Paris 2024 Olympics 100m: Farzaneh Fasihi – Iran’s record-breaking sprinter

Fasihi can outrun just about anything, but her Olympic journey has been complicated and inspiring in equal measure.

Sprinter training.
Farzaneh Fasihi is an Iranian sprinter and Olympic athlete [Maryam Majd/ ATP Images via Getty Images]

Tehran, Iran – It’s 2021, in Konya, Turkey, at the fifth edition of the Islamic Solidarity Games.

Farzaneh Fasihi’s heart races as she bends into position at the start line, the lingering effects of a COVID-19 infection still wearing her down.

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Her chest is tight, but she’s determined to compete.

The starter’s gun goes off, and she lunges forward as swiftly as she can, her legs churning faster than ever before.

When she crosses the finish line, she collapses; not from exhaustion, but from the overwhelming emotion of breaking her own 100-metre sprint record, clocking a lightning-fast time of 11.12 seconds to win the silver medal.

“On the night before a race, memories of my life gush through my mind. All the hardships I’ve endured and all my successes pass before my eyes like a film reel,” Fasihi told Al Jazeera, speaking in a Zoom interview from Belgrade, Serbia. She is at a training camp ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympics, which kick off July 26, and where Iran’s fastest female runner of all time will compete in her favourite event, the 100-metre sprint.

Fasihi is no stranger to challenges, but a strong support system in her personal life has seen her through it all.

Iranian sprinter Farzaneh Fasihi.
Farzaneh Fasihi of Iran wins a sliver medal in the 100-metres at the fifth Islamic Solidarity Games in Konya, Turkey on August 09, 2022 [Mustafa Ciftci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

“I didn’t want to do it’

Born in 1993 in Isfahan, Iran, Fasihi, 31, hails from an athletic family. Her father was a volleyball player, and her brother a swimming and diving champion.

“Before I got married, my father attended all my training sessions,” she recalls. “My mother also attended all my competitions. Without their support, I could not have succeeded.”

From age five to 12, Fasihi did gymnastics. She recalls how her first foray into competitive sprinting was more by chance than design.

“In middle school, my gym teacher forced me to participate in a running competition. I didn’t want to do it,” Fasihi remembers. That day, she broke the Isfahan provincial record, igniting her passion for track and field.

In 2016, she made her international debut.

Fasihi’s team performed well above expectations, winning the silver medal in the 4×400 metre relay at the Asia Indoor Athletics Championship in Doha, Qatar.

But her standout performance did not catapult her sprinting career to new heights. With little support from the Iranian track and field federation, she left it all behind and became a personal fitness trainer.

That all changed in late 2018, when she decided to give competitive sprinting a second try.

A year later, that decision led to an unexpected outcome: she married one of her coaches, Amir Hosseini, who has been her staunchest supporter.

Farzaneh Fasihi Iranian sprinter
Farzaneh Fasihi during a training session with coach and husband Amir Hosseini at Aftab Enghelab Sports Complex in Tehran, Iran [Maryam Majd ATPImages via Getty Images]
Farzaneh Fasihi Iranian sprinter
Fasihi constantly works on her technique and power, which are essential for an elite 100-metre sprinter. Athlete training facilities in Iran are not up to the same standards as other nations that invest heavily in sport [Maryam Majd ATP Images via Getty Images]

In 2020, with a support structure now firmly established with Hosseini, Fasihi’s career literally took off.

She participated in the World Athletics Indoor Championships, where the relatively unknown runner scorched the track with a sensational entry record time of 7.29 seconds in the 60-metre sprint held in Belgrade, Serbia.

Not only had Fasihi come out of nowhere to post a fast time – but she had also created history by becoming the first Iranian woman to compete at the championship. Her shock performance in Belgrade was where she was first given the nickname “Jaguar,” a testament to her ferocious speed off the starting block.

A year later, in 2021, she signed with the Serbian athletics club BAK, becoming the first female legionnaire – which effectively means a club signs and sponsors a foreign athlete to relocate and compete for them – in Iran track and field history.

“Becoming a legionnaire was a new path. It was a great risk, but I felt deep inside that I had to do it,” she said, hoping that it would inspire other female Iranian athletes.

