Page last updated at 14:39 GMT, Friday, 1 August 2008 15:39 UK

High hopes of Iran's women rowers

By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Tehran

Iranian rower Homa Hosseini training in Tehran (July 2008)
Homa Hosseini has been rowing for only two years

Not many Tehran cabbies could find their way there, but hidden close to the centre of the Iranian capital is a six-lane, 1,000m rowing course.

The lake was dug for the 1974 Asian Games - one of the last international sports festivals here before the Islamic revolution cut off Iran from hosting such events.

Behind the finish is the 100,000 seat Azadi stadium. In the background, the magnificent Alborz mountains that form Tehran's northern boundary.

It has taken a while for Iran to take to the sport of Oxford and Cambridge, Henley and Pimm's.

But two years ago, they finally took the plunge.

A group of 300 young women was brought to this course from across the country to test their suitability for the sport. There was a similar programme for the men as well.

One of the young candidates, Homa Hosseini, graduated from the class and now, two short years later, she is travelling to take part in the Beijing Olympics.

If the approach sounds eastern European, it is.

The current women's coach comes from one of the great nations of women's rowing, Romania. Another coach is half-Russian.

Strong support

But this is rowing with a distinctly Islamic touch.

Iranian rower Homa Hosseini

We are not short of anything, and in fact sometimes women get better support than men because of the sensitivity of the issue
Homa Hosseini

As the rowers begin to arrive at six in the morning, it is already 28C. Soon the temperature will be up in the high 30s (over 100F).

But Homa Hosseini is wearing the obligatory Islamic uniform - a cap secures a headscarf in place.

Tight-fighting Lycra is strictly banned. Instead she has a shapeless top, long sleeves and tracksuit bottoms. Whatever the weather.

"Yes, our clothes are warm," Homa explains philosophically. "But since we began to work with such clothing we got used to it.

"Personally I do not have any problem with that and I don't think it is stopping me from making progress."

Whatever the general restrictions on women in the Islamic Republic, in rowing they insist they get a fair deal.

"The facilities we are using are the same as the men and we get a very strong support from our federation," Homa tells me.

"So we are not short of anything, and in fact sometimes women get better support than men because of the sensitivity of the issue."

Over the last two years that support has included four foreign coaches. The boats are Chinese.

The blades look suspiciously like they are from a top American manufacturer - strange, as sanctions make it hard to buy American-made goods in Tehran. They tell me they picked them up second hand.

In the gym, there is a small fleet of rowing machines.

Further battles

Sara Khoshjamal Fekri (L) competes with her Iranian rival Fatemeh Nemati (R) during training in Tehran (June 2008)
Sara Khoshjamal Fekri (L) will represent Iran in Taekwondo in Beijing

For Iranian sportswomen, it has been a slow, steady battle.

In the early years of the revolution, they were not allowed to compete internationally at all - a restriction Saudi Arabian women still live with.

Gradually, they were admitted into sports most suited to the dress code - archery and shooting. Now the range is ever wider.

One of Iran's leading competitors in Beijing is in the - distinctly unladylike - sport of Taekwondo.

They are still fighting some other battles. It is forbidden for women to go to men's football games, although they famously forced their way into one crucial World Cup qualifier a few years ago.

My (female) producer was even asked to leave, while we filmed a top Iranian football side on its training ground.

Marjan Namazi, who writes for a women's sports website in Iran, complains that Iranian women's sports only get a third of government sports funding. She says Iranian men still do not take women's sports seriously.

But then again, you might well hear the same story in Britain or the United States.

Tough schedule

Iranian women watch a football match (file photo)
Iranian women are still forbidden from watching men's football matches

Iran's sportswomen certainly seem to share the commitment of their male counterparts.

"In the two years that I have been a member of the Iranian rowing team, I have only had two months holiday. We train six hours a day. It takes all of our time," says Homa Hosseini.

She knows that she is not in the medal hunt this time round. But Iranians love their sport and are proud of their Olympic achievements.

Wrestling is their speciality. Not to the mention the proud achievements of the football team, one of the few sides from the Middle East to qualify for the World Cup finals in recent years.

Every Friday, on their day of rest, Iranians of all ages clamber up the Alborz mountains in their thousands. It is a tough climb but women are up there in equal numbers with the men.

It is all very different from the Arab world, where I used to live. Few if any Jordanians, for example, would ever be seen walking in Jordan's fine national parks.

But Iran has a very different ethos, a dynamic attitude to sport and perhaps to life. Iranians love getting out there and proving the rest of the world wrong.

So, sporting world, watch out. The Iranians are coming.

Will you be following the Olympics coverage from Iran? Or will you be supporting the rowers in Beijing?

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