There are times when sport becomes more meaningful, more impactful, than just a set of results on a scoreboard.
Weightlifter Derrick Johnson and referee Sally Van de Water knew that their trip to Iran for the Fajr Cup in March was likely to produce one of those moments. That turned out to be truer than they even predicted.
Johnson became the first U.S. athlete to lift in Iran in 53 years. Van de Water became the first woman to referee in a men’s competition in Iran, and Ursula Garza Papandrea, president of USA Weightlifting and vice president of the International Weightlifting Federation and Johnson’s coach, became the first woman to coach a man in competition in Iran.
And, after a weekend in which women were initially turned away from spectating, leading to a protest that sparked global attention, two young Iranian girls became the first female weightlifters to appear live on national television in the country.
“To look around the room and know that Ursula and I were the only women in the room because that’s only what was legally permissible was really, I don’t even know the word,” Van de Water said. “Strange. Interesting. Fascinating. But then to see the evolution of the weekend, I was moved to tears.”
Weightlifting is the most popular sport in Iran, and the trip came about in part because Garza Papandrea was invited by the Iranian Weightlifting Federation to come teach a women’s camp in conjunction with the competition.
Johnson, who holds a bachelor’s degree in political science, and Van de Water, who is a folklorist in addition to an official, both expressed an interest in the unique opportunity to be part of a competition in Iran.
Johnson said that when they arrived and entered the training facilities, it began to dawn on them that Garza Papandrea was setting foot in places where women had never been.
“She’s there to coach me, and now she’s in a building with Olympians and coaches who have never seen a woman in there,” Johnson said. “We’re in the training hall with the national team and there’s no women’s restrooms because why would you have them in a place where women aren’t allowed in? So in the days prior to the competition it was already different.”
No American weightlifter had competed in Iran since the world championships were held there in 1965, Johnson said, and some of the people they met had never even seen an American in their country. They were welcomed warmly wherever they went, he said, meeting mayors and other dignitaries.
Van de Water said the same. She joked that with all the people who wanted photos with them, more photos probably now exist of her in Iran than from her own wedding.
“Every experience we had we were treated with absolute respect and were treated like royalty,” she said. “Perhaps some referees or officials didn’t want us there, but we couldn’t tell. The vast majority sought us out to say thank you for coming, we’re happy you’re here, we hope you like Iran and hope you’re having a good experience.”
One thing to which Van de Water had to adjust was not shaking the hands of her colleagues and other men she met. It was unusual, she said, but she learned how to convey her respect in a different way when being introduced.
“You put your right hand over your heart and do a quarter bow forward nodding your head,” she said. “I did the same thing when I gave out medals for one session. I didn’t know the word for congratulations in Farsi, but I think it translated.”
Johnson won the gold medal in the 62 kg. classification, the first day of the competition. It wasn’t until later that he realized, however, that no women had been present to watch. Religious officials in the country had agreed to lift the ban on women being present for a men’s competition, but security officials nonetheless would not let women enter.
Among those kept out were 8-year-old Aysan Adib and 6-year-old Yeganeh Bandeh Khodo, who were to lift in an exhibition.
The next day they arrived back at the arena, Johnson said, and the women were all waiting outside hoping to be let in. Word had spread and an outcry was growing on social media and throughout the country, and Garza Papandrea joined the women in protest. She posted a photo of herself with four other woman sitting outside the venue to Instagram with the caption, “Sometimes you are defined by your actions and at other times your actions define who you are. Some very special moments in life can do both. That night I wasn't going in without them. -Ursula.”
The following day the women were allowed to enter. Women not only watched the competition but also worked as officials and in the media, and Adib and Khodo were allowed to lift.
“I was moved to tears,” Van de Water said. “I’m in the center chair refereeing and I look over and see a couple new friends helping out, taking turns doing different jobs. To see that slow progression of women taking on roles they’d never taken on before, I was struck with awe at their perseverance and courage. These folks live there. Their families can be affected by the choices they make and the stand they were making. I hope the powers that be see this is a good thing and it’s bringing positive attention to Iran and for women who want to participate in weightlifting.”
Garza Papandrea taught about 40-50 women in her course, Van de Water said, including many coaches or those who are interested in coaching. Who knows, Van de Water said, maybe the two young girls who lifted on national television for the first time will one day represent Iran in the Olympic Games.
Johnson, too, believes what happened at the Fajr Cup could help open things up for women weightlifters in Iran.
“I just look forward to seeing the progression,” he said. “I look forward to seeing Iranian women be able to get out there and compete and attend male events, and men attend women’s events. That’s what I look forward to seeing happen for them.”