How IR Iran became a men’s sitting volleyball superpower

"If we achieve the second place in the Paralympic competitions, it means that we have failed" 13 Jan 2023
Male sitting volleyball athletes in national uniforms and masks featuring the Iranian flag pose for a photo as they wait for the medal ceremony at Tokyo 2020.
The Iranian team were Paralympic champions in seven of the nine Paralympic Games they competed in since Seoul 1988, winning their latest gold at Tokyo 2020.
Ⓒ@Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
By AMP Media I For The IPC

As player, captain and head coach, Hadi Rezaei has been an integral part of IR Iran’s extraordinary four-decade dominance in men’s sitting volleyball.

Who better qualified, therefore, to reflect on Iran’s historic success, especially as Rezaei was tempted out of retirement in November 2022 and led the team to their eighth world title?

The Paralympic champions did not even drop a set as they beat closest rivals Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo to confirm that they will be the favourites counting down to Paris 2024.

Not that they are taking anything for granted, as they also carry the weight of huge expectation on their shoulders.

“Our biggest challenge is that Iranian people expect us to become champions, which puts a heavy responsibility on our athletes and coaches,” Rezaei said. “In some sports, winning a championship in Asia or participating in the Paralympics is an honour, but it seems in sitting volleyball, participation and championship have different criteria. 

“The criterion is that if we achieve the second place in the Paralympic competitions, it means that we have failed.”

IR Iran NPC’s secretary general, Mohammad Tabe, draws another comparison.

“As the people of Brazil always want their football team to be the world champions, our people in Iran also want and expect our men's sitting volleyball team to remain at the top of this sport in the world,” he said.

A golden track record

So how has Iran evolved into a sitting volleyball superpower after being introduced to the sport in 1980?

Rezaei started playing in 1983, switching from handball. He captained the national team for 12 years, competing in three Paralympic Games as a player and six as a coach.

A 3-1 win over Russian Paralympic Committee assured Iran their seventh Paralympic title at Tokyo 2020. @Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

In the nine Games since Seoul 1988, Iran were Paralympic champions in seven of them. He puts the development of the sport down to a combination of factors and cites Atlanta 1996 as a particular high point when he captained the team and was recognised as the best player of the Games.

“The support of government, the people, clubs, sponsors, the beauty of the sport and the support for athletes,” Rezaei lists as reasons for its growth.

The making of legends

From the beginning there has been an affinity with sitting volleyball in Iran, helped by the fact that not much equipment was needed to start playing while changes to the classification made the sport more accessible.

Rezaei points to a variety of innovations introduced since.

“We use modern science. Also there has been an integration of standing and sitting volleyball in terms of tactics. There is the use of maximum power of the disabled," he said.

“Use of strength and speed in the implementation of techniques and tactics in sitting volleyball are very important. Ever since I was selected as a coach, I have tried to use all these things to promote sitting volleyball.”

Strength and speed are at the core of the team's training regime, and are key factors in their success. @Simon Bruty/OIS

Rezaei called it a day after Tokyo 2020 but was inundated with requests to return for the world championships. He is not sure what will happen in 2024.

“I believe at a certain time, a person must hand over his responsibility to others, and that is why I resigned. But the challenge of winning the championship in Bosnia was very interesting and important for me, so I decided to come back. 

“Winning the championship in Bosnia was one of my honours in sports, knowing that the Bosnian team was at the peak of preparation at that time.”

The best in history?

Iran are staking a claim to be the best men’s sitting volleyball nation in history but NPC chief Tabe is quick to play down the suggestion and instead points to the work behind the scenes, including a strong domestic league, which has helped turn the national team into serial winners. There are also plans to develop the women’s team.

“The continuous holding of annual national championship competitions and the organisation of the league has attracted many athletes,” Tabe said. “The equipment of sports halls throughout the country and the continuous presence of top players in international events can be considered important factors of this development.

“There is financial support along with a practical approach, government support, media support, and the equal payment of Olympic and Paralympic athletes' awards, have contributed to the continuation of this success.”

Morteza Mehrzadselakjani is the tallest man in Iran and one of the country's most popular athletes. @Joe Toth/OIS

One of the stars of the team is Morteza Mehrzadselakjani, at 2.46m (8ft 1in) Iran’s tallest man. He suffered a pelvic fracture in a bike accident which caused the right leg to stop growing. It is now six inches shorter than his left. He can boast a large fan club.

“Sitting volleyball changed my life,” he said. “People are so kind and being recognised has become natural for me.

"We are a good team and expectations are so high but this is natural.”