Can't do it, late terrorists gridlock. If you'd listened to the critics, you'd have thought the sky was going to fall in on Athens just about the time the Olympic Games were to begin. With so many people skittish about what might or might not happen, you just had to go for it: Why not arrive in Athens on Friday the 13th and go to the opening ceremony, and if you're still in one piece at that point, settle back and enjoy some over-the-top weightlifting?
The opening ceremony was jammed, and since tickets were going for about $1,000 apiece, you can believe everyone who attended really wanted to be there. And what a show it was'tremendous pageantry choreographing pieces of ancient Greek history with modern themes. The whole thing was capped off with gallant speeches and the parade of nations, which left even the well traveled wondering just where some of those countries really were, making their participation in the Olympics even more meaningful. And, of course, there was the signature moment when the Olympic flame was lit.
The world had come to Athens to see the essence of athletic competition'faster, higher, stronger. And the province of strength is weightlifting. That's all it's called in the Olympics, even if in the United States most people refer to 'Olympic lifting' or 'Olympic-style weightlifting.' Whatever you call it, the sport involves two lifts: the snatch and the clean and jerk.
The snatch isn't everyone's cup of tea because along with strength, it requires balance, coordination, flexibility and speed. Here's how you do a snatch: Pull the barbell off the ground to about chest height and then race to squat under it while catching it overhead on outstretched arms. Try that with a broomstick or an empty bar and then consider that in the Olympics, the top men who weigh about 200 pounds, will snatch more than 400 pounds. Even the women in the lightest bodyweight class, 48 kilograms (about 106 pounds) snatch more than 200 pounds.
The clean and jerk is a two-part lift: First you pull the bar to about waist height, then race to squat under it so you can catch it across your chest'in a front squat position'before standing up. That's the clean. Next comes the jerk: You dip a few inches and then drive the bar up so you can split or squat under it to catch the bar overhead on outstretched arms. The clean and jerk is called the king of the lifts, and a lot of experts would say that if you want to see how strong someone really is, look at what he or she can lift from the ground to arm's length overhead, which is what the clean and jerk is all about.
Here's some more quick background on the sport of weightlifting: Everything is measured in kilos, not pounds, but the conversions are included here in case you're not kilo conversant. The women have seven bodyweight categories, starting at 48 kilograms and going up to 75 kilograms (165 pounds) or more. The men have eight bodyweight classes, ranging from 52 kilograms (114 pounds) to the superheavyweights, who weigh at least 105 kilograms (about 231 pounds). Each lifter gets three attempts in the snatch and three attempts in the clean and jerk. Add the lifter's best snatch to his or her best clean and jerk to get a total, and that's how Olympic medals are decided. In case of a tie, the medal goes to the lighter lifter.
Just as dynamite comes in small packages, the lightest lifters in both the men's and women's categories provided plenty of excitement in Athens. Ladies first: Weighing in at 47.21 kilograms (about 104 pounds), Nurcan Taylan of Turkey got well on her way to her gold-medal performance when she snatched 95 kilograms (about 209 pounds) on her second attempt'it was the first time a woman had ever snatched double bodyweight, a staggering feat. (Many people feel you can't really call yourself a weightlifter, as opposed to someone who lifts weights, until you can snatch at least bodyweight. Once you try to do it, you'll see why it's a watershed weight.) But wait: she came back to hit 97.5 kilograms (about 215 pounds) on her third attempt.
Not content to let his diminutive countrywoman be the only Turk to enjoy the spotlight, Halil Mutlu opened the men's competition by bringing home his third consecutive Olympic gold medal, a performance level that puts Mutlu in the highest echelon of weightlifters, even if he is barely 4 1/2 feet tall. Mutlu buried any threat posed by Wu Meijin of China when he snatched 135 kilograms (about 297 pounds) on his second attempt and went on to take an unsuccessful shot at 140 kilograms (about 308 pounds) on his third attempt. Wu packs a huge clean and jerk, but when he finished the snatches with 130 kilograms (about 286 pounds), Mutlu would have had to take a major stumble in the clean and jerk to finish in less than gold-medal position.
Mutlu opened with a 160-kilogram (about 352 pounds) clean and jerk, which put him in the lead. Wu, who'd opened with a good 157.5 kilograms (about 347 pounds), took 165 kilograms (about 363 pounds) on his second attempt, trying to go ahead of Mutlu on bodyweight. He racked the bar but couldn't stand up with it. Mutlu missed the jerk with the same weight on his second attempt, and now things were really interesting because Wu, who had seemed out of the gold-medal race, was again in the thick of things. Wu repeated with the same weight on his third attempt and fought his way up, but he missed the jerk.
At that point Mutlu had the gold medal, but rather than rest on his laurels, he called for 168.5 kilograms (about 371 pounds) in a world-record bid. He got under the bar but couldn't stand up. No matter, though, because this guy is pure gold in weightlifting and is treated as such in his country. Fast forward now to the men's 77-kilogram class (about 170 pounds), traditionally one of the most competitive classes in weightlifting. These guys might not be huge, but the weights they lift are: You have to be able to snatch at least 170 kilograms (about 374 pounds) and clean and jerk more than 200 kilograms (about 440 pounds) to be world class in the category. A lot of guys this size would consider themselves strong if they could do an honest squat with what these lifters snatch or deadlift what they clean and jerk. ALL There were some great efforts, big lifts, close battles and other highlights in this category, but the whole story boiled down to the one man still standing at the end: a Turkish teenager named Taner Sagir, who looks like just an athletic guy in street clothes. When he got on a lifting platform, though, he turned into a werewolf'spotting the jugular, going for it and roaring his satisfaction with a job well done when he demolished one huge weight after another: snatching 165, 170 and 172.5 kilograms (about 363, 374 and 380 pounds, respectively) without a hitch. Can he clean and jerk too? How about 200 kilograms (about 440 pounds) on his opener, 202.5 kilograms (about 446 pounds) on his second attempt and no need to do anything but sit back at that point because, besides the Olympic gold medal, he had set five junior world records and four Olympic records and was merely one kilo below the senior world record in the snatch and 2 1/2 kilos below the senior world record in the clean and jerk.
