Rabab Shahrian, they say, proves a thermodynamic law in Iranian sports. Never to be destroyed, her energy simply takes new forms, transferring from one form to another.
Shahrian first got involved in Iran's sports administration in the early 1980s. Among those intellectually aligned with Faezeh Hameshi, the women's rights activist and daughter of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, she worked tenaciously to assure Iranian women a presence in the Islamic Republic's athletic world. Throughout the 80s and 90s, when Iranian women held no formal federation membership and women's sports were administered as associations, Shahrian headed nearly every female athletic organization in the country. The golden age of her leadership dates back to her involvement with Iran's handball and volleyball associations.
In Shahrian's words, "In 1981 I began my work in six fields of athletics. Now we see our lady athletes in competition for medals at the Olympics, the Asia Games, and the Paralympics." She has yet to adapt to changes in popular terminology, insisting on the more formal and old-fashioned nouns "lady" and "ladies" in interviews and expressing distaste for terms like "girls" and "women."
Working under Mostafa Hashemi Taba, head of the now-defunct Physical Education Organization, Shahrian pursued her management work with vigor. She became deputy head of the organization's women's affairs department, where her primary task was to consult with international sports federations to remove obstacles to Iranian women competing in hijabs.
Shahrian's work continued until Mohammed Abbas, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first minister of athletics, fired her - a dismissal Shahrian claims she expected even sooner.
Her replacement was a woman whose name would soon send chills down the spines of Iran's women athletes: Marzieh Akbarabadi. Akbarabadi once kicked a member of Iran's women's rowing team out of her room, yelling at her not to return until her hair was properly covered. Such erratic, morale-destroying management habits would reach their peak in 2013. When Iran's women's karate team reached the final rounds of an international contest between Muslim countries, Akbarabadi decided on the day of the matches that Iran's athletes should don long, flared uniforms which obscured even their fists. The Egyptians protested, and the Iranian women were barred from the competition. Mahmoud Goudarzi, Iran's minister of youth affairs and sports, was compelled to again seek Shahrian's help over the matter.
Shahrian is now the most important figure in women's athletics in Iran. She has assumed responsibility as both the women's vice chair for Iran's Olympic committee and the Ministry of Athletics' deputy officer on women's affairs - a "deputy" whose decisions sometimes fly above the heads of sports federation chiefs. Her superiors do not like her.
Shahrian's decisions sometimes prove controversial. In September 2015, Iran's Karate Federation was dragging its feet over sending athlete Hamida Abbas to the Asia Championships. Shahrian secured the travel permission and budget herself, and Abbas went on to win the contest in Japan. An hour after her victory, the deputy minister called Abbas' coach, muffling tears of happiness, to congratulate her on her success.
Through the assistance of Vice President of Women's Affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, Shahrian arranged a trip to Guatemala for a women's futsal team, which resulted in President Rouhani ordering their entry into an international competition. Shahrian later told Mehr News: "In a recent cabinet meeting, the President used the term 'non-discrimination' to emphasize the position of women and his recognition of the fact that our athletics are equal to men's."
In the same interview, Shahrian made a broad criticism of Iranian society: "They tell us that it's good for women to get a little exercise. I want to say that athletics are the right of Iranian women, not a privilege." Shahrian then announced her hopes for achieving 10 Olympic qualifications and Iran's first women's gold medal.
As the Olympics drew near, Shahrian received word that Leila Rajabi, an Iranian Olympic qualifier in women's shot put, had lost the opportunity to attend a training camp in Belarus. Officials claimed funding was inadequate and there was no need for such travel, insisting that Rajabi train in Iran instead. While Rajabi appeared to accept the proposal, Shahrian insisted that the young shot putter should pack her bags. She promised to secure the budget and preliminary travel arrangements herself. Shahrian later relented, judging travel just 40 days before Olympics too risky.
For some time now, Shahrian has regularly dropped in on Iranian women's Olympic training. Just last week, she visited Zahra Nemati, Iran's paraplegic flag bearer at the Rio Games, who qualified in archery for both the Olympic and Paralympic competition. Upon hearing of the challenges Nemati faces, Shahrian wept. Of course, Shahrian's tears are often accompanied by practical measures.
In recent months, Shahrian has taken what are likely the most significant steps in her sports management career on behalf of four Olympic markswomen. Najmeh Khedmati, Elaheh Ahmadi, Mahlagha Jahanbozorg, and Narges Emamgholinezhad were, for budgetary reasons, lacking both training bullets and formal permission to travel to Germany for the Munich World Cup. Shahrian personally visited the Minister of Athletics to secure travel clearances and budgets for all four women. The group was sent first to the competition in Germany and then on to France for training.
Despite these feats, Shahrian has her critics. Some have criticized her style of dress, and she has caused controversy by not wearing a hijab in the Ministry of Athletics building. She also has friends in politics, most notably Shahindokht Molaverdi, Iran's Vice President for Women's Affairs, and Faezeh Hashemi, the activist daughter of a former president. But through these allies, Shahrian has managed to secure Iranian women's place in international competitions, as well as a government promise of a two million toman (around $600) monthly salary for the country's female Olympians.
The Ministry of Athletics has promised that the salaries will be deposited into the relevant sports federations' accounts on a monthly basis, and will later be dispersed to the athletes themselves. But the federations report that they have not received the money. Such developments signify that, in spite of all of Shahrian's efforts, the woes of Iran's women athletes are far from over.