She’s wearing a white ski jacket with a high collar and green ski pants.
On her slim wrist, there’s a yellow plastic bracelet that says: Believe.
Last week, the petite, 21-year-old physical education student carried her country’s flag in the opening ceremony for the 2010 Olympics. Wednesday, Kalhor is scheduled to compete in giant slalom and, on Friday, in slalom.
She is the first Iranian woman to compete in the Winter Games. The first Iranian woman to compete in the Summer Olympics was shooter Lita Fariman in 1996.
After years of criticism that women are being denied the right to compete at the Games, the International Olympic Committee can take some credit for Kalhor’s debut.
Last fall, the IOC not only agreed to let women box in the 2012 Games in London, it threatened sanctions against countries that refuse to allow women to participate. Among those that have sent male-only teams in the past are Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar, all Muslim countries.
One of the surprising outcomes of those two decisions is that in Afghanistan girls as young as 14 have tucked their scarves or hijabs under headguards, donned loose trousers and are duking it out in Kabul’s Olympic Stadium for the chance to compete in 2012.
Here, Kalhor is one of a number of female, Islamic athletes. But she may be the only one who follows the tradition of covering her head in public whether it’s a toque or, as in her official Olympic photo, a black hijab.
“I’m very careful about covering my hair,” she says through a translator. “Because my hair is so short, I can wear a toque. I wear it or another hat under my helmet when I compete and I make sure to cover my neck.”
Skiing is one of the few sports where Muslim women are not disadvantaged on the field of play by dressing modestly. They are also not at as great a risk of harassment from extremists even though as recently as two years ago an Iranian mullah reportedly said that women should not ski because the movement of their knees “looked more like dancing than sport.”
Kalhor is aware of what happened two years ago after Mahbooba Ahadyar qualified to compete in the 800- and 1,500-metre races for Afghanistan. Although Ahadyar wore a head scarf and long trousers for training and competition, she received death threats. A month before the Olympics, Ahadyar disappeared from Italy where she was training and applied for political asylum in Norway.
She was replaced on the Afghan team by Robina Muqimyar, who wore a scarf and track suit in the 100-metre sprint, finishing last in the field of 85 competitors.
Kalhor is not the only Muslim woman competing at these Games, but she is one of the few who wears a head scarf or hijab.
None of the three women competing for Turkey in figure skating, cross-country and alpine skiing wears a head scarf when they are not competing. And in competition, figure-skater Tugba Karademir is no more modestly clad than any of the others.
It’s the second Olympics for Karademir, a 24-year-old University of Toronto student. She was the first Turkish women to compete in figure skating at the 2006 Winter Games.
Kalhor insists that she can only speak for Iran, and she doesn’t believe there are any religious or cultural limits to women and girls pursuing sports. If they want to participate in sports, she says, they can.
The biggest limitation for Iranian women, she says, is the same as in most countries: Money.
Iran has ski resorts that are becoming popular particularly with Western, budget-minded snowboarders. But the resort’s infrastructure isn’t like in Europe or North America. There’s not a lot of grooming equipment, for example.
That’s why Kalhor is having trouble at Whistler. The run has deliberately been groomed to be hard and icy, which is what the top World Cup competitors prefer.
In Iran, the snow is soft and Kalhor’s transition to the ice has been painful. Earlier this week, she fell in training, injuring her elbow, although not badly enough to keep her from competing.
Yet even if there were well-equipped resorts, the cost of quality skis and boots is prohibitive for most kids. It’s why there are only 20 Iranian girls competing in league events.
Kalhor’s family has supported her skiing passion — “My parents made it easy for me.”
Her family isn’t rich. Her father is a retired government official; her mother a housewife with a heart condition that made it impossible for them to travel here.
What made it possible for Kalhor and her three siblings to ski is luck. The family lives in a village near the mountain resort of Dizin, about 60 kilometres north of Tehran.
