During Morteza Mehrzad’s formative years in Chalus, a Caspian Sea town in northern Iran, he would hide himself away in the family home, feeling shunned by society and mortified at how he looked. Now 33, he is the second tallest person on Earth, measuring 8ft 1in, a distinction he has found to be far more a curse than a blessing.
He competes at the Paralympics because his right leg is six inches shorter than his left, the consequence of a pelvic fracture sustained in a childhood cycling accident. In his daily life, such an imbalance represents a nightmare, restricting him to a wheelchair or crutches. But here in Tokyo, as the outside hitter for his country’s sitting volleyball team, his height renders him an irresistible force.
Reach and range are vital factors in his sport, where athletes with a wide spectrum of impairments sit and slide along the floor, volleying over a 4ft net. When Brazil first emerged as a global power in this discipline, they did so after incorporating two players over 6ft 7in. The presence of Mehrzad, though, rewrites the manual for what his opponents must face. As the seventh tallest human in recorded history, he can strike a ball with his right hand at 6ft 4in off the ground even while sedentary.
Judging by Iran’s performances at these Games, nobody else stands a chance against Mehrzad. They duly wrapped up a second successive Tokyo gold, beating the Russian Paralympic Committee 3-1 in the final despite dropping their first set in five matches. As usual, Mehrzad assumed a starring role, scoring 28 points, 11 more than any of his team-mates. But while his triumph exemplifies the notion of turning a physical disadvantage into an advantage, his story remains one of profound pathos.
For all Mehrzad’s giant stature, the painful truth is that his health is deteriorating. Muhammad Ali Dahestani, the host of a disability sport programme in Iran, reveals that the player’s rare condition, acromegaly – where the brain’s pituitary gland produces excessive growth hormone – has worsened, for the simple reason that “he is getting taller”. Only person on the planet, Turkish farmer Sultan Kosen, is registered as having greater height than the Iranian, at 8ft 3¼in. The prognosis is far from reassuring, with acromegaly sufferers given an average life expectancy 10 years shorter than the rest of the population.
Volleyball has offered Mehrzad a merciful release from his torment. “Due to my impairment, I was very depressed,” he reflected. “I felt like I was in prison – I was afraid to go outside due to my appearance. I could never imagine a future for myself. But sitting volleyball has had an immense impact on my life.”
A crucial factor has been his mentoring by national coach Hadi Rezaei, who saw his difficulties explained starkly on Iranian television in 2011. “It is my duty as a coach to discover players, to find talents and teach them,” said Razaei, keen to argue that his side were more than a one-man band. “I don’t consider one player the best, I consider them a team. Morteza is not finished improving yet. He needs more time to develop and become a more complete athlete.”
To those on the other side of the net, Mehrzad can be a figure of awe. Florian Singer, a member of the German team squashed 3-0 by Iran in the pool stage, explained how they had to crouch down to defend his “spikes” – where the ball is aggressively swatted, much like a slam dunk – due to the exceptional angles he could hit. It is an extraordinary athlete who can compel his adversaries to reinvent their tactics just for him.
And yet Mehrzad has tended to think of his height less as a help than a hindrance. When you are over 7ft as a sportsman, you can still entertain visions of becoming a professional basketball player. But if you break the 8ft barrier, virtually all avenues are closed off. To put Mehrzad’s size into relatable perspective, he is 15in taller than the average UK door. He would clear most ceilings on the Tokyo metro system by nearly 2ft.
In so many ways, this can be an intolerable burden. But Mehrzad has discovered a sport that encourages him to aspire beyond a life of embarrassed seclusion. While his dominance on the sitting volleyball court might invite perceptions of a mismatch, it serves as his personal salvation. His role in Iran’s latest victory is one that encapsulates the Paralympic credo.