How Table Tennis Is Shaping Iranian Public Life.
Tehran is a far-reaching metropolis that bridges two very disparate spheres. While its inner mechanics follow those of any other global city, the Iranian capital holds a peculiar and unique perspective on public life. This is the city bordered by desert and mountain range; the sense of stifled anticipation and impending enclosure is constant. Gridlocked streets cleave through its centre and the air is thick with dust and exhaust fumes. Summer is dry heat, vacant construction sites and sidewalks choked with foot traffic. Crumbling apartment blocks and sun bleached terrace houses flank eight lane highways and intercity subway systems. Tehran feels like it is careening through the desert at a breakneck pace and then, in the midst of its urban sprawl, a calm surfaces – carefully tended parks with clipped hedgerows and spiralling water features abound. Teeming with life and respite, it is Tehran’s parklike that offers a sanctum to its populace.
Iran has always been famous for its distinct approach to formal landscape design and after the advent of Islam in the 7th century, these traditions were refined. The Persian garden, as a perfect structure, is created with the intention of aligning man’s needs with the natural world. It is a space that not only provides a sense of peace and psychological resonance, but simultaneously establishes an ecosystem that serves to unify nature with the built environment. This desire to establish a space of harmony and communal inclusion similarly translates to the active pastimes that hold sway in Iranian culture.
Racquet sports, from badminton to table tennis, are synonymous with open spaces and public socialisation. Most parks, plazas and shaded boulevards in Tehran are equipped with badminton courts and outdoor ping pong tables. Perhaps this tradition of societally endorsed athleticism can be viewed as forming the backbone to Iran’s longstanding presence in international table tennis and unlike many popular sports in Iran, table tennis is accessible to both genders. (The nation’s highest ranked female player, Neda Shahsavari, competed at the 2016 Olympic Games.) Sima Limoochi, professor of physical education at the all-female Alzahra University in Tehran and coach to Shahsavari, views table tennis not only as a way of life but also as a catalyst for social change – particularly within a context of gender equality.
As a child, Limoochi discovered table tennis at her local petroleum factory worker’s club. Her father, an employee at the factory, worked alongside a team of British expats who introduced the sport to the neighbourhood – with great success. Limoochi’s father went so far as to install a table at the family home and insist on daily practice from all members of the household. By the age of fifteen, Limoochi was in the junior league; by seventeen she was playing at a national level; and by nineteen she was the coach of Iran’s female division. Her commitment to the sport informed the course of her career with Limoochi continuing on to graduate, lecture and coach in physical education and sports management.
Due to the sensitive nature of Iran’s gender division, achievements secured by female athletes within either the national or international arena are seen as significant movements towards a more egalitarian social structure. Since Limoochi picked up her first racquet, she has borne witness to a predominant division between male and female players as well as those who coach, educate and adjudicate in the sport. “In Iran, women are progressive in all aspects of life, especially in sport… Since the segregation of women’s sports from men’s sports about 30 years ago, women began to challenge the system to show they can be athletes and officials.”
“Sport, like art, music or education is a tool that makes you involved in society, and this is a most important role because you have to live with your society.”
It is the promise of a slow but steady cultural reform that drives Limoochi’s passion for both physical education and table tennis. In a country that is defined by strict cultural customs and political conventions, the value of freedom grows exponentially. Table tennis in Iran has come to represent more than a recreational activity or competitive game, it is what Limoochi refers to as a ‘tool of change’. This viewpoint extends to the belief that when a woman is involved in sport at a professional level she takes an active, and often closely scrutinised, role in society that can affect many positive changes. The possibility of refining this discourse rests in the cultivation of a national awareness. As Limoochi suggests: “Sport, like art, music or education is a tool that makes you involved in society, and this is a most important role because you have to live with your society.”