The Kalhors encouraged all four of their children to ski. Marjan’s brother, Rostum, is also at the Olympics as coach of the men’s alpine team. Her other brother and sister both coach skiing at the junior level.
While waiting for the translator to interpret a question, Marjan flipped through pages of Italian clippings about the Olympics. She let out a small yelp of surprise when she saw her photo there.
The media attention she’s attracted has been a bit of a surprise to her, but she’s weathered it well enough that unlike previous interviews, Kalhor was not accompanied by her brother and other Iranian officials when we spoke.
Still, Kalhor seems a bit embarrassed by the question that she’s been asked dozens of times ever since she first competed in Europe two years ago and smiles shyly, flashing her braces.
Do you see yourself as a role model or hero for other Muslim women?
“The Olympics were my dream and I came for that. The only thing I was thinking about was to come to the Olympics to compete and I’ve done that.
“Now, I’m thinking only about doing my best. But if I can be a role model for girls in Iran to encourage them to compete, that would be nice.”
That seems certain. With 252,000 Google mentions and nearly 4,000 blog posts, Kalhor has already caused quite a stir.
Turkish photographer Mine Kasapoglu delights in the revelatory moment. In her coverage of the Salt Lake City, Athens and Turin Olympic Games, she consistently snagged that impromptu gesture, spontaneous meeting or unscripted expression that distinguishes a Kasapoglu image.
A competitive athlete herself — Kasapoglu began ski racing at age three, made her country’s ski team at 15, and is the 2007 Turkish Snowboard Champion — she too has celebrated victories in the winner’s circle.
But when she’s working, Kasapoglu gets great shots behind the footlights. “The most exciting thing for me at Salt Lake,” she blurts with characteristic excitement, “was being backstage with the talent during the opening and closing ceremonies.” During the 2002 games she snapped on- and off-stage photos of headliners like Willie Nelson, Kiss, Moby, Gloria Estefan, Sting and Yo Yo Ma.
In addition to being a freelancer, Kasapoglu is staff photographer at the Turkish alternative fashion magazine 2’debir. (The name translates literally as “one in two,” but colloquially it means “to keep doing something.” What this magazine aims to keep doing, says Kasapoglu, is to “stick its tongue out at the world.”)
When the magazine assigned Kasapoglu to photograph the 2006 Turin Olympics, she built an entire feature around her knack for candids. “I would photograph the athletes not at the medal ceremony,” she explains, “but at the moment they knew they had won. I like the photo to reflect the real experience, the surprise, before they’ve had a chance to compose their expressions.”
Mine has been taking photographs for twelve years. Based in Istanbul she has also worked in Paris, Vienna, Boston, Athens, Torino, Salt Lake City and Beijing. Being extremely passionate about the Olympics, visual arts, creativity, sportsmanship, competition and the excitement that comes with all that, she tries to embody these passions in photography and snowboarding. She is also currently on the Turkish National Snowboardcross team.
More than anything, she prefers to be surrounded by her family, her friends and all her dogs and cats.
Inside sits the demure 21-year-old woman who carried it in the opening ceremony, wearing both the traditional headscarf, and a hesitant smile, for a stranger. Marjan Kalhor represents history, and she hopes, change.
Iran has never before sent a woman to the Winter Games.
Back home, 45 miles from Tehran, is the father, whose four children all ski, and the mother, whose heart issues made it too hard to be here. Back home is a nation of women Marjan hopes will be watching.
It can be a tricky subject, opportunities for women back home. Marjan is not Lindsey Vonn, accustomed to the perils of the media. So she is interviewed in a crowded room, with translator and a bevy of adults, including brother Rostam, who is also her coach.
This is not the slalom course. She will face no question alone.
"I was so excited and proud that I was the lady who would carry the flag," she says. "Everybody could see that a Muslim woman can carry the flag, because everybody is looking at the flag bearers. So it was very important to me that it was me."
