Iran's national team, American guests and local dignitaries at the training camp today ©Brian Oliver

Religious authorities from Khuzestan province have signed papers that will help Iran's national weightlifting federation to stage a landmark event tomorrow, and add to the growing popularity of the sport there.

The authorities have given special approval for women to attend a men's competition for the first time.

Women are not normally allowed to watch men performing, nor are men allowed to attend women's sports events in Iran.

This is a highly contentious issue in football, as many Iranian women have highlighted with their recent attempts to enter stadiums, but the restrictions have been lifted for the Fajr Cup, an international weightlifting competition that began today here in Ahvaz.

Not only will women be allowed to watch, but there will be a woman coaching a man in the 62 kilograms class when Derrick Johnson, the lone American competitor, lifts tomorrow afternoon.

Johnson is coached by Ursula Garza Papandrea, President of USA Weightlifting and an International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) vice-president who is in Iran to help launch the nation's new women's weightlifting programme, as is technical official Sally Van De water.

Both women will break new ground as the first female coach and referee at men's contests.

Iran finished top of the medals table at the 2017 IWF World Championships despite fielding a men-only team, while all their main rivals had men and women competing in Anaheim, California.

Iran's national head coach Mohammad Hossein Barkhah said women competing would increase the sport's popularity in the country ©Brian Oliver
Iran's national head coach Mohammad Hossein Barkhah said women competing would increase the sport's popularity in the country ©Brian Oliver

"All the members of the national team welcome females to the sport," said Mohammad Hossein Barkhah, the new national coach of Iran.

"Weightlifting is more popular in Iran than in any other country in the world, and when we have women competing it will be even more popular."

Barkhah, 41, who won bronze medals at 77kg at the 2001 and 2002 IWF World Championships and twice competed at the Olympic Games, took over as head coach recently from Mohsen Biranvand, who has become general secretary of the Islamic Republic of Iran Weightlifting Federation (IRIWF).

More than 20 years ago Barkhah's father coached the current president of the IRIWF, Ali Moradi, who has successfully campaigned for Government approval for women to be allowed to compete internationally in what has to date been a men-only sport in Iran.

"We were first in the 2017 Senior World Championships, first in the past two Junior World Championships in Japan and Georgia, and second in the last Youth World Championships when we had only men competing," said Moradi at the national team training camp at the Shahid Chamran sports centre, about 70 miles south of Ahvaz, today.

"When we have females competing too, we will be super strong.

"Weightlifting is becoming more and more popular in Iran after our successes.

"We have had a 30 per cent increase in participation, we have 300 paid professionals, an efficient talent spotting system for boys, and now girls, aged 10 or 11, a very strong league and four men’s national teams.

Olympic gold medallist Behdad Salimi in action at the camp ©Brian Oliver
Olympic gold medallist Behdad Salimi in action at the camp ©Brian Oliver

"Parents want their children to do weightlifting, and they know that if they win medals they can be rewarded with big prizes, with a car, a house.

"After soccer, wrestling was the number two sport in Iran but now maybe it’s weightlifting."

There is still ground to make up on wrestling in terms of Olympic medals, in which weightlifting has seven golds to wrestling's eight, but Moradi is confident weightlifting will be statistically the top Olympic sport in Iran after Tokyo 2020.

The American visitors were invited to Iran's elite training camp, where Johnson trained alongside several Olympic and world champions, among them Behdad Salimi, Sohrab Moradi and Ali Hashemi.

The 85kg Olympic champion Kianoush Rostami was, as usual, training alone near his home city of Kermanshah, while the super-heavyweight world silver medallist Saeed Alihosseini was taking his masters exams in physical education.

Those champions are preparing for their main targets of 2018, the Asian Games in August and IWF World Championships in November, while Iran has selected its fourth team to compete in the Fajr Cup.