Rohit In Rio

Olympics: Heavy-duty entertainment, but sometimes it's a real riot

Georgia's Lasha Talakhadze roars as he attempts a lift during the over-105kg competition, which he won gold with a world-record total of 473kg. Iran's Behdad Salimikordasiabi, the defending champion, sits in dejection after failing to register a lift
Georgia's Lasha Talakhadze roars as he attempts a lift during the over-105kg competition, which he won gold with a world-record total of 473kg.ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM
Georgia's Lasha Talakhadze roars as he attempts a lift during the over-105kg competition, which he won gold with a world-record total of 473kg. Iran's Behdad Salimikordasiabi, the defending champion, sits in dejection after failing to register a lift
Iran's Behdad Salimikordasiabi, the defending champion, sits in dejection after failing to register a lift in the clean and jerk round.ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM

The word in Portuguese for male is "masculino". Which is the perfect word for the tattooed fellows in leotards and thick ugly belts who appeared on Tuesday evening at Pavilion 2 in Riocentro. Laugh at them at your own risk. These are the over-105kg weightlifters. Their thighs are the best test of Spandex I have seen and they spend their days at war with iron. They lift it, drop it and sometimes kiss it. That's hardly the only entertainment. On this house-full night, there was booing as well as insults, finger-wagging, tears, riot police and three world records.

Every Games I try and visit the big-bellied weightlifting boys because if there are three men who symbolically define the Olympic motto, then only one of them is found here. FASTER is Usain Bolt, who weighs 95kg. HIGHER is Thiago Braz da Silva, the pole vault champion, who weighs 75kg. STRONGER is the +105kg gold medallist Lasha Talakhadze from Georgia, who could lift both those guys over his head with one hand while he was brushing his teeth even when hung over.

No kidding. He lifted 215kg in the snatch (where you lift the weight straight over your head in one motion and then rise from a squatting position) and 258kg in the clean and jerk (when you lift the weight to your shoulder and then in a second motion push it over your head).

His total of 473kg was a new world record. For the record, he's only 22 and has already served a two-year suspension for doping.

Still, as a spectator you ignore weightlifting at your own peril. Just at these Games a Finnish competitor celebrated a lift and fainted, a Kiribati citizen danced behind his bar to bring attention to climate change and on Tuesday Hojamuhammet Toychyyev turned into 144.71kg of mush after he couldn't lift a single weight and wept like a boy.

Feats of strength are an ancient fascination, especially for those of us who struggle to open stuck jam jars. Through time we have been awed by stories of those who have bent steel bars and lifted horses. In the practice room in Rio they were picking up massive warm-up weights with the nonchalance of a passenger shoving his man-bag into a plane's overhead locker.

Through time we have been awed by stories of those who have bent steel bars and lifted horses. In the practice room in Rio they were picking up massive warm-up weights with the nonchalance of a passenger shoving his man-bag into a plane's overhead locker.

Diet seems an inappropriate word for guys this size and yet still I asked. Fernando Salas Manguis of Ecuador said he ate two chickens for breakfast. Among other snacks. German Alexej Prochorow's intake included 10-15 eggs. Each day, of course. Please understand, he said, "at 138kg I am one of the small guys". He was not being facetious: The reigning Olympic champion Behdad Salimikordasiabi weighed in on Tuesday at 169.79kg.

For all their mass, what is stunning is not their obvious strength but their flexibility - could you squat like that? - and speed. Here, too, fractions of a second count. "You need to accelerate the bar (as you lift it in the snatch)," said Prochorow, "and then jump underneath it." Technique is everything and when it goes wrong it can lead to riot police showing up.

All was going well in the arena, especially for the Brazilian, Fernando Saraiva Reis, who could have lifted a toothpick and got a standing ovation. Yes, the crowds here are biased. Get over it. Salimikordasiabi didn't seem bothered because he was in command. He is Iranian and Iranians like weightlifters: when Hossein Rezazadeh, the 2000 and 2004 Olympic champion got married, the ceremony was reportedly shown on TV. And so when Talakhadze had the nerve to break Salimikordasiabi's world record in the snatch with a lift of 215kg, Salimikordasiabi snatched it back by lifting 216kg.

All good? No, all chaos.

After Salimikordasiabi lifted 245kg in the clean and jerk, the three judges ruled his first attempt a no-lift. Two judges accepted his second lift but the five-man jury - which has to be unanimous - overruled them and declared it a no-lift. "His left arm was bent," explained Sam Coffa, chairman of the International Weightlifting Federation's technical committee. When Salimikordasiabi failed on his third lift, the champion was out.

The Iranian fans booed the officials and the Brazilian fans booed the Iranians. Salimikordasiabi protested, his coach Sajjad Anoushrivani remonstrated and Coffa called for security. For the lifters? Surely not.

Later, Anoushrivani angrily insisted it was a "conspiracy", a female Iranian journalist told me "it is not fair" and Salimikordasiabi rubbed his eyes and said "they don't let me get my gold medal again". He was on his way home, so were they all, but only some of them comfortably.

I asked a few of the lifters, just for fun, if they travelled economy class - how exactly do they fit? - and they laughed and jiggled. Yes, said Ukraine's Ihor Shymechko, he does, but he found a kind flight attendant on his way to Rio. She generously kept the two seats next to him free.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2016, with the headline 'Heavy-duty entertainment, but sometimes it's a real riot'. Print Edition | Subscribe