Growing up in ski country, she took up the sport at age 4 and was winning competitions at 11. She began thinking of the Olympics.
"I heard from some that 'it's not proper for you do to that,' " she says. "I never listened to them."
There was a report that only recently could she be on the slopes with men and was forbidden to ride chair lifts with them.
Some back-and-forth translation never quite cleared up that matter, though the interpreter finally said, "If the condition is proper, yes she can."
She already has fallen once training here, suffering minor injuries. But she is scheduled for the giant slalom Wednesday and slalom Friday, when she will share the course with the greatest names of her sport. They will go faster, but none of them will feel higher or stronger.
"I can't think about a gold medal or silver or bronze," she says. "But I have some competitors that were close to each other. I hope I can perform better than my rank."
Rostam hopes so, too. They have skied together since they can remember, brother and sister.
"I know what she's capable of," he says. "I believe in her.
"Those families who are not involved in skiing, they can see their daughter can basically be as equal as the son in the family."
Their parents won't be at the Whistler Creekside, cheering for the television cameras. It would have taken a lot of money to get here. And there is something else.
"Our mom has a heart condition, and it's quite stressful to watch your daughter compete," Rostam says. "They usually say goodbye, and good luck and pray at home. As soon as the competition is over, they are called and we tell them the result."
"Like always," Marjan says, "I will tell them to 'Please pray and cross your fingers for me to be the winner.' "
Not that her brother can say much about nerves.
"When she practices, I am watching her like a hawk," he says. "But when she's competing, I turn my back because I don't want to see it. I hear the results on the walkie-talkie."
But this week, he'll be watching.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance," he says.
His sister hopes not, for the women back home.
The interview ends.
"Thank you," Marjan says, in English, perhaps slightly more comfortable as a groundbreaking daughter of Iran.
Ladies Figure Skating: Tugba Karademir (Turkey)
By SIMON EVANS | REUTERS
Published: Feb 17, 2010 1:31 PM Updated: Feb 17, 2010 9:23 PM
WHISTLER: Marjan Kalhor knows she has no chance of winning a gold medal in next week's women's slalom but before she even steps out of the gate she has already claimed a first place.
As the first Iranian woman to enter an Olympic ski event, the 21-year-old finds herself a role model for a generation of female skiers in her homeland and it is a position she is proud to occupy.
"I will be very, very happy when I am there (at the start gate) and one of my targets is to tell Muslim women that there is no limitation for them, even with hijab they can do whatever they want and they can get here like me," she told Reuters in an interview.
The interview with Reuters television took place inside a small rented apartment and Kalhor was dressed in a conservative Islamic fashion with headscarf and an additional scarf around her neck.
Before the interview began, she was instructed to tighten up the wrap of her neck scarf by one of the five men present throughout and the same man interrupted on at least two occasions, with comments in Farsi to Kalhor before she answered questions through a translator provided by the local Olympic organizers.
Despite her nerves and a somewhat tense atmosphere — after all the issue of women's opportunities in Iran is one for which the Islamist government is frequently criticized — Kalhor did not duck questions about whether she encountered encouragement or hostility toward her choice of career.
She said her family were always behind her desire to compete in skiing right from the age of 11 when she won her first junior national title.
"It was because of their encouragement that I am here — they always encouraged me to do this," she said.
But surely in Iran, a country with a strict Islamist government, she encountered some negativity for her choosing to be an active sportswoman? "Not in my family but between my friends sometimes I heard it," she said. "I heard from some that 'it's not proper for you, don't do that' but I never listened to them," she says.
"It's not important to me what they say but at the same time it can make me more determined," she said.
"People are different. Some people don't know how precious it is to be a winner or competitor. I try not to listen to them but why they say so and why they advise women not to do that - it's their problem." Kalhor, who intends to be a physical education teacher, says she loves the sport of Alpine skiing, which she began on the slopes of Dizin, not far from Tehran and believes her journey from a small kid playing in the snow to an Olympic slalom skier was a natural progression.
