Iran seize back Paralympic title on day of high emotion

Victory in men’s sitting volleyball final sees Iran come out on top in fifth successive gold-medal battle with Bosnia and Herzegovina. 18 Sep 2016
Morteza Mehrzadselakjani IRI stretches to play the ball

Morteza Mehrzadselakjani OF iRAN stretches to play the ball in the Men's Gold Medal Match at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

ⒸSimon Bruty for OIS/IOC

Iran’s Ramezan Salehihajikolaei, the smallest and slimmest man on the court, hugged his eight-foot-tall teammate Sadegh Bigdeli.

Bigdeli whacked a mammoth spike that drew his team closer – and eventually – to the men’s sitting volleyball gold medal victory.

In a rivalry that has spanned over the last five Paralympic finals, Iran defeated Bosnia and Herzegovina 3-1 on Sunday (18 September) at the Riocentro – Pavilion 6.

But before battle between the old foes resumed, both teams and the entire venue took a moment of silence to remember Iranian cyclist Bahman Golbarnezhad, who died on Saturday following a crash in the cycling road race.

It was understandably an emotional day for Iran. And that was clear to see when they knocked the final point to clinch the match and Salehihajikolaei bowed on the floor. The rest of his teammates took the Iranian flag to the middle and waved it. The victory marked their first Paralympic gold since Beijing 2008, when Iran last beat Bosnia and Herzegovina in the final.

In a sport about momentum, Iran had it all. Going up 25-21 in the first set, they bounced back from a 25-21 loss in the second to find their rhythm in the third and fourth (25-18, 25-15, respectively).

Iran pulled away from an 11-11 tie in the third to go up 22-17. They captialised on their opponents’ errors, with their last six points in that set coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina faults.

The defending Paralympic champions never seemed to recover from that point.

In the fourth, Bosnia and Herzegovina played back while Iran went on the attack. Bigdeli whacked another point to bring his team up 10-5, and Bosnia and Herzegovina began falling apart to finish with 23 errors.

Iran out-spiked their opponents 59-42, with Bigdeli owning nine of those. Morteza Mehrzadselakjani led his team with 26.

Safet Alibasic led Bosnia and Herzegovina in scoring with 16 spikes.

Earlier in the day, the Egyptian men’s team overcame their Brazilian opponents and a partisan home crowd to clinch their first Paralympic medal in the sport since Athens 2004.

The reigning African champions edged the host nation 3-2 in the bronze medal match. It was a dramatic showdown that saw four of the sets decided by no more than three points: 28-26, 29-31, 19-25, 25-22, 15-13.

“I told my players, ‘This is your match. Don’t let your match go to another team. This is your match. You have to take your moment now. You have to play volleyball. Don’t try to do something that is unusual, just do the basics’,” Egyptian coach Mosaad Elaiuty said.

“Our team has a strong history in sitting volleyball and our team has good players, good attacks and good serves.

“I think we played a very good match. The Brazilians also played a good match and it was just luck that gave the bronze medal to my team and not to the Brazil team.”

Brazil was going for their first Paralympic medal in the sport. But the 2014 World Championship silver medallist felt the pressure when they were down 14-10 in the fifth set.

Despite climbing back, forcing Egypt to three faults and bringing the score to 14-13, Brazil themselves faulted. Egypt’s outside hitter and team captain Hesham Elshwikh spiked the final score that erupted the Egyptian bench and silenced the Brazilian stands.

Elshwikh was competing in his fourth Paralympic Games and was part of the team that lost to Russia in the bronze medal match at Beijing 2008, Egypt’s last highest finish.

On Sunday, he led his team with 24 spikes, including the match-winning point to ensure that was not again the case.

Brazilian team captain Frederico Doria de Souza had a match-high 39 kills. At 44 years old, Souza said this was his last Paralympic Games.

“It’s frustrating. We did enough to win,” Souza said. “We came here for a medal. We were not able to do that. That is the tough part.

“This will be my last Paralympics. I wish all the best of luck to the Brazilian team but this is my last time on the big stage. I did so much for volleyball. This is time for me to look for another time in my life. I tried pretty hard in this one for a medal but it just didn’t work.”