LAURENCE GRIFFITHS / GETTY IMAGES
Zulfiya Chinshanlo of Kazakhstan sets a world and Olympic record as she competes in the Women’s 53kg Weightlifting on Day 2 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at ExCeL on July 29, 2012 in London, England
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.
I’m not joking. When people ask what my favorite Olympic spectator sport is, I answer “women’s weightlifting.” 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 weightlifting 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 weightlifting is simply about brawn. Strength is obviously key but so is explosive thrust. Chinese coaches, who have assembled remarkably strong squads since women’s weightlifting 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.
The most important ingredient, though, is mental fortitude, a belief that one’s body can surmount even the most crushing of burdens. To watch weightlifting is to suspend belief in gravity. In the 53 kg weight class, could a 19-year-old Kazakh with a sweet doll face and thighs of steel truly clean and jerk 131 kg, roughly two and a half 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 their 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,” joked the young lifter. “I am afraid I could be robbed.”