But it took the state almost three decades before it showed an active and sustained interest in physical education and sports, for it was only in 1934 that the National Physical Education Association (Anjoman-e melli-ye tarbiyat-e badani) was founded and placed under the patronage of Crown Prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. It is a sad irony that it was precisely as a result of this initiative that the man who had done most to acquaint Iranians with modern physical education and Western athletic disciplines withdrew from public service. This man was Mir Mehdi Varzandeh (1880–1982), often called the “father of modern sports” in Iran.
Mir Mehdi Varzandeh was born in 1880 in the town of Shabastar, in Iranian Azerbaijan, a largely Turkophone province bordering Anatolia. Having lost his parents when he was still a child, his brother, who was a merchant in Istanbul, took him to that city and brought him up there. In Istanbul he first attended the Iranian School, then the Rüs¸diye Tophanesi, and finally the prestigious Kuleli Askeri Lisesi, Istanbul’s premier military high school. At that school he caught the eye of Selim Sırrı Tarcan (1874–1956), the founder of modern physical education in the Ottoman Empire, who became his mentor.2 He attended fencing classes at the Union Française school, and also taught physical education at the Iranian School and the Darüs¸s¸afaka School. Encouraged by Selim Sırrı Bey, he then went to Brussels to study physical education at the École normale de gymnastique et d’escrime (ENGE).
In 1914 he returned to Iran, stopping in Istanbul, where, according to Varzandeh himself, he was offered the directorship of the college of physical education in Istanbul, but refused the offer since the position was contingent on him becoming an Ottoman subject.3 Upon his return to Iran he immediately set out to convince the authorities of the importance of exercise and sport, and after initial setbacks was instrumental in getting parliament to pass legislation instituting physical education in the nation’s schools.
Sometime in the early 1920s Mir Mehdi Khan adopted the surname Varzandeh. Family names had been officially registered in Tehran in 1918 and became obligatory in the entire country in 1924;4 Mir Mehdi’s choice reflects his vocation, for Varzandeh is related to varzesh (meaning both “physical education” and “sport”), the two words being the present participle and verbal noun, respectively, of the verb varzidan, one of whose meanings is “to exercise.”
Varzandeh was in state service from 1925 to 1934, when he retired into private life, for reasons that we shall see. He also founded a number of modern sports clubs, including Iran’s first public swimming pool.5 In the mid 1950s he bought land in Shahryar, west of Tehran, and as time went on spent more and more time tending his orchards. After his wife’s death in 1974, he moved to Istanbul and lived with his daughter’s family.6 He died in 1982 and was buried in the Iranian cemetery, the Seyyid Ahmed Deresi, at Üsküdar.