TEHRAN, Iran – Two days before what has been described as Tehran’s first international marathon, a top Iranian sports official cannot confirm whether Americans will participate and says women will be forced to run separately from men.
The website for Friday’s “TehRUN” race lists 28 Americans among the registered runners, along with participants from more than 40 countries, including Britain and Canada. It describes the run as an opportunity for “building bridges, breaking barriers.”
Majid Keyhani, the head of Iran’s track and field federation, told reporters Wednesday that runners of all nationalities are welcome to participate in the event. But he would not confirm which countries would be represented or if visas had been issued to all participants.
“We have sent all runner names to Iran’s Foreign Ministry for issuing visas,” he said, cautioning that the process could “take time.”
At least 160 foreign runners, including 50 women, have signed up. But Keyhani said only the men will be allowed to race in the streets of Tehran – the women will have to race separately, inside the Azadi sports complex.
More than 600 Iranian runners, including 156 women, are expected to participate.
The race is being organized in large part by Dutch entrepreneur Sebastiaan Straten and his travel agency, Iran Silk Road. He expects Americans to be able to participate and said most of the registered runners have received visas.
“TehRUN is a run for international friendship and to promote street running to a large, young Iranian population,” he said by email. “Iranians are one of the most hospitable people in the world and I am sure the crowd will show that on Friday to the runners.”
Still, he opposes the decision to segregate women from men for the race.
“Personally I do not agree with that and we are trying to find other ways to make step(s forward) for female running in Iran,” he wrote.
Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has required women to wear the Islamic headscarf and to only show their face, hands and feet in public. They are typically not allowed to participate in sporting events outside of enclosed facilities, ensuring they are not seen by men.
The race website tells women they are required to wear a headscarf or sports bandana that covers their hair. It also encourages them to wear long-sleeve t-shirts that cover their hips and to avoid shorts or skirts.
“In general dress modestly to respect local customs and religion,” it reads.
Any spectators cheering the female runners Friday will certainly be women. Female Iranian athletes have missed many international competitions since the revolution because clerical authorities disapprove of them being viewed by male spectators.
Female sports fans in turn are traditionally barred from attending male-only sporting events in Iran on similar grounds, but many women are pushing to change that practice.
Keyhani made a point of referring to the event as a “Persian Run” rather than a marathon, even though the length of the longest race is 42 kilometers (26 miles) – roughly the length of an official marathon.
The course takes runners from the Azadi soccer stadium through the normally traffic-clogged streets of western parts of the Iranian capital, past the University of Tehran to Ferdowsi Square, a popular spot for the city’s moneychangers.
There are also shorter men’s courses of 10 and 21 kilometers (6 and 13 miles).
No professional runners are expected to participate this year, Keyhani said, but he expressed hope they would in the future.
The event follows a similar run a year ago near the Iranian city of Shiraz, south of Tehran. That race drew more than 70 international participants, none of them American.
No women were allowed to officially take part in last year’s race. But two Iranian women, Masoumeh Torabi and Elham Manoocheri, nonetheless ran the race separately from the men in protest and are recognized on the race organizers’ website.
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