ABC News: She is a real Iranian fighter, fierce and focused on taking down an opponent. At 20 years old, tae kwon do champion Sara Khoshjamal is taking her fight to Beijing. This summer she’ll travel from her home on the outskirts of Tehran to the heights of the Olympic stage. ABC News
Tae Kwon Do Champion Trains for Beijing Summer Olympics
By LARA SETRAKIAN
TEHRAN, Iran, March 13, 2008
She is a real Iranian fighter, fierce and focused on taking down an opponent. At 20 years old, tae kwon do champion Sara Khoshjamal is taking her fight to Beijing. This summer she’ll travel from her home on the outskirts of Tehran to the heights of the Olympic stage.
“I worked very hard, I practiced very hard and my coach is very great. Now I go for the Olympic games. & I’m very happy,” she told ABC News.
Since making the Olympic qualifiers in Vietnam and beating the world’s top-ranking woman in her weight class last month, Khoshjamal has become a national celebrity. Keeping with what’s required in her conservative Muslim society, Khoshjamal competes wearing a headscarf. In a country with limited options for competitive female athletes, she represents irrepressible talent and ambition.
“Sara is becoming a role model for young girls in Iran,” Kiarash Bahri of Iran’s Tae Kwon do Federation told ABC News, standing near a larger-than-life poster bearing Khoshjamal’s image.
Khoshjamal is the first Iranian woman to earn a spot at the Olympics.
In the past three years other women have competed from the Islamic Republic in Olympic pistol-shooting, but Bahri said they were wild card entries. None of the women finished in the top three, making Khoshjamal Iran’s best hope for its first female medalist.
“I’m happy, but I am nervous. It is a very big duty. All of my country is watching me,” she said.
“I would love to take a gold medal in Beijing. I know it is important for other girls in Iran, but it’s important for me too. I practice very hard, and I hope we can do it. It will make the people of my country happy.”
Tae kwon do is increasingly popular among women in Iran, with roughly 120,000 women practicing the martial art. It is one of few sports in which Iran’s Islamic leadership allows women to compete on an international level.
They are barred from taking part in most Olympic sports, though they can compete internationally in rowing, riflery and chess.
Though intensely physical, tae kwon do is viewed as being compatible with conservative Muslim dictates.
“In tae kwon do, they have a stress on spiritual things — family, respect for elders, which is exactly the same as that in Islam,” says Bahri.
“In Islamic society, we have different beliefs, different ways of behaving. Tae kwon do is not stopping that.”
Millions of women and men watching Khoshjamal sweat it out at the Olympics doesn’t pose a problem, since she’ll be dressed head to toe in a uniform, with a helmet holding her hejab firmly in place.
Women can’t compete or train with men. But Khoshjamal can raise her game by practicing at home with two older brothers, both of whom trained in tae kwon do but had to stop when it became too expensive. While most parents try to keep their children from fighting, Khoshjamal’s parents stand by approvingly, as living room fights are just part of her training routine.
On the mat Sara Khoshjamal is a force, kicking her way to the top of her weight class.
Off the mat she is a petite, pretty brunette who reads psychology books and helps around the house.
Training since the age of 8, Khoshjamal put her university studies on hold to prepare for the Olympics, promising her schoolteacher mother she would resume her education down the line.
Practice takes six hours a day and ends with her studying videos of her past matches. She has traveled from Australia to Beirut for competitions, but has yet to visit the United States.
Khoshjamal’s parents, of modest means but teeming with moral support, can’t travel to Beijing this summer. They hope to watch their daughter’s matches over streaming Web video.
“I was worried about her safety when she first started tae kwon do,” said Khoshjamal’s father. “But my sons did tae kwon do, then my daughters did tae kwon do & in the end there’s no difference.”
The growing ranks of women in tae kwon do, fighting and kicking their way around the Islamic Republic, contradict traditional and stereotypical images of Iranian women held at home and abroad.
“In Iran, our culture looks at women in a more feminine way. It may be hard for people to accept and, of course, there is some resistance,” said Bahri.
“But once they see that everything is done according to our culture and beliefs, that there are no men involved in the competition, that we take precautions as far as being a rough sport, they allow their daughters or sisters to take part.”
A few months from now those women on the mat and millions more across Iran will be looking up at Khoshjamal, watching her carry their dreams to Beijing.