Hotel Moscow was a slice of Soviet paradise and kitsch located about 35 minutes from my pension in the city center. It was one of several bloated hotels that squatted like beached cruise ships on a stretch of coastline that ran along Lara Beach. All of them were colossal monuments to the growing tourist trade (mostly Germans and Russians, from what I saw). In each of these temples to excess—many of them fashioned after real palaces, like Topkapi, the Doge’s palace in Venice, the Kremlin—you could enjoy the pleasures of the Mediterranean and the feel of an exotic locale without ever having to leave the hotel premises. All along the road leading up to the hotels were huge advertisements for pharmacies offering cheap prescription drugs: VIAGRA! CIALIS! The signs practically shout at you while you drive.
The Moscow—complete with onion-shaped Russian domes, a miniature Red Square, and a MiG-29 water fountain in the lobby—was teeming with activity. Most of it was of the weightlifting variety: coaches, athletes, trainers, and support staff, all strolling about, smoking, chatting. The few non-weightlifting tourists who were making their way through the hotel looked strangely out of place. No doubt they were wondering what all these sweaty, hairy, muscly men and women were doing in what should have been the spot for a calm, relaxing vacation away from the rigors of daily life as a millionaire. It must have been like arriving at a zoo and discovering you’re somehow on the wrong side of the bars, rubbing elbows with a bunch of animals in warmup suits.
But for those of us in the know, the lobby of a weightlifting hotel before an international meet can be a very, very fine thing indeed.
“Holy shit,” I said, quite literally in awe of the scene before me.
Even Ricky looked a bit starstruck, although I knew he’d been to this sort of thing before. “Pretty cool, no?”
I didn’t even bother to respond. How could I? There were simply too many luminaries, too many great lifters and coaches from all eras to take in and point to and simply gawk at than could be mentioned in a single breath. And they were all there, as though it were the most natural thing in the world—which, given the fact that the Worlds were happening in Antalya, it was.
“Perepechenov,” I said, a bit dazed. “Li Hongli. Rigert…”
Here were the legends I had watched and studied and admired for years. The Chinese team, all in identical red and yellow track suits, walked by in a line. The Russians were standing by the bar. A few Armenians were casually strolling around, admiring the MiG fountain. The Iranian Rezazedeh, the greatest super heavyweight of recent memory, made a revolution around the lobby as though locked into some Copernican system made of men and women in gym attire.
“This is fucking nuts,” I said, when the power of speech finally returned to me.
The registration area, in a room just off the main lobby, was yet more chaos. It was filled with all manner of staff from the International Weightlifting Federation as well as arriving delegations of various nationalities, making the place seem like a miniature UN. To my New Jersey ears it sounded as though every known language was being shouted in the room, like hearing a chorus of believers chanting in tongues all at once. Workers were busy at laptops and impromptu computer stations trying to get ID cards and registrations ready, while the various delegates handled large wads of cash and tried to shout their way through the bureaucracy.
If there was any order to this chaos it escaped me entirely. How can it be anything other than madness when scores of countries show up and attempt to do anything according to one set of rules and standards? And some of these places, to my ignorant American sense of the world, narrowed to a fine point centered on northern New Jersey, seemed more the stuff of history or legend than reality.
“Mongolia’s a country?” I asked, watching one of their representatives argue with an official working a laptop. The Mongolian was waving a handful of bills around and the computer worker was trying desperately to convey the information that was on her screen.
Ricky shrugged. “At the very least they’re a weightlifting team.”
Eventually, through much pushing and inching forward, we found our way to a receptive woman at a computer. She assured us she could get Ricky registered, and then spent a suspiciously long amount of time shuffling papers, looking at her screen, and talking to her colleagues in Turkish. After a long wait Ricky was given his credentials. When I tried my luck at getting a credential as Ricky’s coach I think she was so desperate to get us off her hands she gave me a pass—no questions asked—just to ensure we’d leave.
After lunch at the hotel’s buffet we drove over to the competition venue, located at the Antalya Expo Center. It was a huge, severe looking building, almost fascist in style and execution: all right angles and red paint and heavy pillars. An enormous poster with a portrait of Ataturk—the Father of Modern Turkey—hung between two huge metal columns before the entranceway, along with a poster for the World Weightlifting Championships. After a cursory wave of a metal detector at the doors, we were in…
The training area was an even greater shock than the lobby of the Hotel Moscow. Beyond its enormous size—a vast interior space that seemed to recede into nothing—were its contents: dozens and dozens of platforms, each with barbells and plates and squat racks, everything brand new. It was stunning. A true weightlifter’s paradise. There were brightly colored kilo plates stacked about like poker chips, dotting the room in such numbers as to appear like they were multiplying of their own accord.
And barbells. So many beautiful, precision machined barbells. I had only to look at them to envision their heft, their springiness, their gloriously smooth spin in my hands. And there were scores of them.
“Quick,” said Ricky, as we began walking to the platforms, “put a couple plates in your bag. We could use these back home.”
