It’s the end of another long day spent in the training hall. More athletes, coaches, and delegates have arrived; I’m trying to upload videos over an internet connection slower than what Matthew Broderick used in “WarGames”; and Graber is snoring and talking to himself in his sleep in the bed opposite mine. Yes, all is normal over here in the strange, parallel universe that is Olympic Weightlifting.
I spent most of the afternoon over at the venue, which is really coming together nicely. The extraordinary amount of interior space provided by the massive, reinforced concrete dome has made for an impressive setup. Of the two Worlds I’ve been to so far, this looks to be the most attractive staging and seating area, although Sunday—when the competition actually starts—will be the real test.
Today also marked the arrival of one Mike Graber, aka “the most powerful man in USA Weightlifting.” He strolled into the training hall in his usual style, which is to say running at nearly a full clip, sporting an oversized Bosco Russia jacket (one of about ten jackets he brought, all of various countries—he packed almost nothing else). By way of greeting he complimented me on my new passport.
“How did you know I got a new passport?” I asked.
“Oh, because I was going through your stuff back at the room when I checked in.”
Ah, of course.
Earlier in the day I had bumped into Rob Macklem, one of the first great weightlifting photographers of the Internet age and also just a damn nice guy. He and I spent a good twenty or thirty minutes watching—and filming and photographing—the North Koreans, who are some of the fastest athletes I have ever seen. Of course, seeing the North Koreans out and about begs the question: what do they make of the wider world after living behind a wall of secrecy for most (or all) of their lives? And how do their coaches prevent them from running off and defecting the moment they step off the plane? Maybe North Korea really is as great as all its official media say…
I was also fortunate enough to catch more of Lu Xiaojun’s training, which consisted of some big squats, some light presses, and then jerk dips with about a metric ton.
At various points during and after his training Lu was stopped by athletes—world-class athletes from all over—wanting to take a picture with him. In a few short years he seems to have become a celebrity of the highest rank in this sport, at least for the present. The winds of change can shift quickly in the world of athletics, but it’s tempting at this point to see Lu as one of the enduring greats of weightlifting. What’s interesting is that Lu, for all his extraordinary appeal (and I count myself among that lot, as evidenced by the fiasco yesterday), has yet to establish an objective record that rivals his subjective fame. He is an Olympic champion, to be certain, but there is no shortage of Olympic champions around here, and none of them are getting the kind of attention Lu is getting. Even weight alone doesn’t explain it. There is no doubt his 175-kilo snatch at 77 is, by any measure, outstanding, and one of the greatest lifts of this or any generation. But just as impressive—if not more so—is the triple-bodyweight clean and jerk of North Korea’s Yun Chol Om, yet he hasn’t received half the attention of Lu.
There is an appeal to Lu, no doubt, but it’s hard to say what separates one lifter from the next, especially at such a high level. Lu is a rare specimen, rightly deserving of his current popularity. Perhaps it’s the relative ease with which he appears to make his lifts, and the fact that even missed lifts look to be within his capabilities. Or maybe it’s just those goddamn amazing intercostals…
The training hall was starting to empty out by the end of Lu’s workout, which is when I decided to get a little training in of my own. After I had warmed up a bit and started snatching I noticed Lu checking out my moves. While I was resting in between sets—to get my wind back after doing a double—he sauntered over, made some comment about my intercostals, and we began chatting in Mandarin, as we do these days.
“I like your moves,” he said. “Every weight looks the same. You can make 90 kilos look like 160 kilos. How do you make it look so heavy?”
“Easy,” I said, taking great care to get my pronunciation and tones just right. I leaned in, wanting to guard my secret, and whispered: “By staying very weak.”
Chew on that for a while, Lu. Along with the iron nails and unicorn hearts that you no doubt consume before training sessions.
More to come, including videos of the North Koreans, Armenians, and others, once I can get this 2400-baud modem in my room to work properly…