Striving to lift for record fourth gold

Pyrros Dimas and Kakhi Khakiasvili may be virtually unknown to all but the most devout of Olympic watchers, but in their adopted homeland of Greece they are as-real-as-it-gets reality TV. When they each compete for a fourth Olympic gold medal in Athens, records are likely to be broken, and not just on the lifting platform. Just how big are the two in Greek culture – even if, for the moment, they’re not as big as Greece’s surprise European soccer champions? Greeks simply refer to Dimas with the one-word identifier Pyrros. When he and Khakiasvili lift during an Olympics, it’s not just sports fans who watch but virtually the entire country. Dimas’s 1992 gold medal in Barcelona caused such joy in Greece that 60,000 fans later jammed the original Olympic stadium to celebrate and another 30,000 mingled outside. When Dimas and Khakiasvili both won golds in Atlanta four years later, after Khakiasvili had emigrated from Tsinvali, Georgia, TV ratings were the second highest in Greek history, despite being past midnight local time. Want to guess the magnitude of the celebration should Dimas, Khakiasvili or both win record-tying fourth gold medals on their home soil? To date, only three athletes have won four gold medals in an individual Olympic event. There’s just one problem, and it worries every Greek sports fan as the Olympics approach: There could be rust on that gold. Despite promising in Sydney that he wouldn’t do so, Dimas, a native of Chimarra, Albania, spent most of the last four years out of competition. He returned to finish a disappointing fourth at 85 kilograms in the European championships in April, just as Khakiasvili did at 94 kilograms. Both looked plenty strong but understandably struggled with their technique following long layoffs; after Sydney, Khakiasvili didn’t compete again until failing to place in the 2003 European championships. Precedence There’s some precedence here, too, and it doesn’t offer much room for optimism for either weightlifter. Naim Suleymanoglu, the Turkish star known as Pocket Hercules, tried to win a fourth gold medal in Sydney following a three-year layoff but didn’t complete a single lift. Beforehand, he had promised to lift whatever weight was necessary to win another gold. Turkey’s disappointment with Suleymanoglu’s huge flop was soothed by the equally small and equally strong Halil Mutlu’s second Olympic gold. Now, the diminutive Mutlu will go for a third straight gold that would tie him with Pocket Hercules, this time at Suleymanoglu’s old weight (62 kilograms). Despite his size, Mutlu might be the biggest favorite in any of the 15 weight classes – eight men’s, seven women’s. The events will be held at a weightlifting arena built in suburban Nikaia especially for the Olympics. Mutlu, one of only four men to lift three times his body weight in competition, overcame a torn right rotator cuff and ruptured biceps in 2002 to easily win the 2003 world championship in Vancouver. Also looking to make the record books is German super heavyweight Ronny Weller, who could become the first weightlifter to win five Olympic medals – so far, he has a gold, two silvers and a bronze. But Weller also looked rusty while failing to place in the European championships and, at age 35, he competes in the same class as returning gold medalist Hossein Rezazadeh, the world’s top lifter the last couple of years. Just as in Sydney, the Chinese women expect to dominate. They won the maximum four events they were permitted to enter in 2000 and probably could have gone seven-for-seven. Again, their biggest problem may be deciding which three potential Olympic champions to hold back.