Scattered about all this beautiful equipment was a site even more alluring: lifters. Lifters of all different sizes and nationalities and superior abilities. The Chinese women were training as a group over in one corner; the Korean men and women in another corner; the French along one side of the room; a few Romanians on two platforms nearby; Egyptians; a pair of Armenians; and on, and on.
To my naive eyes these athletes redefined speed and precision and consistency and power and strength. Even the way they used the empty barbell was new to me. There was a symbiosis between athlete and object that allowed almost any action, however trivial, to transcend its banality and become a thing of beauty. All their movements, from warmup to stretching, had the practiced ease of a consummate professional.
And they were all so fast! I stopped and watched a few reps by an Albanian 77-kilo lifter. Every snatch was a quick burst of energy and the barbell was overhead.
“Jesus! You ever seen anyone so fast?” Ricky asked.
“No,” I said, and I knew it was the absolute truth. Even Myron, the fastest lifter I’d ever watched in person, couldn’t compare to this sort of speed. I was certain that, in comparison, I probably looked like I was lifting in syrup.
We set up camp by a platform being used by a couple of Armenians. I watched them arrive, warm up, and then go through a quick succession of snatches and clean and jerks and pulls. That was it. It took less than an hour, which is almost as long as it took Ricky to put his shoes on and warm up.
“They don’t mess around, do they?” he said, as we watched them get ready to leave following their workout.
“No,” I agreed. “They don’t.”
The flights had taken their tolls. Ricky made his way through a few lifts with the barbell and 50 kilos. Otherwise he just stretched and went through his usual calisthenics to loosen up joints that were stiff from so many hours spent sitting on the plane.
“That’s it for today. I’m too old for this,” he said. “I need my recovery. I’m gonna go see if I can find some ice.”
He hobbled off, shouting about ice to anyone who was dressed in vaguely medical-looking attire. I looked at Nikos, who only smiled and shook his head.
“You think he’s nuts, right?” I asked.
“Yes, he’s crazy. But,” he added, smiling and touching a finger to one temple, “everyone in this sport a little crazy.”
We agreed on this point, and then Nikos wandered off to say hi to a group of Romanians training a few platforms over.
I put my shoes on and began to warm up. I felt slightly ridiculous training in the midst of all those world class athletes. Yet there was an excitement about it, as well. However distant I may have been from the men and women on the international stage, breaking records and winning championships, we were still part of the same general family. I took the barbell, then 50 kilos, then seventy. I began to feel a little looser, a little better with each lift. The body was remembering the motions, warming up to the idea of snatching. How nice it must be, I thought, for these movements to be as natural and automatic as walking and breathing.
When I was ready for 90 I took off the greens and put a pair of beautiful, brand new blue plates on top of the yellows already on the bar. Across the training hall a 77-kilo Chinese lifter, an athlete who looked carved from granite, was about to take the same weight, loaded the same way on his bar. We are taking the same weight! I wanted to scream. You see? Perhaps we are not so different after all…
He then proceeded to muscle snatch it overhead with such fluidity that whatever link I had imagined between us was severed completely. There was a gulf between us that was defined by more than just weight. As much as I did not want to admit this—to myself, to anyone who believed in me—I was beginning to realize that I would never be counted among the ranks of great lifters. Not in my country, and certainly not internationally. Whether the door had shut in the years I’d wasted on partying and bad training or whether it had never been open at all made no difference then. The ultimate outcome was the same.
It’s a strange thing, to see a dream shrivel up like that. It’s strange to find yourself half a world away from home, abroad for the first time, without any mooring and without the goals that once defined you and gave your life shape and meaning. Who was I, if not a lifter aspiring to be a great athlete? And what exactly was I doing in this country? All at once I felt foreign in more ways than one. Perhaps the jetlag was getting to me, or the heat, but for a moment these thoughts and realizations seemed almost too much to bear. It’d been foolish to come to Turkey; it’d been foolish to ever think I might someday be welcomed into this crowd as one of them. The whole endeavor, everything from the moment I touched a barbell on, had been a mistake, and my disaster with Libby was only the most recent confirmation of that.
A voice pulled me back, out of my own head. It was familiar, a little slice of home, and was therefore unexpected.
“He’s not bad, eh?” said the voice, presumably referring to the Chinese 77.
I looked up. Libby stood in a Team USA warmup suit, her training bag slung over one shoulder, staring at the lifter.
Too surprised to speak, I simply gaped at her in silence. I’d crossed an ocean in part to see her and now that she was right in front of me, I felt I had nothing to say.
“Where’s Ricky?” she asked, looking back at me.
“He went to get some ice,” I said.
“How’re you doing?” I asked.
“Good,” she said. “You?”
“Tired,” I said. “Not bad though.”
I scrambled for things to say that might keep her there a little longer. Maybe we’d even share a platform…
“You excited to compete?” I said.
