One of the most iconic scenes from the Paralympic Movement this year came from the Rio 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony, where many witnessed Iranian Para archer Zahra Nemati lead her nation’s delegation into the Maracana Stadium.
The scene opened the eyes of many, bringing greater awareness to Para athletes and continuing to inspire a generation of not only Muslim women but people in her country with an impairment.
Nemati became the first Para athlete to carry her nation’s flag during the Olympics, and Iran’s second female flag bearer after Lida Fariman did so in 1996. The scene of Nemati carrying the Iranian flag carried great significance, and that is why it marks at No. 11 in the International Paralympic Committee’s Top 50 Moments of 2016.
“It was my honour as I was the only Paralympian participating in the Olympic Games as the flag bearer,” Nemati said. “This matter led to change so many minds and people around the world that in spite of many severe challenges, we can make everything possible.”
Nemati added that not many expected to see a woman in a wheelchair carrying the Iranian flag during the Olympics Opening Ceremony.
“That moment was a surprise for the world; I always enjoy surprising the people,” she said.
The two-time Paralympian strongly believed that she raised the profile of the Paralympics when competing in the Olympics.
“Certainly,” she said. “Representing as a Paralympian sent an essential message to the world. That’s an important message that a Paralympian can qualify for Olympics to compete with elite [able-bodied] athletes and also act as a flag bearer for the country. I was so glad to forward this message with my presence in the Rio Olympic Games.”
Nemati made her name known four years ago, when she won the individual recurve W1/W2 at London 2012. That moment marked the first time an Iranian woman won Olympic or Paralympic gold, and she has continued to make history since then.
Zahra Nemati carries the flag of the Iran during the opening ceremony for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Aug. 5, 2016 (Credit: Tasnim News)
In November 2015, Nemati secured a historic qualifying spot for her nation at the Rio Olympics after her performance at the Asian Archery Championships.
She was one of the few Paralympians to compete at the 2016 Olympics, with Para table tennis players Natalia Partyka of Poland and Melissa Tapper of Australia among the other notable Paralympians.
During archery events at the Rio Olympics, Nemati put together a 28 in the second set to get on the scoreboard – but could not produce in the closing series, and ultimately fell out of the competition, 6-2.
She came back to the Sambodromo to compete in the Paralympics, where she successfully defended her title.
“Every edition has its own conditions and features, but as I was the only Paralympian in the Olympics; I had a peculiar feeling in the Games,” Nemati said. “The atmosphere was so competitive and all athletes aimed to stand on the podium. The Paralympic Games had another different experience. Since I always consider it like my home, I found the Paralympics more of a friendly Games.”
Nemati also noted that her stay in the Athletes’ Village during the Olympic Games was another different experience than her stay during the Paralympics.
“Although most of people were amazed, their reaction was so nice,” she recalled. “I was welcomed by the people and all tried to communicate with me since this matter was so unfamiliar for them; especially for the Brazilians who treated me so well.”
Just two years after a car accident in 2004 left her with spinal cord injuries, Nemati took up the sport that would lead her to become a national treasure.
Within six months she was beating able-bodied athletes at a national level and in 2010 broke her first world record.
After a hectic past few months following the Games, Nemati said all the receptions and ceremonies are done at the moment and she is enjoying down-time in her hometown Kerman. But she wanted to leave one more message: “I ask again all people with disabilities; never surrender in your disability. Be informed that sport is one of the best ways to overcome disability.”