Disks of Iron and Nerves of Steel: Why Weight Lifting Rules

This event strips sport down to its purest essence. Every sinew, every pulsing of the temple displays itself, as does every murmur of doubt and blaze of confidence

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Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images

Zulfiya Chinshanlo of Kazakhstan sets a world record as she competes in the women's 53-kg weight-lifting event at the Olympic Games in London on July 29, 2012

I’m not joking. When people ask what my favorite Olympic spectator sport is, I answer “women’s weight lifting.” There’s usually a pause, as people assume a punch line will follow. After all, this is a sport that invites ridicule, with its unfortunate English terminology: snatch (in which the athlete raises the weights in one movement) and clean and jerk (in which the athlete first brings the weights to the shoulders before thrusting the bar into the air).

But weight lifting is one of the most spectator-friendly events at the Olympics because it strips sport down to its purest essence. Every sinew, every pulsing of the temple displays itself, as does every murmur of doubt and blaze of confidence. There’s a common misconception that weight lifting is simply about brawn. Strength is obviously key, but so is explosive thrust. Chinese coaches, who have assembled remarkably strong squads since women’s weight lifting became an Olympic sport in 2000, say that what they’re looking for, above all, in terms of physical attributes is agility and jumping power. Muscles can come later.

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The most important ingredient, though, is mental fortitude, a belief that one’s body can surmount even the most crushing of burdens. To watch weight lifting is to suspend belief in gravity. In the 53-kg weight class, could a 19-year-old Kazakh with a sweet dollface and thighs of steel truly clean and jerk 131 kg, roughly 2½ times her body weight? On the second day of Olympic competition, Zulfiya Chinshanlo did just that to set a new world record. A packed audience roared its approval as she blew away the competition to capture the gold. Chinshanlo, who is the reigning world champion, later earned praise for her remarkable composure from two vaunted sources: London Games organizer Sebastian Coe, who looked tickled to have witnessed a world-record performance at his Olympics, and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who promised the young lifter a considerable financial reward, according to Chinshanlo. “I won’t tell you how much money he will give me,” jokes the young lifter. “I am afraid I could be robbed.”

Pitted against the cool Kazakh was a veritable smorgasbord of athletes from other countries: the Dominican Republic, Poland, Indonesia, Turkey, Ukraine, Colombia, Moldova and Taiwan. The last one must compete at the Olympics under the unwieldy name of Chinese Taipei because of interference from political rival China, which boycotted the Games for years because of Taiwan’s inclusion. Even those familiar with weight lifting can get confused by some of the lesser known nations that seem to pop up in this sport. At one point on July 29, one of the announcers incorrectly identified eventual bronze medalist Cristina Iovu’s homeland as Madagascar, not Moldova.

But the 19-year-old with the painted eyebrows and pierced nose showed no irritation at the geographic snafu. Poise is part of her character. In her first snatch lift, she casually conquered 95 kg and gave only the faintest hint of a grin. Her second attempt at 99 kg ended with crumpled knees, but Iovu barely registered disappointment. Heading backstage to prepare for her third and final snatch attempt, she looked on impassively as her coach grabbed her thighs, slapped her legs and then kneaded her temples to psych her up. Iovu emerged and succeeded in her next lift. Finally, she granted herself a smile.

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Later, as the Moldovan accepted her bronze medal at the victory ceremony, one spectator whispered, “Moldova. I had no idea that was a country.” Iovu, though, is confident that the world will see more Moldovan weight-lifting stars. “There are many more people like me where I came from,” she says. Iovu started the sport at age 13, but not because of any personal interest in propelling weights into the air. A coach thought she would make a good lifter and recruited her. “Once I started winning in competitions, he wouldn’t let me stop training,” she says. “Weight lifting wasn’t really my wish.” Is she happy she persevered? A shrug. Weight lifters don’t tend to be the most effusive of athletes.

The silver medal was claimed by Taiwan’s Hsu Shu-ching, who stepped up to the bar with the kind of determined expression an accountant might use to greet a particularly daunting stack of audits. Girding herself during her second snatch attempt, the slender 21-year-old bent like a stalk of bamboo in the wind, before righting herself — trembling, yes, but ramrod straight with 94 kg floating above her. Later, during the clean and jerk competition, she staggered around the platform, then somehow willed her body into a form acceptable to the judges. Hsu lifted the same amount as her Moldovan counterpart, but because the Taiwanese is 380 g lighter, she got the silver.

The surprise exit from the 53-kg tournament was Zhou Jun, the young Chinese lifter who was expected — simply because of Team China’s overwhelming success in previous Olympics — to win gold. But Zhou, who controversially competed in Group B, which usually includes second-tier Olympic athletes, failed to succeed in a snatch weight she has easily eclipsed in previous competitions. In the men’s 56-kg event, another Chinese lifter was also foiled, this time by North Korea’s mysterious Om Yun Chol, who shattered the Olympic record by clean and jerking 169 kg and later claimed gold. This, clearly, was not China’s day in weight lifting.

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After Hsu won her silver, Taiwan’s head coach Tsai Wen-yi — who himself won a bronze medal at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 — tried to delineate how China’s lifters, who are fed into a state sports system as young children, are different from athletes from democratic Taiwan. “In Taiwan, we focus on education in all forms,” he says. “We want to make sure that we are good not just in sports but also in the humanities and in science. Focusing on the whole athlete has brought us success.”

But for baby-faced Chinshanlo, the evening of her victory was not about the benefits of education but the ability, for just a moment, to act like a normal teenager. “I want to celebrate the gold medal by drinking a glass of beer,” she says with a laugh. “But actually, I’m only able to drink half a glass.” Raising a mug, no matter how overflowing, isn’t a problem for one of the world’s strongest women.

MORE: The Year of the Woman: The London Olympics Strikes Early for Gender Equality

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