Weightlifter Parisa Jahanfekrian fled Iran to start a new life in Germany ©Parisa Jahanfekrian

The plight of female athletes in Iran has been highlighted by a weightlifter who fled the country’s strict Islamic regime to start a new life in Germany.

Parisa Jahanfekrian, who should have been the first female weightlifter from Iran to compete at the Olympic Games last year, blames the Iranian Weightlifting Federation (IRIWF) for her heartbreaking absence from Tokyo - and much more besides.

She says she was paid only $90 (£72/€85) in three years while male athletes received a monthly salary, was forbidden from speaking or mixing with her own male team-mates, had to endure terrible training conditions, was suspended when she complained, and was treated humiliatingly throughout her time in the national team.

"We had no financial support from our federation and they would not let us have a sponsor," Jahanfekrian told insidethegames from Germany, where she relocated last week.

She is seeking refugee status and hopes to switch nationality and compete for Germany.

"The lack of financial support, lack of respect and the discrimination against women made me to decide to leave my country," she said.

"The men’s team are paid monthly salaries but in three years in the national team I was paid $30 three times.

"Truly, this was all I was given, and that was just so the federation could tell the media that they paid the female athletes.

"When I qualified for the Olympics I should have been paid a reward by three organisations - the national weightlifting federation, the National Olympic Committee and the Ministry of Sport and Youth.

"Only the Ministry paid me, and the others refused even though they said they would pay.

"I had to work as a fitness trainer to make a living, and when we went to national training camp I couldn’t work so I had to live off my savings.

"The conditions we had to endure for training were terrible, with very poor welfare facilities even at national team camps.

Jahanfekrian blames the Iranian Weightlifting Federation for her absence from Tokyo ©Parisa Jahanfekrian
Jahanfekrian blames the Iranian Weightlifting Federation for her absence from Tokyo ©Parisa Jahanfekrian

"We were forbidden from posting social media videos from the national team camp, so people would not see the conditions.

"And of course Iranian female weightlifters are not allowed to have interviews with foreign media."

Only one person was responsible for decisions about pay, training conditions, competitions and the way women were treated generally, Jahanfekrian said - the IRIWF President Ali Moradi.

When the list of complaints was put to him with a request for comment, Moradi did not respond.

As for discrimination, Jahanfekrian, 27, said: "There is a lack of money and a lack of management.

"There is no weightlifting league for females, but there is for males.

"When we have competitions the media does not report them, television does not show them, but they do for males.

"Female athletes in Iran have had discriminatory, ridiculous criticism in the national media."

She highlighted an example last year, when Dariush Arjmand, a popular actor who is now in his seventies, said in an interview on Iran’s state television that weightlifting was “contrary to motherhood” and that females who did it could damage their breasts and ovaries.

Despite this being complete nonsense, the female interviewer did not query his comments.

"We have to ignore these comments and carry on doing what we believe in," Jahanfekrian said.

"If the women themselves made any criticisms or complaints they were punished - which is why Jahanfekrian did not go to the Olympic Games.

"Our federation will not tolerate any objection about our situation.

Yekta Jamali, third from left, disappeared during the International Weightlifting Federation Junior World Championships in Crete ©ITG
Yekta Jamali, third from left, disappeared during the International Weightlifting Federation Junior World Championships in Crete ©ITG

"When I complained last year they invited me to a disciplinary committee, they told me that I should not protest about anything and also I had no chance for qualification in the Olympic Games.

"They suspended me for six months as a punishment about one month before the Olympic Games.

"I became depressed, and at that time I had an operation (on her hand).

"About six days later a journalist said that I had qualified for Tokyo.

"I was shocked and no one in our federation said anything to me after that.

"They simply ruined my Olympic dream."

The national female team was not allowed to mix or communicate with the men’s team because of strict Islamic laws.

"Because of this, they won’t show videos of female athlete competition in our media," said Jahanfekrian.

"They don’t treat women like men, we are not free.

"There are many female athletes who want to take action against discrimination but they won’t talk to anybody about it because they cannot trust anyone.

"We do not know how much power and influence the Islamic regime of Iran has in another country, one where we might be waiting for our residency."

Her younger team-mate, 17-year-old Yekta Jamali, has also headed to Germany after leaving the Iranian team during the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) Junior World Championships in Greece last week.

Jamali has said nothing since "disappearing" while an Iranian was breaking a junior men’s world record.

Jamali was Iran’s best young prospect, three times a medallist at youth and junior World Championships in the past year.

Having lost its best two lifters, Iran’s female team looks depleted.

Jamali's disappearance during the IWF Junior World Championships proved to be big news on Iranian TV ©ITG
Jamali's disappearance during the IWF Junior World Championships proved to be big news on Iranian TV ©ITG

Women’s weightlifting was forbidden by Iran’s Islamic rulers until 2018, since when the aim has been to qualify females for Paris 2024.

Jahanfekrian first joined the national team in 2018, moving to weightlifting from the hammer throw in track and field after being spotted by a coach.

"In 2019 they invited about 30 people to national training camp," she said.

"Gradually these members became less.

"In 2020 there were 10 and in 2021 there were only three."

How long Jahanfekrian and Jamali will have to wait "in limbo" is unknown.

Applications for asylum can take years, and Jahanfekrian is desperate for a speedy switch of nationality, and an opportunity to compete in a western costume without a hijab.

She is helped by the fact that she has not competed for Iran - because of COVID and her suspension - since 2019, so she has already completed the mandatory two-year gap between lifting for one nation and another.

There is also the option of trying to get a place in the International Olympic Committee’s Refugee Team, which featured exiled Iranians at Tokyo 2020.

Jahanfekrian will be busy seeking support from the Athletes Commission of both the IWF and the IOC.

One report in Iran suggested that Jahanfekrian had been helped in her "escape" by Kimia Alizadeh, the first female from any sport to win an Olympic medal for Iran.

Alizadeh, a taekwondo player who won a bronze at Rio 2016, also sought asylum in Germany, where she now lives - and she competed for the IOC Refugee Team in Tokyo.

"I know Kimia but she did not know anything about my immigration," Jahanfekrian said.

She was also not involved in Jamali’s decision to go to Germany, she said.

"It is very difficult to leave Iran, but one of my friends helped to get a visa, which took several months.

"I have joined a club here, TSC Berlin, so I can return to my training.

"I tried for refugee status and I wish I could get residency and compete for Germany if it is possible.

"Germany is a beautiful country with very nice, helpful people - I am so happy that I am here, and so hopeful for my future."