At the 1992 Olympics a weightlifter from Albania won a gold medal, on bodyweight, for his newly adopted country, Greece. Most of us who frequent the top international weightlifting contests had never heard of him, but that victory ended the anonymity of Pyrros Dimas, who has gone on to become a superstar of magnificent proportions in Greece. Dimas won his second Olympic gold medal in Atlanta and a third in Sydney. Each was an astounding, peerless performance, in perfect harmony with a mind-set so positive and strong that he seemed to generate a force field around him and could make other lifters wilt by his mere presence.
Dimas was going for the impossible, a fourth Olympic gold medal, and many were hoping for that storybook ending. He snatched 170 kilograms (about 374 pounds) on his opening attempt, and all could see that it was a limit lift, without an added eyelash to spare. Dimas took 175 kilograms (about 385 pounds) on his second attempt, and we knew he couldn't possibly lift it. We were right. Then, on his third attempt, he proved us wrong, somehow making a weight five kilograms (about 11 pounds) over what we had seen as his absolute limit.
Miracles are possible, and another miracle was unfolding in this class as George Asanidze (Republic of Georgia) snatched 172.5 kilograms (about 380 pounds) and 177.5 kilograms (about 391 pounds) before missing 180 kilograms (about 396 pounds) on his third attempt. Asanidze broke his right arm as a boy, and it's never fully straightened out. When you watch him lift, it's apparent what a handicap that is: The bar always appears to be tilting precariously downward and to his right, and his ability to support huge weights overhead typically comes down to whether his right arm buckles under the strain.
In the clean and jerk, Dimas and Asanidze both made 202.5 kilograms (about 446 pounds) on their openers, and then while Dimas pulled only 205 kilograms (about 451 pounds) on his second attempt, Asanidze made a good lift with the weight that would end up giving him the gold medal. Dimas took 207.5 kilograms (about 457 pounds) on his third attempt, going for the gold, but missed the jerk and then quietly took off his shoes and put them by the side of the platform, signifying his retirement. The crowd went absolutely nuts, in a prelude to what happened during the medal ceremony.
Throughout these battles, Andrei Rybakou (Belarus), who had lifted earlier in the day in the B session (for the lifters who had lower totals coming into the competition), was holding on to the silver-medal position, which is where he ended up, a notch above Dimas' bronze.
The medal ceremony for this class was something for the ages. Pyrros Dimas received a send-off ovation such as was never before seen in sports'any sport, ever. The deafening applause went on and on and on, as their hero was thanked and saluted by the Greek fans who'd packed themselves into the weightlifting hall. They cheered, it seemed, eternally.
Fast forward again to the men's superheavyweight class, where the kings of the jungle roam. Traditionally, the man who wins the 100-meter dash in the Olympics is considered the world's fastest human, and the man who wins the superheavyweight gold medal in weightlifting is considered the world's strongest human.
Hossein Rezazadeh of Iran dominates this class, and, in a situation reminiscent of Paul Anderson's arrival at the 1956 Olympics, awarding the gold medal seemed to be a mere formality: Rezazadeh, the 2000 Olympic champion, holds all three world records in this class.
Not disappointing anyone, Rezazadeh walked through his snatches hitting 200, 207.5 and 210 kilograms (about 440, 457 and 462 pounds, respectively)'before opening with 250 kilograms (about 550 pounds) in the clean and jerk. With the gold medal won and everyone else done, Rezazadeh called for 263.5 kilograms (about 580 pounds) on his second attempt, to break his own world record, but he had to dump the bar off his shoulders as he stood up with it. It looked light but was out of position. Coming back to the same weight on his third attempt, Rezazadeh nailed the weight and held it overhead with the joy of a young child entertaining himself and his family by holding a favorite toy aloft.
What a magnificent job the Athens Organizing Committee did, producing a shining success where many had predicted disaster'a fabulous setting for a weightlifting competition so special that if it came around more than once every four years, we'd be reduced to complete numbness. See you in Beijing in 2008.
Editor's note: Randall J. Strossen, Ph.D., is the founder and president of IronMind Enterprises Inc., a name synonymous with strength around the world. Strossen is the author of the books Super Squats: How to Gain 30 Pounds of Muscle in 6 Weeks, Paul Anderson: The Mightiest Minister, and IronMind: Stronger Minds, Stronger Bodies, as well as the co-author (along with Joe Kinney and Nathan Holle) of Captains of Crush Grippers: What They Are and How to Close Them, and he is the publisher of the quarterly publication MILO: A Journal for Serious Strength Athletes. If you are interested in strength or want to get stronger, visit the IronMind Web site at www.ironmind.com, or call (530) 265-6725 for a free catalog of the leading products for serious strength athletes. IM