Iran’s first woman to compete in table tennis at the Olympics, Neda Shahsavari, says she is “thrilled” to be going to the London Games, and dreams of winning a medal for the Islamic republic.
Petite and agile, the 25-year-old physical education student from the western city of Kermanshah made history for Iran when she beat Kazakhstan’s Yelena Shagarova at the Middle Asia Olympic qualifying tournament in Tehran in January.
“I was thrilled when I made it, beating Shagarova, since she had beaten me two months before. It was an indescribable feeling,” she told AFP after a training session for the London Games, which begins on July 27. “I have made it but I hope I won’t be the last Iranian woman making it to the Olympics in table tennis,” said Shahsavari, who joins seven other women representing the Islamic republic at the Olympics. In order to get as far as possible in the tournament, she hopes not to meet one of the sport’s strongest competitors from East Asia in the heats.
“Expectations are high. It is very difficult, but I will do my best,” said Shahsavari, who is ranked 490 in the International Table Tennis Federation rankings. Table tennis is popular in Iran, and ping pong tables are widespread in the country’s public parks.
Shahsavari said she was drawn to the sport by hearing the whack of the ball as a child.
“I was drawn to ping pong when I was 11. I loved the sound the ball made hitting the table and the racket. I started hitting the ball onto the wall and ground and then eventually my parents got me a ping pong table,” she said.
Mandatory Islamic dress code in Iran requires all women to cover their bodies from head to toe, and women athletes must adhere to these rules if they are to compete nationally and internationally.
Wearing a loose-fitting, long-sleeved jersey over a pair of tracksuit bottoms, with the Islamic headscarf, Shahsavari says she is comfortable with the outfit.
Used to dress code
“I’ve been competing dressed like this for more than a decade here at home and in international games. I am accustomed to it,” said the young woman, who has been in Iran’s national table tennis team for 10 years.
Iran is sending 54 athletes to the London Games, including eight women.