Dammit! Just when it feels like the Worlds are in full swing, when the records are falling and the lifters are growing in stature, the whole thing—plates and all—comes to an end. And so it was with this year’s Worlds, much to the dismay of
the 0.1% of the population that follows weightlifting everyone in the universe. Despite being a post-Olympic year it was a damn fine competition, with some truly astounding lifts. The 176-kilo snatch by Lu Xiaojun has been getting the most attention, but perhaps equally impressive (if not more so) is the 190-kilo clean and jerk by Russia’s Tatiana Kashirina.
Allow that 190-kilo clean and jerk to sink in for a moment. I’ll still be here…
Now we must wait for next year’s Worlds in lovely Astana, Kazakhstan—”The Paris of the Kazakh Steppe”—for the madness to continue. And it is madness, in every sense of the word, a human circus whose main stage is only part of the excitement. Spend more than thirty seconds in any area—the hotel lobby, the hotel bar, the dining hall, the training area—and you simply cannot avoid bumping into Olympic weightlifting greatness.
One evening, after having wrestled with Oksen Mirzoyan in the buffet line, Mr Graber and I were running to catch an elevator back to the room. We hopped in just in time (a miracle, given Graber’s problem with closing gates) only to be confronted with these two gentlemen:
None other than the Kazakh coaches Aleksey and Victor Ni. I was
hoping worried they might start picking us up and celebrating our entrance, but fortunately everyone remained calm.
A few individuals, like Zlatan Vanev, seem to be omnipresent. Not a day went by when I didn’t see him buzzing around like a large, swarthy hummingbird. Every step he takes appears to be executed with the same speed as his legendarily explosive lifting. He nearly ran me over one day in the training hall—I think he was doing laps around the venue, working off a bit of energy—but I managed to flag him down for a picture, joined by Ivan Ivanov (current coach for Bulgaria, who is apparently upset over having to sprint to keep up with his former teammate).
And of course, behind the scenes of all this insanity—behind the buffet madness and the world records and the flooding hotel rooms—is Dr Tamás Aján. He’s been involved in weightlifting for nearly four decades, first as Secretary General and since 2000 as President of the IWF.
He’s an occasional site at the Worlds, although few people beyond the sport’s confines are likely to recognize him or know his name. Athletes don’t generally approach him asking for pictures and autographs, as they do with Lu Xiaojun. But if the various weightlifters and coaches and fans who’ve been around this sport for decades are to be believed, it’s Aján’s invisible hand that is constantly operating behind the curtain, pulling the levers and ropes that ultimately lead to weightlifting wizardry.
Aján—who also, rather conveniently, serves as a council member of WADA—recently won another term as the IWF’s President. And judging by various goings-on in the sport, he is grooming his son-in-law to take power when his own time is up. Depending on whom you believe, the political machinations of Aján and his fellows may be more responsible for an uneven playing field than any amount of doping. As I alluded to in a comment on an earlier post, the issue of athletes using performance enhancing substances is little more than a red herring for alleged problems endemic to the sport. There’s a fair amount of consent that money—not drugs—is the true dividing line between the medal stand and the rest of the field.
Conspiracy theories aside, part of the beauty of weightlifting is that, at the end of the day, the athlete must still lift the weight. All the back room deals in the world won’t make a single kilo go up and over someone’s head. The Wizard behind the curtain can only do so much, and ultimately the contest comes down to the athlete and the barbell, alone on the competition stage.
Maybe this is why the training hall is so popular, so fascinating. There is, it seems, a total absence of large-scale politics. There is strategy, to be certain, as competitors and coaches eye each other up and evaluate their opponents, but for the most part it is a place of pure, unfiltered work.
On one of my first nights in the training hall, before the hordes had arrived, I noticed one of the Chinese coaches playing around with some weights. I think he did some curls and rows, and then maybe some overhead extensions. This from a guy who is probably two or three times the age of most of the competitors. Yet the allure of the barbell—removed from politics and strategy and nationalism—was still there. I saw this several times over the following days—coaches doing a few lifts, a few simple movements, perhaps recalling the training halls and competition venues of their own days—and it was a strangely comforting sight.
So for a moment, let’s return to those glorious days in the training area. Let’s enjoy the memory of Centennial Hall, back when the air was still ringing with the sounds of bars and plates and hard-soled shoes hammering out their staccato rhythm against the platforms. Until next year it is all we have…