Olympics: Being There – Weightlifting

Long time Olympic fan Alan Fisher originally missed out on the tickets he wanted when the Games finally came to his hometown, but he went to the Weightlifting and shares his Olympics experience in the latest of the series from writers who have attended London 2012 events.

Weightlifting, Excel

Watching the Olympic Games on television is one of my earliest memories. A sports-crazy kid, I remember getting up early to watch ‘Good Morning Tokyo’ before school. Grainy black and white and David Coleman’s crackling commentary brought mystery and wonder, superhuman deeds from a faraway land. I can even sing the theme tune if you like.

Since then I’ve jogged along on the spot to the 10,000m, cultivated a southpaw stance to ultimately prevail in the battle against the sofa cushion, roared on anyone who happened to wear a British vest and whinged constantly at the inept commentators. Athletics has always been the blue riband – to this day I cannot say the phrase ‘Olympic champion’ without some hint of gravitas, just as Ron Pickering would do. In a world fast losing its sense of true value, it means something still.

Not to forget the long hours of fascination at the less popular sports. Once every four years, usually during the day whilst waiting for the proper races to begin, I became a temporary expert in the niceties of clay pigeon shooting or canoe salom.

Yet now it was here, in my back yard, as the time approached so the feelings of alienation increased. The Olympic Park is in an area I know well. I drove past regularly on the way to my all-consuming sporting passion, Tottenham Hotspur, and I used to be a social worker in Canning Town and Stratford. Whatever you think about my profession, it’s one where you gather an intimate understanding of any community, including its more unsavoury aspects. Contemporary urban poverty laid bare. The Games are exotic and rarefied but the vista from the Blackwall Tunnel approach road could not be more workaday.

Excitement built to a frenzied crescendo as the tickets went on sale but the process served to distance me still further from an increasingly undignified spectacle. In August 2011 I summed it up in 140 characters:

“Inefficient ticket application system for overpriced tickets while corporates cream off the best. This is truly the British Olympics,”

The tweet was quoted in the Press Association’s report about the problems with ticket allocation. As such, it appeared in newspapers all over the country and the world, Britain at its worst.

The Olympics is Athletics. I got Weightlifting and Boxing. These were the ‘well, at least it’s the Olympics’ contingency tickets, although of course I quickly came to realise that many people didn’t get anything at all. As the time neared, I seriously wondered why. Why had I allowed my sport obsession to once again get the better of me? Can’t decide whether feeling was worst on the days when athletics was on the TV or when the credit card bill arrived. Actually, it was the latter.

So here I am, short of breath, tingling muscles and wobbly knees. I realise these are symptoms of a heart attack but in my case, brought on by driving into a scabby car park next to the Excel, I can self-diagnose. This is how sport feels. This is how London 2012 feels and I wasn’t anywhere near the venue yet.

The opening ceremony was unexpected and silly, daft inspiring myth-making that carried me along with the crazy chutzpah of it all. Sure there were many jarring notes – the number of black faces in the group of industrial revolution entrepreneurs represented modern multiculturalism at the expense of ludicrous historical inaccuracy. I haven’t seen an opening ceremony since 1964. Why would I, it’s not sport. I watched only because my wife insisted it was on. But if there’s such an overall powerful message of involvement and inclusivity, where instead of jubilee mark 2 we have a guard of honour of builders, where ordinary people are transformed into dancers with an audience of a billion, where someone says celebrate the NHS, where Rogge’s address is interrupted by sustained spontaneous applause for the games volunteers – I’m prepared to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride. It miraculously succeeded and transformed the tone of the entire fortnight.

We stroll along the dockside, pointing like tourists at the cable car and weaving through the massive queues to go on a magical mystery tour to somewhere in north Greenwich that no one really wants to go to. We smile at each other, strangers from different countries as we pass. I take photos on behalf of delighted young Scandinavians, who will be able to show the Blackwall Tunnel flyover to future generations. They asked me…

Everyone is so helpful. I can’t get used to this. Helpful stewards at a British sporting event – never happen. The bright sunlight and chrome and concrete surroundings give the helpers’ faces a plastic android sheen, ever so slightly displaced from reality. I’m an extra in the Truman Show.

The stewarding has been criticised but I had no problems. If you ask the car park attendant where your Excel entrance is, he doesn’t know, but what they do is gently pass you from one to the other. The car park guy shows you where the lift is. At the lift, the young woman tells you to go to the second floor. At the second floor her colleague says turn left at the guy in the high vis jacket 100 yards away. And so on until you are in your venue without so much as a wasted step.

Along the way you realise they are nice because they mean it. They want to be here, to be part of this thing. The woman who checked my ticket asked if I realised I could not go in and out of the venue once it was scanned. She said that to everyone. 3000 people heard it that evening but she made me feel I was the only one. She seemed delighted that I, thus persuaded by the logic of her argument, was prepared to accept the conditions. Her task was complete. The woman who served me at the food stall had the sweetest smile too, and believe me that’s not easy when you’re asking £4.80 for a cheese and onion pasty.

My seat has a perfect view (I was shown to it by an official who happened to be passing. Turns out he wasn’t a steward but in charge of the broadcasting team. It’s that kind of Olympics). So soothed was I, barely could I bring myself to bang on about my pet sport hates, music to fill any silence longer than a millisecond and a bloke with a DJ voice imploring me to not only feel good but to say ‘yeah’ to prove it. Guess what, the first time, he couldn’t hear us…

Fashionably coiffured with a tell-tale t-shirt and suit jacket ensemble, he seemed to be what the enthusiastic crowd wanted. I preferred the announcer during the event, whose relaxed Welsh brogue simply told us what was going on, who was who and the significance of each lift. He meant it, because he was here for the competition too, just like us. His quiet insistence perfectly complemented the lifters’ appearance on stage. His subsequent silence said all there was to say.

