Maryam Tousi, 25, may well be the fastest woman in Iran. Though she specializes in the 200-meter sprint, she also holds the Iranian women’s 100- and 400-meter records. She took gold in the 400m at 2012’s Asian Indoor Championships, and in the 100m and 200m at last year’s Islamic Solidarity Games with times of 11.67 and 23.72 seconds.
Currently preparing for this year’s Asian Indoor Championships, to be held next month, she with Sharq Parsi about the Iranian athletics scene, the challenges of competing in international tournaments in full Islamic dress, her hopes for the future, and missing out on the Olympics by less than a tenth of a second.
Sharq Parsi: What is your next competition?
Maryam Tousi: My next competition will be the Asian Indoor Championships [in February].
Q: Are you ready? Do you have any problems?
At the moment, my biggest problem is my coach. The [Iranian] National Olympic Committee said they wanted to get me a foreign coach but there have been problems finding one. I want a coach for my level, [one] who can bring me to the level I need, but unfortunately this has been an issue. At the moment I am still training with my old Iranian coach.
Q: Does the coach have to be foreign?
My results have reached a level where they are some of the highest in Asia. As a result, I need a coach who can get them even higher. My real goal is the Asian Games in [South Korea in September]. I have to make a huge effort to compete with opponents who have better training facilities. As a minimum, I would like the facilities they have.
Q: Does the coach have to be a woman?
Q: Why has a foreign coach not been found for you?
Last year I had a Russian coach who used to be the world champion. I had good results with her and won my first Iranian women’s athletics gold with her. But now it is much harder to find a foreign coach.
Q: Why didn’t you stay with that coach?
When her contract ended, the federation decided not to extend it. At that time the sports federations had many financial problems—not just in athletics. Maybe that is why they chose not to extend her contract.
Q: With no female coach coming to Iran, could there be other reasons? Do female coaches think living conditions in Iran are poor, or do they have a distorted view of what life is like in Iran?
That could be true. Perhaps they have the wrong idea bout Iran from some of the things they hear. Moreover, a female coach who wants to come and work in Iran absolutely faces different conditions to a man. For example, she would have to agree to wear hijab, and no one will.
Q: What did you study at university?
I am in my final year at Tehran University studying physical education.
Q: We hear you’re quite active on Facebook . . .
Yes. I have a fan page that was made by one of my fans, but they then turned it over to me. My program director does more work on the page than me, but I also keep an eye on it. I really enjoy, and am very motivated by, the messages I receive that people have written for me.
Q: What about fans at athletics events?
Because athletics meetings are not advertised in Iran, there aren’t usually spectators at the stadium.
Q: How many fans do you have on Facebook?
More than 100,000 people have ‘liked’ my page.
Q: How does the page help you get closer to the fans?
Before the page was set up few people knew about me, because sadly in Iran the media don’t value women’s sport. The page has let me introduce myself to other Iranians.
Q: It seems Facebook has become a personal media platform for you. Some of the photos you published recently would not be found elsewhere due to the restrictions on showing women’s sport in Iranian media. What has the reaction of your fans been to these photos?
The reactions have been good. They are getting to know the training and competitions I take part in. Every now and then, people leave me messages that give me a boost. The training is very hard and tiring, but when I get back and see my Facebook page it gives me a second wind.
Q: Are you more interested in social activism or something like being a Member of Parliament or city councilwoman? I ask this because Nada Abdullah Zadeh, the women’s football team captain, is now on the Bushehr city council. What about you?
In the future, I will 100 percent think about these things, but right now I am focused on my sports goals. At the moment, my most important aim is to perform well at the Asian championships. However, a few months ago I was elected a Goodwill Ambassador for family health, and I attended a conference in Thailand that was really good.
Q: So can we wait for you to become a peace ambassador for the UN in the future?
Yes, a hundred percent. In my opinion, the presence of an athlete in these matters can have a big impact, since they can be role models more effectively than an average person.
Q: You compete while wearing Islamic dress. Isn’t that difficult?
Since I also train in this clothing it has become sort of normal. In competitions other runners have also asked me about my clothes. The first few times I went it was strange for them, but now it’s not so unusual and has become more normal for them.
The first world competition I took part in, they told me there would be five former world champions in my heat, as well as the world number one. But they could not imagine being able to run and compete in my clothes. She asked me about it and I said that because in Iran we train and compete in these clothes, I have become used to it. But the reality is that we have to work much harder than everyone else. Many Iranian women have worked just as hard and have shown that by winning medals wearing these clothes.
In sprint races the weight of clothing is very important. The clothing they [my opponents] wear is designed to be lightweight and aerodynamic.
Q: What have the reactions been like?
I have seen nothing bad so far. The same world champion I told you about told me “you are a champion to race in these clothes and under these conditions.”
Q: Can the material be changed?
Absolutely the material can be lighter, but so far we haven’t found anyone do it because we don’t have a sponsor. I knew a Bahraini runner who raced in Islamic clothes and Nike made all her clothes out of lightweight material—even her headscarf.
Q: What is the biggest problem for sportswomen in Iran?
As a female sprinter, there is no future for me. If I were injured today, my athletics career would be over. There is no suitable insurance for sportspeople. If we had insurance or sponsors to look after us, financially and medically, then some of the problems would end. The federation could also protect us, but its financial situation isn’t good either.
Q: What is the difference between the treatment of male and female sprinters in Iran? Have you experienced discrimination?
Conditions now, compared to when I started athletics, are much better. But you can’t hide the discrimination. In money, clothing and other ways the discrimination is there, but I am still hopeful for the future.
Q: How many countries have you been to? Have you ever participated in an international relay competition?
I have been to compete in many countries, but my best memory is winning my first gold. Going to the World Championships in 2011 was also very memorable. Last year I had no relay races except for in the domestic league. I would like to do it more.
Q: What is your biggest dream right now?
My dreams are very big. When I first started athletics, I wanted to win an Asian medal. My nest goal is to compete at the Asian Games and win a medal. After that I want to get more experience on the world stage.
Q: What do you mean by the “world stage”?
The biggest dream of any athlete is to go to the Olympics, and I missed the last Olympics by just 0.08 seconds. But I am more motivated and I really hope to go to the next Olympic Games.