"I grew up close to a ski course, that's the main reason, the same as anywhere in the world — if you grow up near the slopes you are always going to be interested. All the champions come from nearby ski slopes and it was the same for me." she said.
Her brother Rostam, now a coach, was an avid fan of the sport and in particular Italian former Olympic champion Alberto Tomba, who was also a favorite of Marjan. Now the Iranian finds herself training at the same gate as seven-times world champion Anja Paerson and Austrian slalom specialist Kathrin Zettel.
That is an experience she hopes that other Iranian women will get in the future and she is aware of her status as a pioneer for the next generation.
"The number of women who are interested in ski is increasing quickly and I am so happy about that.
"This generation and the next one are thinking about competing, not just having fun, and one of the reasons that I am so happy about being here is to be a role model for all of them," she said.
Implications of Islam on Muslim Girls' Sport Participation in Western Europe. Literature Review and Policy Recommendations for Sport Promotion
(CNN) -- Marjan Kalhor is already a champion, even though the Olympic flame has yet to blaze in Vancouver, Canada.
Her dream has come true, even without a podium finish.
"I always asked my brother, 'Why can't a woman compete in the Winter Olympics?'" Kalhor said, remembering watching the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. "Since Turin, I've told myself that if Iran allows women to compete in the next Olympics, I have to be the first."
And, despite the odds, she is. For the lifelong skier, the absence of Iranian women on the country's delegation was glaring.
Kalhor, who comes from a family of avid skiers, has braved the slopes of Dizin, in the Alborz mountain range north of Tehran, since age 4. In a couple of weeks, she will take the international stage competing in the Alpine slalom and giant slalom.
As the first Iranian woman in Winter Olympics history, the 21-year-old will head a four-member Iranian team that will be the only one from the Middle East. The three other Iranian athletes, all male, are Poria Saveh Shemshak, Hossein Saveh Shemshak and Seyed Sattar Seyd.
Iran has sent male athletes to the Winter Games nine times since 1956, but none has returned home with medals.
For Kalhor, who trains under her brother Rostam Kalhor, head coach for Team Iran, qualifying for the Olympics is the ultimate achievement after years of focus and dedication to her sport.
For Iran, allowing a woman to compete in the Winter Games is a bright moment for a nation embroiled in political protests, human rights violations and controversy over its nuclear program.
Iran has allowed women to compete in international athletics at snail's pace, first with shooter Lita Fariman at the 1996 Summer Olympics, before conceding spots on its summer delegation to women competing in rowing, archery and taekwondo -- all sports that women can participate with the mandatory Islamic dress code.
Those few allowances have pushed some women who practice in other events, such as gymnastics and swimming, to switch sports in hopes of reaching the Olympics within government rules.
"Skiing is a sport where you have to be fully dressed. So there is no problem with clothes. I shall observe the Islamic dress code," said Kalhor in a telephone interview from her family's home in Dizin.
It's the kind of improvisation Iranian women have grown accustomed to over the past three decades under Islamic rule.
"When you travel to Iran, women are present, women work. You have a very active presence there," said Golbarg Bashi, who teaches Iranian studies at Rutgers University. "They can't just completely shut everything off."
For a few years, the government has toyed with the idea of allowing a woman to compete in skiing, in which aerodynamic uniforms are the norm for competitors and seemingly a no-no for Muslim women.
But this didn't stop Kalhor. Fueled by her passion for the sport, her ambitions rocketed when she won a national event at the age of just 11. By 16, Kalhor had won bronze at a competition in Turkey, and two years later, she took home gold in slalom and silver in giant at a Lebanese event.
While she will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the world's best athletes in Vancouver, the rules of Kalhor's homeland will be ever-present. Off the slopes, she is expected to observe the Islamic dress code, or hijab, but on the slopes, she will compete in the aerodynamic ski suit and helmet worn by her Western rivals.
