It’s something like 3AM. I’m sitting on the rooftop terrace of my hotel; to my left I can hear someone in an adjacent hotel taking a shower, or possibly hosing down a room. I’ll assume it’s a shower. Despite the late hour, Turkish music is still wafting up to me, likely from the Old Town center, where European tourists are partying the night away.
The scene at the Expo Center today–or yesterday, technically–was, for someone like myself, uninitiated to international level weightlifting, pure madness. I saw and learned more today than I think I have since I started this absurd sport.
I arrived at the Expo Center late in the afternoon, after sleeping well past my alarm and getting a slow start. It was around four in the afternoon when I got there, and I figured I’d poke around the training hall for a bit, then head back to the Old Town or maybe the meet hotel for some food before returning to watch the mens 69 A session.
Three hours later I was still standing in the training hall, unable to leave, unable to decide where to even look, given all that was going on.
The place was much busier today. When I first got there I spent some time briefly stopping to see the Spanish team (with Lydia Valentine decked out in pick, as usual), as well as a few other groups scattered around.
But after a few minutes of this I was ready to see some serious lifting. Fortunately for me, on the other side of the training hall, the Korean team had set up camp, and a few of them were just getting to some serious weight. I walked over and started to mill about, trying to make myself as inconspicuous as possible, which is not an easy thing when you’re a lumbering white guy stumbling and sweating your way around a clan of graceful and athletic Asians. Pointing a camera every five seconds and furiously scribbling notes, all while wearing a stupid expression of wonder, didn’t help. But for the most part, they tolerated me, except when I tried to snap a close up of their female superheavy. That, apparently, was not a good idea, and the coach made it clear to me.
There were, to put it mildly, some big lifts going on over here.
Despite the heavy weights, there were lighter ones, as well. Yet all were done with the same attention to detail, the same precision, and under the same watchful eye of one of the coaches. Some of the most intense involvement of a coach that I saw over in this corner came not during the heavy lifting, but while a couple athletes were doing overhead presses with 40 kilos. A coach stood by the athlete, positioning him properly, pushing here, pointing there, explaining (so I assumed–my Korean is rusty) finer points to the athlete lifting as well as to another one who was watching.
The point seemed clear: when it comes to a thing like lifting, even 40 kilos, you don’t fool around.
After bothering the Koreans for a bit I continued my lazy stroll around the training hall. I’d felt the watchful eye of the Korean coach ever since I tried to take a picture of the superheavy, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to disappear for a bit. I noticed a coach wearing an Italian shirt sitting with a lifter, so I decided to stop and talk to him for a bit. My abilities with Italian are similar to my skills in weightlifting: competent but ugly. Nevertheless, I managed to talk with the coach and learn about him and his lifter, as well as the problems of competing on the world stage when you’re from a place like Italy, or really any country where the athletes aren’t fully supported.
Apart from the typical problem of doping at the international level, which the coach recognized and lamented, was one of lifestyle: his athlete, a very friendly 105+, also worked as a mechanical engineer, and the coach, prior to his retirement, had been a teacher of botany. How can you compete with athletes and coaches who devote their lives to a sport like weightlifting when you have to spend your days tinkering with gearboxes or studying plants? How can you compete with athletes who eat, sleep, shit, and breath training?
It’s simple; you can’t. Comparing a guy who works full time (even by the notably lax Italian standards of “work” and “full time”, which means about 200 days a year, with a two-hour break in the middle of every workday) with another who spends the majority of his time training or recovering is not a matter of two different levels; it’s a matter of two different worlds. It’s like thinking you’re ready for the NBA because you spend a few nights of the week playing pickup games at your local YMCA. And this is not to detract from one or the other, nor is it a judgment call. It’s just how it is. And any illusions that the Olympics or the sports that fall under its umbrella are “amateur” in any sense of the word are just that: illusions.
The significance of this was made evident as I moved on to watch the Chinese men train, specifically the 77 kid who recently broke the snatch world record, LY Xiaojun.
He–and really all the Chinese men I saw lifting today–were the embodiment of mechanical precision. The Chinese compared to other international lifters is like the difference between a Rolex and a Timex: they both do the exact same thing, one just looks better doing it.
These guys are like the robots of a car assembly line: every movement is perfect, direct, purposeful. There is no wasted effort, no extraneous movement, nothing out of line. You could set your watch to them. Ivan Drago may not have been a machine, but these fucking guys are.
I followed the 77’s progression for a bit in the snatch. Naturally, he started with some stretching and the bar. After this was 60 for a couple sets of three, typically doing a muscle snatch, a power snatch, and a full snatch. No problem. Then came 90 for the same thing. They looked indistinguishable from the 60s. Then 120 for power snatches. Then 140. And finally 150. The power snatch at 150, which was followed by a full snatch caught very high, looked effortless. It’s a cliche, but a fitting one. I sweat and panted more watching this guy than he did training. This was followed by a similar progression in the clean and jerk up to 180, which might as well have been an empty bar.
He was fast in a way that redefined what “fast” actually means, and the weights looked to move more by some divine mandate than by physical exertion. I can safely say I have never seen anything like this. When Yuri Zakharevich snatched 210 in 1988 someone described it as “gravity takes a vacation”; this kid looks like he convinced gravity to quit altogether.
More to come…