Two big questions surround Olympic weightlifting in 2012: Will London be the stage for another Chinese rout, after they won eight of 15 available golds in Beijing, and no other nation won more than two? And more importantly, can the sport avoid being further tainted by doping scandals? In the lead-up to the 2008 Games, several weightlifters were suspended for drug issues. Two male medalists from Beijing — 69-kg gold-winner Liao Hui of China and 56-kg silver-winner Hoang Anh Tuan of Vietnam — are banned from London after failing urine tests at the 2010 world championships. Nurcan Taylan of Turkey, a female gold medalist in London, is also banned for four years for doping. Will any more big names join them on the tainted-lifter list?
Fifteen golds are available in London, in eight male weight categories (56, 62, 69, 77, 85, 94, 105 and 105+ kg) and seven female (48, 53, 58, 63, 69, 75 and 75+ kg) categories. Results are determined by the combined total of two lifts: the snatch and clean-and-jerk. The Olympic weightlifting venue is ExCel, a complex of five arenas that also plays host to boxing, fencing, judo, taekwondo, table tennis and wrestling.
Athletes To Watch
The Biggest Star, Literally: Behdad Salimikordasiabi, Iran: The 22-year-old super heavyweight is his country’s best chance at a gold in these Games, as he appears to be the heir apparent to Hossein Rezazadeh, the “Iranian Hercules” who won super-heavyweight gold in Sydney and Athens before retiring prior to Beijing. Salimikordasiabi, who will be appearing in his first Olympics, won the 105-plus kg world championships in 2010 and 2011, beating Rezazadeh’s world record in the snatch in the later event. Salimikordasiabi has finished first in each of his past seven major competitions, dating back to the 2009 Asian championships.
The Littlest Star, Literally: Tian Yuan, China: Despite being just 19, she has emerged as the dominant force in the women’s 48-kg category, winning the 2011 worlds in blowout fashion — by 20 kgs (207-187) over Thailand’s Panida Khamsri. In April’s Chinese national championships, Yuan set the bar even higher, blowing away world records in the clean-and-jerk by five kgs (126) and overall by four kgs (221). Her stratospheric results in the lightest women’s category make her arguably the strongest pound-for-pound female lifter in the world.
Potential Breakout Star: Holley Mangold, United States: Formerly a trailblazing, Ohio high school lineman — and the younger sister of New York Jets All-Pro center Nick Mangold — 22-year-old Holley didn’t take up weightlifting full-time until her freshman year of college. While she initially set a goal of reaching the 2016 Games in Rio as a heavyweight, Mangold made a 77-kg improvement in the 13 months leading up to March’s U.S. trials, where she was runner-up behind Team USA’s top lifter, Sarah Robles. Mangold is not expected to medal in London, but she has the charisma and athletic potential to become the next face of American weightlifting. (For more on Mangold, read Nick Zaccardi’s excellent profile from March.)
American weightlifting has fallen on hard times, failing to medal in the past two Olympics. Team USA’s highest finish in Beijing was a pair of sixths, by Cheryl Haworth in the heavyweight category and Melanie Roach in the 53 kg. Neither Haworth nor Roach will appear in London. The most realistic medal hopeful from the three-person American team is Sarah Robles, a 23-year-old former track athlete at Arizona State. Robles’ 258-kg combined total from March’s U.S. trials — nine kg better than her 2011 worlds result, which was then good for 10th place — puts her within range of bronze-medal contention, but she’d likely need to exceed her personal best to get on the podium.
Matchup To Watch
The men’s 77-kg category should be the setting for a hotly contested South Korea-China showdown. The Chinese hope to dominate the five lightest men’s categories (56, 62, 69, 77 and 85 kg), and in Beijing, South Korea’s Sa Jae-Hyouk prevented their clean sweep of golds by winning the 77 kg over Li Hongli. Jae-Hyouk is back in London, where he’ll likely have to fend off two new, formidable Chinese challengers: Lu Xiaojun, who beat him by 15 kgs in the 2011 worlds; and youngster Lu Haojie, who came out of nowhere at this year’s Chinese nationals, winning two golds. Haojie beat Xiaojun in the snatch by setting a new world record of 175 kgs, and won the overall title with a 375-kg total.
A U.S. male weightlifter hasn’t medaled since Mario Martinez (silver) and Guy Carlton (bronze) did it in 1984 — and that was in an Olympics boycotted by the powerhouse Soviet Union. Because the American men earned just one spot in London — by eking out a fourth-place finish among non-qualifiers in the Pan American Games in May — Shreveport, La.’s Kendrick Farris represents their only chance. The 25-year-old finished eighth in the 85-kg category in Beijing but slipped to 19th in the 2011 worlds, and is considered an extreme longshot to medal. Far from a household name, even among Olympians, Farris asks for donations on his Web site to support his training, and he also sells a line of shirts with his motto, “Bless This Gym.” When asked by his hometown paper how his Olympic story was going to end, Farris said, “Everyone will be like, ‘Where did this guy come from?’”
Any Chinese medals at this Games will be done without the protein power of restaurant beef, meat or lamb. The country’s Olympians were forbidden from eating those foods due to risks that consuming the livestock-supplement clenbuterol would trigger failed drug tests. According to Mercopress.com, Beijing gold medalist Lu Yong said on social-networking site Sina Weibo, “Now the only place that we could eat safely turns out to be our cafeteria.”
Gold Medal Dates
July 28-Aug. 1 and Aug. 3-Aug. 7.