You have probably gathered I don’t know anything about weightlifting, except of course not to sit in the front row because of the danger of being crushed when the lifter, immobile in the rictus grip of a failed lift, topples slowly forward but refuses to let go. The sport must be really odd – the referees are introduced to the crowd beforehand and each gets a round of applause. The Brits get a huge cheer – four days into the games and we’re right behind GB in whatever shape or form. The Spanish judge curtsies daintily and we’re ready.

The Polish lifter is first up. I think he’s from Poland. With all manner of technical wizardry at our disposal, the scoreboard display is straight from a Spectrum ZX. His coach slaps his shoulders and he carefully covers his hands in resin. Some feet from the bar, he suddenly shouts loudly, a wordless bellow that may be addressed at the bar or himself, it’s not clear.

Meticulously he wraps each finger round the bar, right hand then left. He tests the grip, leans back and lifts with all his might. Nothing happens, not to the weights at least although he half falls backwards, regaining his feet if not his dignity as he walks back behind the curtain.

He returns surprisingly quickly – the lifters have a maximum of 2 minutes between lifts and only 60 seconds once they emerge into the lights. For some, half that time is taken up with the ritual back- and face-slapping from a coach, sometimes two. At the interval, they ask a wise blazered British lifting veteran if it does any good. “Not really,” he replies cheerily.

Three attemepts in as many mintues, none successful. And that’s his Olympics. Three more attempts at the clean and jerk, the other lift where you bring the weight up first to the chest then above head-height, but they won’t win him anything. You realise he knows he can’t lift anywhere near as much as the others. It’s not like a race where at least you achieve the same distance as everyone else if not the same time. He never stood an earthly yet he still wants to be here.

A Cuban now, the crowd are getting into this and cheering on every strain and groan. He bellows, the crowd shout back. The Olympics, we’re shouting now. “Go on fella!” implores someone behind me. I’m not sure what the Cuban made of it but it’s obviously the Esperanto of sporting encouragement. Up goes the bar, head-high and elbows locked. Three white lights. It’s good and he’s in the lead.

Like everyone around me, I’m getting in to this now. I’ve already learned that despite the bulging veins and muscles, balance is the crucial quality. There is a balletic moment between raising the bar from the ground and the final push above head height where the lifter is poised in readiness. He must be in precisely the right position to make the most of his power, to channel all that energy through a clean line from leg through back and arms to the bar, and up.

A Chinese athlete now. He strides out, barks orders at the bar and it meekly complies, sailing upwards to rousing acclaim. Half-time and he’s the leader.

Let’s go round again. The Pole lifts one this time but we wildly applaud not success or failure but the fact that he is trying his absolute best. He’s cheered again as he goes backstage, again because he knows he can hear us, it’s only a curtain, we want him to know we are here and we appreciate his efforts.

The Thai athlete has a 10 strong band to accompany him. They’ve been moved down to the front now so the cameras get a good shot. Instead of shouting, he bows silently towards the metal, hands pressed together in front of him. Less a prayer, more a mark of respect. Because he’s not competing against his fellow competitors. His opponent is that bar.  The lifters treat it with respect and fear in equal measure.

Or perhaps their true foe is his aching body and mind, both pushed momentarily to the edge of endurance and beyond. The intimacy of the moment as they stand in the glare of the spotlights is acute, compelling and deeply touching. At that second of intense agony, these men are testing themselves to the full and allow us to be there. There’s no bike, no boat, no distance between crowd and track, but right there, they suffer and exalt.

Now we understand. They’ve shared with us and we will give back what we can. We’re roaring now, stamping our feet and clapping in unison. I’ve even forgotten the lousy dance music they are still playing between lifts.

One Chinese lifter’s arm gives way. He falls to the ground. An official is there, quickly touches his arm and the lifter screams in agony. Quickly four others shield him with a banner as the doctors arrive, like a horse with the screens drawn round after a fall.

The Cuban once more. He lifts into the silence and we shout, hoping our noise will support him just that fraction more. He staggers imperceptibly to his left under the burden, desperately twitching his left leg in vain attempt to stand up straight, like a drunk walking home. Two white, one red but that’s enough. We stand and shout some more.

Lu Xiaojun is next up. World record attempt. The groans make the judges’ lights redundant. But one more chance. Head down, he stares grimly into some far-off secret place that only he knows. His legs bend, so does the bar. He’s dwarfed by the weights on either end, getting on for three times his bodyweight. He gazes almost wistfully into the distance as we see the bars above his head. Arms locked, hold for three seconds and the sound of the bar crashing to earth is drowned by the acclaim for his achievement. A new World record. No one has done that before. No one. And I was there. No idea who he is or where he came from. All I need to know is how remarkable that was. And I was there.

I guess there’s no right way to match that in words or deeds but Lu chooses to mark his moment of glory with a spectacularly undignified jig across the stage in the arms of his ecstatic coach. The only comparable effort I’ve put in is getting through the second of two frankly rubbery chocolate brownies, but I feel like joining him. This is riveting, magnetic sport at its finest.

We stand for the anthem. Three rigid flags rise upward. The other Chinese has made it to the podium, nursing his hurting shoulder. A ceremony that’s been part of every event in each Olympics I’ve seen 1964, but this one is different. For a couple of ours, I shared it with the fans and with dedicated athletics. I’m part of the 2012 Olympics and it’s a lasting part of me.

Alan Fisher

The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to preview for free and download for £4.27 from Amazon and Smashwords. It documents football at the highest level and the journey of travelling around Europe in a sport where money is now valued alongside trophies. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.