polo Federation.

"We started by building a polo arena here and we started a polo school and people came and learned polo and we've been able to increase our membership by 200%," he explains.

Polo needs a good economy, as one player puts it, but the federation has tried to redefine the game as a national sport rather than an elitist pastime of the rich.

This helped win the support of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei for playing the game of kings in a revolutionary state that overthrew centuries of monarchy.


Today female polo players are not allowed to ride with men or compete against them. They have to wear strict Islamic clothing which some find a little tricky to control on horseback.

Iranian polo players and spectators
For the spectators it is an exciting game to watch
"We're always worried about the headscarf and overcoat staying in the right position," says Shella Ilkhanizadeh, adding that "the game is so exciting that you forget all these problems".

She finds the headscarf and riding hat difficult: "This kind of helmet is very hot and when I take it off it's full of water inside because you see how hot the weather is here".

Inconveniences aside, most women players feel it is a sign of progress that they can take part in sports competitions like this.

"After many years we have been able to arrange a team of women and show this in public and say that women also can play this game," says Shiva Ilkhanizadeh who hopes she can encourage more women to take part.

The team in yellow overcoats wins the tournament and is presented with a cup. Everyone looks delighted - it isn't who wins but playing the game that matters.

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