Setting the record straight – this one’s ‘for the people’

In 2023, Fasihi would then go on to win gold at the 60-metre race at the Asian Indoor Athletics Championships in Astana, Kazakhstan, clocking a scintillating time of 7.28 seconds.

As outstanding and celebratory as that personal-best performance was – the setting of a new Asian 60-metre sprinting record would ordinarily be cause for wild celebrations – the day would be remembered for something far more profound.

As Fasihi walked to the podium, she turned directly to the camera and shouted: “For the people of Iran. For the happiness of the people of Iran!”

Her moment of protest went viral on social media, with Fasihi declining to carry the Iranian flag and instead bowing her head as she shed silent tears, refusing to sing the national anthem on the victory dias.

This was her statement, or way, to express the tragedy of the young Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, who in 2022 collapsed and died, allegedly after she was detained by Iran’s morality police for wearing an “improper hijab” (headscarf).

Amini’s death made international news headlines and galvanised female activists all over the world through the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement.

Iranian sprinter Farzaneh Fasihi.
Fasihi has broken the Iranian 60 and 100-metre sprinting record on multiple occasions and is currently the number one ranked sprinter in Asia for 60-metres. She lives and trains in the capital, Tehran [Majid Asgaripour/WANA via Reuters]

Olympic dreaming

Two years earlier, Fasihi had already taken the first step towards her Olympic dream when she was selected through the so-called universality placement to participate in Tokyo 2020.

Universality placement is a policy set by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) allowing athletes from underrepresented countries to participate, even if they have not met the standard qualifying criteria. The policy exists to ensure broader global representation and inclusivity at the Olympic games.

In Tokyo, Fasihi competed in the 100-metre sprint, marking Iran’s return to this event after a 57-year hiatus. In the 1964 Summer Olympics, also in Tokyo, Simin Safamehr had made history as the first woman athlete to represent Iran at the games, coincidentally competing in the 100-metre sprint, as well as the long jump.

Fasihi placed 50th in Tokyo, all the while facing scrutiny over her hijab, triggering a firestorm of debate in the Iranian social media space as some claimed the strict dress code slowed her down, hindering her performance and limiting her media exposure and sponsorship opportunities.

But the Tokyo Olympics was also an opportunity for her to meet her sprinting idol, Jamaican track and field superstar Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. “I liked her even more when we met. Her lifestyle is impressive as she is both a professional athlete, a wife and mother, and helps many charities.“

For Fasihi, her performance in Tokyo was below her best – but it only fueled her ambition to do better next time.

“What makes Paris [2024 Olympics] different is that I will compete on my own merit – not through universality placement,” Fasihi told Al Jazeera.

Women sprinter Farzaneh Fasihi leading race.
Fasihi leads the field in her heat of the women’s 100-metre race at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, staged in 2021 due to COVID-19. She is delighted to have qualified on merit for the Paris 2024 Olympics, rather than relying on the underrepresented nations exception [Matthias Schrader/AP]

Despite the systemic challenges, especially the lack of official government support for elite female athletes in Iran, Fasihi remains steadfast in achieving her goals. She self-finances her training, participates in competitions and is working to secure modest sponsorships.

Fasihi believes that extensive investments in sport by countries like China, India, and Japan will yield impressive results in Asian athletics, but notes the disparity in resources across the continent.

“In Qatar, for example, athletes work with American trainers and the federation invites analysts, physiotherapists, and sports medicine physicians from around the world. Even China and Japan coordinate training camps in Florida [in the United States],” she said.

In May 2024, Fasihi competed in the Doha Diamond League’s 100-metre race, but came last in the final against a star-studded line-up of sprinters from the US, United Kingdom, Hungary, and Jamaica.

At the Paris Olympics, she will face off against the world’s best athletes. She is not someone who harbours unrealistic expectations. She only focuses on what she can control – and that’s her performance.

“Competing at the Olympics is a big challenge,” Fasihi said. “My goal is to compete with myself. I want to beat my own record.”

Farzaneh Fasihi Iranian sprinter
Fasihi looks forward to achieving more personal bests at the Paris 2024 Olympics [Maryam Majd/ ATP Images via Getty Images]

This story has been published in collaboration with Egab.

Source: Al Jazeera