Again she nodded, although she took a deep breath and let it out slowly as she did so. “Excited and nervous. This feels very different from anything else.”
I laughed. “This is Worlds. This is different from everything else.”
“Yeah, but…” She paused. “Not really, right? It’s still just six lifts. Still just me and the bar.”
I considered her response and the level-headedness of it. This, I thought, is why she will be great.
“I guess you’re right,” I said.
“Well, I need to go train. I told the coaches I was on my way now. Get some light work in.”
“Right,” I said. “You lift tomorrow, right?”
“Yeah. Tomorrow night. You going to watch?”
“No, I figured I’d stay in. Hell yes! Of course I’m going to watch. I can’t wait.”
“Okay. Good,” she said, smiling.
“Maybe we can celebrate afterward. Grab food or something.”
She looked over at a group of platforms where some of the other Americans were arriving and warming up. “Maybe. Let’s get through the competition first.”
“Right,” I nodded.
“See you later.”
I waved and she was gone. After she’d left I looked at my barbell. It was still loaded with the 90 kilos, which I’d never taken. By then my joints felt cold and my will was gone. In the end I pulled off the plates and sat back down and began unlacing my shoes.
That night was the A session for the men’s 69-kilo class. Ricky and Nikos and I sat in the packed auditorium and watched the awesome spectacle on display. The competition area featured a massive raised stage and was festooned in posters, balloon rays, and lights. A giant camera rig swooped in and out to provide coverage for European TV networks. A Turk was lifting in the session, and every time he came to the platform the crowd erupted in cheers of support. The top three athletes at the end of the snatch portion—a Romanian, Chinese, and a Turkish lifter—had all done over 150 kilos. The Chinese lifter and the Turk each took a crack at the World Record, an astonishing 166 kilos. Each was unsuccessful, but not by much.
Ricky was astonished. “You believe that? A 166 snatch attempt by a guy who weighs 152 pounds. That’s fucking incredible! Although I don’t know how I feel about this one kilo rule shit,” he said. “What was wrong with going up two and a half per attempt? I mean, what the hell is one kilo? I sneeze on the bar and it could be a kilo!”
In the clean and jerk portion there was no competition. The Chinese lifter waited for everyone else to finish, and then opened with an easy 183 kilos, securing the gold medal. With that out of the way, he then jumped to an extraordinary 198 kilos for a new world record.
“Dollar bet,” I whispered to Ricky. “Make or miss.”
“What?” he whispered back. “That’s fucked up,” he said, stifling a laugh. “I say make. The guy’s unstoppable.”
And he was right. The weight went up and overhead beautifully.
“That’s four hundred and thirty-five pounds,” said Ricky. “And he just did it like it was nothing.”
Nikos nodded. “Very strong.”
Very strong indeed. We all knew of these weights in some theoretical sense, as we watched them on borrowed VHS tapes and DVDs or the few clips people had uploaded to their personal websites. But it was a very different thing to see them in person, to feel the shock and shudder of the platform and stage as each fantastically heavy attempt was brought crashing down, whether in success or failure.
“C’mon,” Ricky said when it’d ended. “I’m beat. I gotta get some sleep. I feel like I been awake for days.”
I dropped him and Nikos off at the Moscow and then went back to my own hotel, the little pension overlooking the Mediterranean. At least, that’s what I had hoped to do. Instead I got terrifically lost, since the traffic flow into the city center wouldn’t permit me to return via the exact route I came from earlier in the day. The little square of paper with a few scribbles that had served as my map was no help at all, and when I showed it to a few nearby drivers in the hopes of recognition they only stared blankly. There were more than a few moments of real terror, driving as I was in a strange city in a foreign country where I knew nothing of the language. I had visions of being perpetually lost, just driving until the car ran out of gas and then disappearing into the surrounding country, or being swallowed up by the Antalya underworld. Was there an Antalya underworld? I didn’t know, and I was in no great hurry to find out. The darkness didn’t help, as every terror is magnified in the night. It’d been years since I’d been so lost, accustomed as I was to driving no further than a few exits down the parkway, and I’d nearly forgotten just how unsettling it could be. I drove hunched close to the steering wheel, rowing through the Peugeot’s gears, alternately going too fast or too slow, hoping at each intersection for some spark of recognition—a building or a street or a sign or anything that might signal I was nearing my destination.
Eventually, through some combination of dumb luck and repeated shouts of “Özmen Pension!” to anyone who would listen, I made it back. Aziz was lying on a couch in the lobby, watching the news. I waved goodnight to him and went up to my room, where I lay in bed, exhausted.
Perhaps the drive had inspired these thoughts, but the full reality of my situation was only just beginning to settle in. I had never been so far from home before; shit, I had barely left Jersey prior to those days. Lying there in bed, with the Mediterranean just beyond my room, it seemed surreal. The stress of my drive back was subsiding, as fatigue and wonder took its place.
But I was too tired for any reflection. I slept, deep and dreamlessly.