Sports for women stopped completely with the fundamentalist revolution in 1979. Hashemi, who was born in '63, had been encouraged as a child to practice volleyball, swimming, badminton and table tennis inside her family's compound. "My father's support is one of the main reasons we've been able to do what we've done," she says. "He helped find the money and change attitudes toward sport for women. People see me as a religious girl, so they see that you can be a sportswoman and a religious person."
In the early 1980s, Hashemi began to lobby for recreational sports in the schools. Then she made the case for competition, arguing that without it, sports lose meaning. It took a decade before officials agreed to send women to the Asian Games. Only in '96 did they send one to the Olympics. During the first Islamic Women's Games, clerics denounced the spectacle of a woman, even one hejab-ed to the hilt, bearing a torch through the streets of Tehran; at the second Games, in '97, they raised no such objections. "So it takes time," Hashemi says. "Technically and culturally." In Farsi the term is kam kam—bit by bit.
Some fundamentalist clerics still believe that a woman who speaks in public contravenes the word of the prophet. But two million Iranian women participate in sports, compared to perhaps 12,000 before the revolution. Demand overwhelms the few facilities from which men are banned so women may swim, work out or play volleyball or basketball, as women most anywhere else in the world can do. Segregated sports have created a cohort of female coaches and administrators, and attracted women from conservative backgrounds who might not otherwise be willing to get in the game. "Hejab? they insist, "is the source of our strength."
Change begets more change, kam kam. In Chitgar Park on the outskirts of Tehran, a newlywed couple ignores the sign that says WOMEN ARE NOT TO RIDE BICYCLES IN THE PRESENCE OF MEN, SO he might teach her the elements of two-wheeling. Hashemi predicts that kayaking will be the next sport to send an Iranian woman to the Olympics, and the national women's flat-water team is billeted at a training camp for four weeks, a period away from home that, only a few years earlier, husbands or fathers would have never permitted. Women are still barred from watching men play soccer, but at a basketball game between the under-23 men's teams of Iran and Syria, female spectators cheer from their quarantine in the upper deck.
Yet some believe Hashemi walks her narrow road all too deliberately. One such dissenter can be found on a Friday in Mellat Park in north Tehran. Wearing what is known as "bad hejab" Mahin Gorji plays volleyball with male colleagues from the sports newspaper for which she works. She could not have done this before the astonishing election, in 1997, of reformist president Mohammad Khatami. For cavorting with men to whom she isn't related, the police would have reprimanded Gorji. But the reformists, supported overwhelmingly by the people, and the clerics, whose hidebound views still prevail, are in a standoff. So people test the law, and if there's no backlash they ignore it, like pedestrians at a gridlocked intersection.
Gorji had been a first-division volleyball player, but her female coach, a moonlighting schoolteacher, only knew so much. So Gorji asked a male coach to help her train in private. He said no. She then trained on her own but messed up her knee and had to retire from elite-level sport. Now in her early 30s, she is left to bat around a ball in the park. "In sport you should be able to compare yourself to other countries," says Gorji, "but with this way we have in Iran, we can't. And if we can't train with the men, why can't we at least go to the stadium and watch them play, so we can learn?"
From satellite TV she knows of the World Cup champion U.S. women's soccer team. But does she know of Boulmerka? Does she know that Boulmerka won an Olympic gold medal, only to be denounced and threatened for doing so, and that she now packs heat? Mahin Gorji is a sports-writer, but she says, "I did not know of this woman. Thank you for telling me this."
Deborah Gyurcsek practiced gymnastics as a little girl. She ran the sprints as a teenager. Then, just before she turned 20, her imagination kindled to a hybrid of those two disciplines. She watched the men who pole-vaulted, and eventually she began to imitate them. A Uruguayan track official soon rebuked her: "You women should vault in the circus!"
Within months, at the '99 South American championships, that same official was hanging a bronze medal around Gyurcsek's neck. Seven weeks ago she cleared the qualifying standard for Sydney, punching her ticket for track and field's big top.
Before Sydney, Uruguay had produced only 16 female Olympians, and the situation hasn't improved. In 1992 the country sent 23 athletes to the Games, all of them men. In '96, only two women were among the 14 sent. In Uruguay the dictates of Latin culture are discouraging enough to female athletes, and financial support for athletes of both sexes flows fitfully. As a result a woman's qualifying for the Games is left more or less to chance. Swimmer Serrana Fern�ndez and long jumper M�nica Falcioni will also go to Sydney, but each has had to abandon her sport at least once during her career. Like Gyurcsek, who had lost both parents to cancer by the time she turned 16, all are uncommonly responsible for their own success. If a Uruguayan woman chooses to stand out in sports, she will do so in defiance of the media images that make their way over the R�o de la Plata from Buenos Aires, where women compete to see who can land the youngest boyfriend.