And on the third day, a crowd came.
Well, it’s been alright for the glamour boys of these pages who’ve been sent to things like the opening ceremony, but when you’ve been put in a backwater like archery, with no-one for company, it’s been hard to get into the Olympic spirit.
But there was a wonderful crowd at the ExCel yesterday and it wasn’t just any old crowd. No, we had come not to appreciate excellence, bloodlessly and unemotionally, as you would at the archery, say, we had come to get involved: to sweat, to gurn, to feel the pain and the thrill of these athletes whose existence is based around the simple premise of lifting a bar, with some rather large weights attached, above their heads.
This is a great participatory event. Each lifter, no matter their age, status or country, is given a rip-roaring welcome to the stage: a successful lift brings the house down, whilst a failed lift brings respectful applause and even greater encouragement next time. It is uplifting, so to speak.
When Om Yun Chol broke the Olympic record in the morning for the clean and jerk (56 kg category), becoming only the fifth man in history to lift more than three times his body weight, we stood to our feet, whooping and hollering. Partisanship be damned, we were all with the North Korean. Later, Om thanked Kim Jong-il, for ‘looking over him’ during the competition. No doubt the Supreme Leader, all-round sporting hero, would have been able to lift that with his little finger.
On the big screen, we could follow the lifters behind the scenes as they recovered from their exertions, and prepared with their corner-men. Or, in the case of the Belgium athlete, Tom Goegebeur, a flame-haired corner-women whose idea of motivation was to slap him as hard as possible, shout obscenities in his ear and stare at him with utter hatred in her eyes. It seemed to work.
Goegebeur talked afterwards about his home-spun training regime, his father for a coach, his attic at home for a gym and his mother who helped out with his weights. It was a touching story but not quite as good, perhaps, as Martinho de Araujo from East Timor who, before the Sydney Olympics in 2000, found his equipment destroyed in the war of independence and was forced to train with a makeshift bar by sticking a pole in buckets of wet cement.
It is impossible not to feel intense empathy with these athletes. Most of us have been there in the local gym, straining under a weight that is at the limit of our strength. We know the thrill of the weight lifted, and on the unsuccessful occasions when it is just too much for these Olympians, we can remember the embarrassing times when we’ve had to call over the fitness instructor, all rippling muscles, to get the damn bar off our chests.
And so as the weightlifters lift, the audience internalises their struggles. If you tear your eyes away from the athlete in front of you- not easy to do- you notice your fellow spectators suddenly straining, grunting, groaning and pulling weird faces until everyone looks for a moment as if they are sitting on the throne first thing in the morning, pushing out the mother of all turds.
We were at the lighter end of the scale yesterday, 56kg for the men, and 53 kg for the women. The combined world record for the former is 305kg- imagine lifting about three Mitt Romneys (and then dropping him on his head, obviously) and you’ll have some idea- and the women about a Romney less. Particular interest centred around the 17 year-old Chinese female lifter, Jun Zhou, who had been put into the B category- generally populated by those without medal aspirations- by the Chinese but who then attempted an opening lift in the snatch just 5 kg lower than the Olympic record. Sneaky.
As it happened, the move backfired, and Zhou failed with each of her three attempts, thus eliminating herself for good, despite the near pandemonium in the auditorium before her third try. Instead, it was left to Inmara Henriquez from Venezuela, and Julia Rohde from Germany, to woo us. Facially, Henriquez is a Latin American beauty, Rohde a blonde bombshell; both have legs like traffic bollards and arms as thick as pythons after a hearty meal. When Rhode clean and jerked a winning lift in the B category, she blew us a kiss. Our hearts melted.
But neither was good enough to challenge for medals as the competition descended into a battle between the baby-faced 19 year old world champion from Kazakhstan, Zulfiya Chinshanlo, and the Moldovian, Cristina Iovu. Iovu led after the snatch by 4kg, but as Chinshanlo is the world record holder for the clean and jerk, it seemed always likely that the gold would go to Kazakhstan, and with it the eternal hope that we might hear the Borat anthem played instead.
By the time Iovu had wobbled and staggered twice in the clean and jerk, Chinshanlo had not yet deigned to come out. Setting her opening gambit at 125kg, just 5 kg below her own world record, seemed confident topped with a dash of arrogance. She nailed it though and when Iovu failed at the same weight, the gold medal seemed assured. Her second attempt was 131 kg, for a new world record, and when she rose majestically the auditorium went wild.
In keeping with the sense of fun and enjoyment, the morning’s emcee, a trendy young chap with out- of-control hair, said to the expert alongside him, a former British female weightlifter: ‘you used to have a great snatch, didn’t you?’ It was an innocent mistake and the audience loved it. They gave him as big an ovation as the lifters themselves. But as the old weightlifting saying goes, and as Chinshanlo demonstrated on a splendid day, you might snatch for show but you lift for dough.