Many people complain about having a lack of opportunities, but then do not take them when they materalize. This was not the case for Morteza Mehrzad: the tallest man in Iran and a wheelchair user, who on being approached by Iranian national coaches turned a life of physical difficulties into a stunning Paralympic career.
A biography of this extraordinary man’s life by the Argentine journalist Tomás Padilla is summarized in this article for IranWire.
Back in 2007, Argentine journalist Leila Guerriero wrote a fantastic profile of the former Argentine basketball player Jorge González, a man two meters and 31cm tall, who played in the national team before his death in 2010, alone and bedridden in a hospital. He was described as "the giant who wanted to be great."
Iran has its own 'Giant' González: the Paralympic volleyball player Morteza Mehrzad Selakjani, known as Mehrzad, who at 8ft (or 2.46m), is officially the tallest man in Iran and the second tallest in the world, second only to the Turkish man Sultan Kösen. Like González, Mehrzad suffers from acromegaly: a rare disease affecting just 40 to 70 people per million, which causes the body to produce excess growth hormone and can lead to complications such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and visual disorders. And he, too, has achieved greatness, through a shining career in the Paralympic Games.
Were Leila Guerriero to write a biography of Mehrzad, it might begin with the line: "Morteza Mehrzad was born on September 17, 1987, in Chalus, Mazandaran, northern Iran.” She would go on say that at sixteen, he was already one meter and three feet tall. That a year before, he had suffered a serious pelvic fracture due to a bicycle accident, which stopped the growth of his right leg – which is now six inches shorter than his left – which is why he uses a wheelchair to move.
That one day, the Iranian national sitting volleyball team coach, Hadi Rezaei, saw Mehrzad on a television show about people with physical abnormalities and unusual talents, and wondered about his potential. After giving him some training in some regional clubs in Iran, Iran’s sporting chiefs called on him to play in the national team. From there he prepared for the Paralympic Games in Rio 2016, where he won a gold medal.
Guerrerio might also say that all this happened to Mehrzad because of his extraordinary height – the very same thing to which he owes all his misfortune, too. "Unfortunately, five years before coming across volleyball, his life was quite different. Mehrzad’s emotional stability hung in the balance like a limp fruit on a tree. He lived locked up, isolated from the world, in a coastal town in the north of the country.” "I was lonely and depressed," Mehrzad has previously confessed in an Iranian television interview.
What is Paralympic Volleyball?
Seated volleyball was created in the Netherlands in 1956 as a rehabilitation activity for wounded soldiers, and became one of the most popular sports in the Paralympic world, starting with an official men's team at the Games in Arnhem, the Netherlands 1980 and for women in Athens, Greece in 2004.
A match has a maximum of five sets, and each is won by the first team that reaches either 25 points, or 15 in the fifth set (with two points’ difference over the rival). The rules are the same as those used in traditional volleyball, with some small modifications. For example, the court is smaller (10m x 6m), and the net is lower (1.15m for the men's category and 1.05m for the females).
The players must be seated and in the main, least one part of the torso must be in contact with the ground when touching the ball. Athletes can only move around the court by bearing themselves along on their arms, while seated.
In sitting volleyball, the net hangs at just 1.15 meters above the ground: 1.31cm below Mehrzad’s standing height. For this reason, some countries considered his inclusion "an advantage": an accusation quickly dismissed by the International Paralympic Committee.
Other observers analysed Mehrzad’s participation from a tactical point of view. "It was as if Iran saw the good position that Brazil was in with their height," said Greg Walker, the coach of the US sitting volleyball team. The New York Times newspaper supported that hypothesis, arguing that Iran "has carried that burden to the extreme, cultivating Mehrzad over five years to counter Anderson Ribas da Silva, Brazil's attacker and blocker extraordinary." The appearance of Mehrzad, the US newspaper continued, proved "an axiom that is as true in sitting volleyball as in the NFL (National Football League)... when a team develops a successful strategy, others strive to duplicate it."
Rio 2016, the Turning Point
"I'm not going to show all my weapons from the start," Hadi Rezaei said, on being asked by the press about Mehrzad ahead of the 2016 Paralympics. The day of the final arrived, and into Pavilion 6 in Río Centro, Brazil came the figure of Mehrzad.
Iran defeated title-defending Bosnia and Herzegovina 3-1 and clinched its sixth Paralympic gold medal. It rarely happens that a team's athlete transcends the absolute truth of the game's result, but Mehrzad is part of that small elite, having gained 28 points, more than one set of which were won by himself, and provided an array of blocks, spikes and serves to deflect the Bosnians.
But, most importantly, he gave a life lesson that day. Before starting to play seated volleyball, he had given an interview for the Paralympic Games’ website site, and many had watched with their mouths hanging open. Now they understood. Sport is vital to helping some people with disabilities to raise their spirits and develop their self-confidence – perhaps especially those that otherwise feel like outcasts. "We gave him reason to be hopeful,” Rezaei said. “He became a champion."
Since its initial debut in Seoul in 1988, the Paralympic and Iranian national seated volleyball teams have transformed into a complementary, indissoluble pair. The squad has won six times in 11 global appearances, including the 2018 world championship, partly due to the arrival of Mehrzad.
"It's only fifty per cent of what it could be right now,” Rezaei had warned at the games in Brazil. “In two years, he will be the best player of all time." In the next Games in Tokyo, Razei will seek, in addition to securing Iran's seventh gold, to finally confirm the hypothesis he ushered in in Rio de Janeiro five years ago: that Mehrzad is his most significant, valuable and unexpected find.