"This historic event is also a great moment of pride for the sport of skiing and the Islamic Republic of Iran to see an Islamic woman reach these ranks," said Issa Saveh Shemshaki, chairman of Iran's Ski Federation.
Still, hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose second-term win was the source of so much unrest in recent months, was forced to back down from an initiative early in his first term to encourage female participation in sport because of criticism from the country's religious leaders. One mullah reportedly last year said that women should not ski because the movement of their knees looked "more like dancing than sport."
Iran announced last March that it would send a woman to the Winter Olympics, but observers say Kalhor's Vancouver debut couldn't come at a better time.
"This is a move I think that Iran is and could be using to offset the bad coverage with other issues," said Pantea Beigi, a native of Iran and human rights expert with Colorado-based PeaceJam, focusing on youth movements.
Since the summer, as Kalhor spent hour-after-hour perfecting her slalom technique in the snow drifts of the mountains, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Iran, demonstrating against the nation's hardline government.
Waking up at dawn each morning to hit the slopes, she remained dedicated to her training -- despite the disturbing images of protest violence broadcast across the world.
Opposition leaders have slammed Ahmadinejad, who was declared the overwhelming winner of the disputed June 12 presidential elections, as a dictator and tyrant. And, despite the government's harsh warnings that it will continue its brutal crackdowns on demonstrations, the protesters refuse to back down.
Tensions have mounted after a coalition of Iranian reformist groups urged opponents of the regime to stage non-violent protests on the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution next week. The Council for Coordinating the Reforms Front wants people to march "with their green colors" in support of the opposition Green Movement on February 11.
The next day, the fresh-faced Marjan Kalhor will attend the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver games, as her nation's flag-bearer. For Team Iran, it will be an experience of a lifetime. But is it just strategy for Iran? Some say yes.
"This very story may serve to exemplify to the people of Iran the fact that Iran is not as isolated as foreign and internal enemies would have one believe," said Daniel Tsadik, assistant professor of Sephardic and Iranian Studies at New York's Yeshiva University. "Using this tactic, they hope to get across the message that their leadership therefore should be trusted and followed.
Kalhor says she doesn't dwell on the political turmoil that's infected her homeland -- "I'm so focused on my skiing" -- but her Olympic experience is sure to be a study in dichotomy.
While banners of Kalhor are scattered all over Tehran, it's a toss-up whether Iran will even broadcast the Olympics. In the past, the government has blocked its viewers away from the Summer Games, even as it sent its first female Olympians to the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
"It's a paradox," said Bashi. "But one should not take away the significance of her achievement. This is a young woman whose worked hard all her life, deserves to be part of the Olympics.
Kalhor, who finished 60th in the giant slalom at the 2009 World Championships in Val d'Isere, France, has no hopes of placing at the Games. "My chances of getting a medal are zero," she said. Her message, as a devout Muslim, goes beyond the gold.
"I'm very happy that I'm going to compete, and something I'm very proud of is that I am attending the games as a Muslim Iranian," she said. "I can show the world that we Iranians have something to say -- whatever you want, you will achieve."
After the Olympics, Kalhor, who is studying to become a physical education teacher, wants to qualify for the Asian Winter Games in Kazakhstan in 2011 and is already dreaming of the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
Tuğba Karademir (born on March 17, 1985 in Ankara, Turkey), is a Turkish figure skater. She was the flag-bearer for Turkey at the 2006 Winter Olympics, where she placed 21st.
|Winter Olympic Games||21st|
|Skate Canada International||11th|
|Golden Spin of Zagreb||17th||9th||5th||4th|
|Ondrej Nepela Memorial||4th||2nd|
|Karl Schäfer Memorial||9th||4th||9th||11th|
|Canadian Championships||5th J.|
|Golden Spin of Zagreb||7th|
- J = Junior level