There is now real muscle behind Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's drive to win a second four-year term as Iran's president. The strongest weightlifter in history, inevitably nicknamed "the Iranian Hercules", is supporting him in the June 12 elections. Hossein Rezazadeh, a charismatic national hero and television celebrity, told Iran's Tabnak news agency that he was endorsing the incumbent to help repay Mr Ahmadinejad "for all he has done for sports [in Iran]". The "world's strongest man" hailed the current government for developing Iran's sports infrastructure and for "realising the potential of [Iran's] youth".
Such support is significant in a sports-mad country where two-thirds of the population of 70 million are younger than 30. The tough-talking president clearly has macho appeal. A group of martial artists gathered outside his office to last week to pledge support for his campaign. Scores of artists of a more cerebral kind, however, are urging Iranians to vote for Mr Ahmadinejad's two reformist rivals. Many film-makers and writers oppose the incumbent because the number of banned books and films has reached a record high during his presidency. The celebrated film director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, last month backed Mir-Hossein Mousavi, while also praising Mehdi Karroubi, the other reformist candidate. Darioush Mehrjoui, another prominent director, has appealed to Iran's youth to vote for either of the reformist challengers.
So Mr Ahmadinejad will welcome support from Mr Rezazadeh, who combines popularity and power with piety. The hulking strongman named his six-year-old son, Abolfazl, in honour of a Shia martyr for whose help Mr Rezazadeh would cry out before every electrifying lift at the Olympics. So popular is Mr Rezazadeh that his wedding six years ago was broadcast live on Iranian state television. He holds world records in weightlifting's super heavyweight class and is the first Iranian to have won two Olympic gold medals - in the 2000 and 2004 games. He withdrew shortly before the last Olympics, citing health problems, and was promptly appointed manager and head coach of Iran's national weightlifting team. An indoor arena named after Mr Rezazadeh, 31, was built in his honour three years ago in his hometown of Ardabil.
With football the most popular sport in Iran, Mr Ahmadinejad also would dearly love to enlist the support of the country's footballing heroes. But football is a field he has not fared well in, despite being a fan himself and former player who boasts that, as a striker, he scored many goals in his youth. Most of Iran's canny footballers, however, have refused to endorse any candidate. The word in Tehran is that no footballer wants to risk backing a hopeful who may lose in the increasingly unpredictable election race.
The managing board of Zob Ahan FC, a leading team affiliated with the government-owned Isfahan Steel Company, was sacked last week because it had declared its support for Mr Mousavi's campaign, reported Sarmayeh, a leading reformist daily. The head of the board, Saeed Azari, then resigned in protest against the company's move. Yet Ali Parvin, a very popular former footballer and coach, yesterday announced he has given support to Mr Mousavi. Parvin's name is inseparable from Persepolis, an extremely popular football team for which he played many years ago and coached until recently.
"He knows what problems people are facing and he may be able to bring some peace back to our society," he was quoted as saying yesterday in Hayat-e No, a reformist newspaper. For superstitious football fans, Mr Ahmadinejad also has an unenviable reputation of being a ghadame shoor - a Farsi expression describing a bringer of bad luck. This dates mostly to a World Cup qualifying game in March when the president made a surprise appearance at Tehran's Azadi stadium 30 minutes into the so far goalless match. He was initially cheered but the mood soured when Iran went down 2-1.
An earlier foray that Mr Ahmadinejad made into the realm of football spectatorship also ended in embarrassment three years ago when, in a populist attempt to appeal to women, he decreed that they could attend football matches. As a hardliner, he apparently had felt confident that he could break a taboo dating from the 1979 Islamic Revolution that his reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, another keen football fan, had dared not challenge. But there was uproar from six grand ayatollahs and several parliamentarians who insisted it violated Islamic law for a woman to look at the body of a male stranger. Women, they argued, would also be corrupted by the often foul language used by male spectators. Mr Ahmadinejad countered, cleverly if speciously, that the presence of Iran's football-mad women in the stands would have a civilising effect on male fans. He pronounced, bizarrely, that lifting the ban would even "promote chastity". But he was forced to revoke the decree when Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, overruled him.
The president must hope that Mr Rezazadeh's heavyweight support will help consign that episode - and Iran's defeat on the football pitch to Saudi Arabia - to a distant past. The strongman enthused: "I give 18 marks out of 20 for this government's support of sports as we have had outstanding achievements in the sports scene in this time." firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Maryam Siniaee