Unlike at previous years’ Worlds—Turkey in 2010, Paris in 2011—I’ve arrived at this year’s Championships before the actual start of the competition, and indeed before almost anybody else. When I went to get my accreditation (The Human Circus this year having apparently taken on a degree of respectability) the staff didn’t quite know what to do with me. They knew they were there to give people credentials, and they knew my name was on a list, somewhere, but beyond that it was sort of a mystery. The woman I was dealing with made a number of phone calls, shuffled some papers around, and kept stabbing away at her laptop keyboard, presumably in an effort to figure things out. Or at least in an effort to look busy while I sat and smiled at the various Polish things being said all around me. For all I know she was watching videos of Klokov. At some point someone in the room even offered to brew me coffee, in an effort to buy some time. Fortunately, I was eventually issued credentials (twice, in fact—it’s an imprecise system).
Anyways, this year I’ve had a chance to see things right from the start, and I can say with some certainty that once you get past the novelty of the experience it’s actually rather boring, at least until the teams start arriving. When I arrived at the venue this morning, hoping to watch some athletes, the stadium looked pretty similar to yesterday. Somebody should let these guys know the competition starts on Sunday.
In the training hall it wasn’t much better, as I was one of about five athletes this morning (in counting myself among their number, I use the term “athlete” very, very loosely). The advantage of this was that I could get some training in myself, and since I was lifting on a platform next to a 58-kilo girl I was able to remain competitive (it also helped that she wasn’t going heavy).
But all this changed when I returned to the hotel for some lunch. The teams were starting to pour in, and the lobby was filled with athletes and coaches. For the most part it’s lifters from the lighter classes, although some countries—like Japan—are already in full force. Among the most conspicuous groups were the Chinese, nearly all of whom were decked out their red warmups. I tried to maintain a sense of composure—be cool, I thought, and move confidently into their midst—but when I saw Lu Xiaojun standing with Long Qingquan (2008 56-kilo Olympic Champion) I lost what tiny shred of self-control I had.
“Lu!” I shouted, running over like a schoolgirl attacking Justin Bieber. “Picture?” I made the universal picture-taking motion with my hands, since clearly my English wasn’t doing the trick.
He looked worried—was I dangerous?—but a woman next him said something in Mandarin that put him at ease (probably “Do not be afraid; he is simply a great fan of your intercostals.”). He and Qingquan graciously accepted to take a picture with me; afterward I tried asking if he would sign my intercostals, but I’m not sure it translated well…
Of course, Lu was only one of a number of weightlifting luminaries then strolling about the place. The great joy of the meet hotel—aside from the free meals—is the chance to see literally dozens of Olympic and World champion coaches and athletes. Zlatan Vanev, who walks with the same speed as he snatches, has been buzzing around all day; Oksen Mirzoyan, the great Armenian lightweight of the 70s and 80s and current coach for the country, has yet to miss a free meal at the hotel; and at lunch I saw the legendary Hossein Rezazadeh, wearing a suit made from approximately 700 square meters of material. I’m near certain that Iran is currently experiencing a nationwide shortage of charcoal grey fabric.
(At this point I can’t help but wonder what normal people think when walking through the hotel. How can anyone outside the sport be prepared for the sight of so many thick-jawed, heavily muscled people of nearly every stripe and nationality milling around, smoking, and generally eating their weight in free buffet food? It’s gotta be like stumbling into a zoo and finding yourself on the wrong side of the bars.)
The first wave of the American delegation has also arrived, and omnipresent weightlifting photographer Nat Arem and I went over to the venue this afternoon to watch them—and others—do a little training.
Today’s group was Morghan King, Cortney Batchelor, Geralee Vega, Caleb Williams, and James Tatum. All of them look to be in fine shape, especially after something like 30 hours of travel. Tatum, who I happened to be closest too while watching, worked up to an easy 120 and 140 in about four minutes. I can’t even put my shoes on that quickly.
It was there, late in the afternoon and early evening, that I once again ran into Lu Xiaojun (along with teammates Liao Hui and Tian Tao). There was simply no way of leaving at this point, so Mr Arem and I stayed and watched every minute of their workout. It was nothing terribly exciting—some muscle snatches, some pulls, some deadlifts—but it was captivating all the same. Watching extraordinary athletes do ordinary lifts is a rare joy, like watching a great musician tune their instrument. There’s a symbiosis between man and object—and quality barbells are as finely constructed as any instrument—that allows almost any action, however trivial, to transcend its banality.
Right after the training, before Lu had a chance to escape, I hurried up to him, trying my best to remain cool. I knew I had to speak with him, not just for myself, but for the entire community of weightlifters and fans wanting to know the answer to one of life’s ultimate questions.
“Lu,” I said, in my best Mandarin. “Please tell me: how do you get your intercostals?”
He looked at me and hesitated, and I assured him I would keep the knowledge safe. After checking to make sure no one else was listening, he leaned in very close and muttered the following:
Until next time, enjoy some casual training by the Chinese…