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In Iran, US runner joins the races

Sarah Kureshi was the only American athlete at the 4th Islamic Women Games.

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The middle-distance runner didn't know what to expect, as the first American female athlete to compete in Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

She even brought the Stars and Stripes, uncertain whether the Iranians would provide a flag for the opening ceremony.

But as the sole American competitor in the 4th Islamic Women Games in Tehran this week, she needn't have bothered. Officials here "had a big US flag ready," says Saira Kureshi, and Iranians have provided a big welcome to match.

"It's wonderful to get to know people as people, regardless of what the governments say," Ms. Kureshi says, referring to the 25-year estrangement between the US and the Islamic Republic. "Part of the purpose [of coming here] is to bridge some of the gaps ... and show Iran that Americans are interested in them and their culture."

Competing for medals has taken second place to the experience of visiting Iran and participating with nearly 1,700 young women from nearly 40 countries, in events ranging from handball to the high jump.

Kureshi ran one heat of the 1,500 meters before illness forced her to the sidelines. But she has been the focus of steady Iranian media interest, with journalists exploring her views of Iran and its stormy relations with the US.

"I'm proud to be an American Muslim athlete - I love America, and the freedom [there] to be a Muslim; and I love Iran," says Kureshi, who made the visit with one coach who helped organize the US presence.

Some 40 other Muslim-American women wanted to compete in Iran, but could not break from study or work commitments, says Kureshi, who last competed four years ago as a member of her college track and cross-country teams.

Kureshi only heard of the chance two months ago, when a message was sent out by the Muslim Women's League in the US, canvassing for participants. "No one in America had even heard of these games," says Kureshi, adding that she was nevertheless impressed by the level of competition.

A further group of seven non-Muslim women trainers were asked to introduce a new sport - they had chosen Ultimate Frisbee, and had printed 700 specially for the event - but were not granted visas.

The request had come from Faizah Hashemi, daughter of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who is head of Iran's Women's Sports Federation and organizer of the women's games.

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