If and when the history of Olympic weightlifting is written there are certain competitions that must surely form part of the sport’s mythology. Consider the 1987 World Championships, where Bulgaria’s Antonio Krastev snatched 216, the Soviet Union’s Leonid Taranenko clean and jerked 265.5, but the overall gold went to the USSR’s Aleksandr Kurlovic, with a 472.5 total. Or the 1996 Olympics, where the great Naim Suleymanoglu won his third consecutive gold medal in a tight battle against Greece’s Leonidis that came down to the last lift.
No doubt there are others, and to this list I would add the extraordinary battle for the title in the 105s this evening, which not only came down to the last lift, but was in fact won by that lift. This was the class that everyone was waiting for, and anyone in attendance—which seemed to be much of the city of Almaty—can attest that it lived up to and even exceeded the hype and expectations. Even I, who went into this with more than a bit of cynicism, considering how preordained Illin’s victory seemed (for a variety of factors, some of which are, uh, independent of his lifting), was on the edge of my seat as the top three finishers vied for placement.
It’s hard to imagine a more exciting storyline, and such was the drama that more than one person remarked that you could not have written a better script for how this competition played out. The 105s in Paris in 2011, where Klokov and Akkaev fought for first place with made lift after made lift, was among the most exciting duels I’ve seen, yet even that is somewhat dimmed by comparison.
After a tight snatch portion, with Russia’s David Bedzhanyan at 187, Almaty’s hometown hero Ilya Ilyin at 190, China’s Zhe Yang at 191, and Uzbekistan’s Ruslan Nurudinov at an outstanding 193, it was clear that Ilyin would have to work for his medal. But I never expected just how hard he’d have to work, or how close he’d come to being dethroned by last year’s World Champion, Nurudinov. Especially since Nurudinov, after his gold medal snatch, opened with a relatively modest 220 in the clean and jerk, and Bedzhanyan opened with 225. Ilyin, by comparison, made a casual 233 for his opener—and this after Nurudinov had already taken his second attempt at 230. Thus it appeared that the real fight—if there would be one—would be between Bedzhanyan and Ilyin.
But then, with a succession of lifts made and missed, the 105s seemed to transcend their humble origins as an athletic competition—a mere game—to become lived drama, a spectacle worthy of art. Bedzhanyan, on his second attempt at 236, missed the jerk, apparently leaving the door open for Ilyin. Yet when Ilyin called for 239—a new World Record—on his second attempt, he too missed the jerk. And Nurudinov, in response, made the lift—not only setting the record but also launching himself into first place. The record didn’t stand long, though, as Bedzhanyan then came out to make 240 for another new record. Ilyin at this point was down 3 kilos, and needed 242 for the win.
There was tremendous power in the air when Ilyin came out for that final lift, the one on which not only the Championships but the entire Kazakh people seemed to be riding. Earlier in the day, in a cab ride up into the mountains that surround Almaty, we asked our cab driver (via our guide, in Kazakh) if he knew who Ilyin was.
“Of course!” he said, smiling, as though it were absurd to think he wouldn’t know Ilyin.
The man is a national hero, here [NB: Ilyin, not the cab driver], and as he set up for his final lift I felt the rush of nerves not only for him but for the crowd, as well. Some part of me, the cynic, knew he would make it, believed it was ordained by the weightlifting powers-that-be, yet so much of me was still on edge, wondering what it would be like if Ilyin did not make that lift. For athletes like Ilyin, or Suleymanoglu, it is hard to conceive of their failures. Perhaps we find comfort in projecting our own hopes and dreams onto athletes like them, confident in their ability to succeed again and again where so many of us mortals fail. To see them fail is too much, as it reminds us that failure is unavoidable, no matter how great you are. When Suleymanoglu bombed at the 2000 Olympics there was so much more than just a barbell that came crashing down; for many of us, an entire worldview ended with that lift.
Would Ilyin make it? Would our own worldview on this night in Kazakhstan be similarly crushed, brought down in the form of a barbell loaded to a fantastic 242 kilos?
Watch, and enjoy for yourself, and take note of living in an era when greatness of a stripe not often seen is on such display…