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Persian Cultural Report: Sports and Games

Iran is home to a wide variety of professional sports and parlor games. Some sports and games are domestic having originated from inside Iran. Other sports and games are imports, having originated from outside Iran. Several games that Iranians invented at one time or another were an Olympic sport.

The game of Polo (Chogan) has its origins in Iran. Polo was carried by nomads who traveled and settled in Iran. Polo as a sport has been documented in the epic poem Shahnameh. Polo in fact was so popular that it was an olympic sport between 1900-1039. While Polo has been known to the people of Iran, it has mostly a sport reserved for the elite and royalty. This probably explains why following the 1979 revolution Polo declined in popularity. It was expensive and seen as a sign of the Shah. Although, it appears that in recent years interest in the sport has increased. 

Another popular sport in Iran is wrestling.  While Iran probably cannot claim to have invented wrestling it has contributed greatly to the free-style form of wrestling. A primary difference between the Greco-Roman style of wrestling and the free-style form is that the former prohibits the use of the legs while the latter allows it. In this manner, Iran is considered a leader in training wrestlers for the free-form style of wrestling. 

Commitment to be a wrestler in Iran is as much a life-style choice as it is a training regime. In particular, wrestlers are encouraged to adhere to certain Islamic principles like loyalty, faith, and courage and to follow the Varzesh-e-Pahalvani, which is the spot training path. In doing so, wrestlers attend a Zurkhaneh where they are trained in the sport. Wrestlers train with unique objects like wooden clubs and will often recite excerpts from the Shahnameh while they train. Free-form wrestling has been an Olympic Sport since 1904. Iran has won 32 medals in free-form wrestling.

Besides being the originator of several professional sports, Iran can lay claim to inventing backgammon, or Takhteh Nard. The game was supposedly invented in Iran around the 6th century. However, excavations at the “Burnt-City” on the southern border between India and Iran have found a game similar to backgammon that has been dated to around 3000 BC. 

Finally, two modern “import” sports that enjoy immense popularity are football and basketball.  Iran has a national basketball team which placed 11th in the World at the 2008 Bejing Olympics. Iranian basketball is an upcoming sport as several amateur-ranked and professional players from around the world (including from the US) have honed their skills playing basketball in Iran either prior to going professional or during the off-season.

Iran also has a national football team. The national football team is ranked 4th in Asia and 45th overall according to current FIFA rankings. Iran has both female and male national soccer teams. Unfortunately, the national women’s team was recently banned from the London Olympics on account of the FIFA’s regulations against headscarfs. 

Learn more about Persian with some of my Farsi Resources here.