The rescheduled 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan saw some of the biggest names in weightlifting culminate years of hard work by competing for gold and glory at the sport’s most esteemed event. Records were established and exceeded across the board as first-timers and Olympic veterans alike took to the podium, adorning themselves with the highest accolade in sport.
While there are more than enough moments to write home about, several standouts deserve mentions as the benchmarks that help define weightlifting as an internationally beloved sport. Here are eight of the greatest hits from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Best Weightlifting Moments From Tokyo 2020
- Hidilyn Diaz Wins First Gold for the Philippines
- Talakhadze Takes All the Records
- Kate Nye Earns Silver for Team USA
- Rogers Digs Deep When It Matters Most
- Abdullah Bags Bronze From the B Group
- Laurel Hubbard Makes Historic Appearance
- Mirko Zanni Puts Italy on the Podium
- Mitsunori Konnai Makes the Lift of His Life
One of the best things about weightlifting is that it serves as a canvas for athletes to paint themselves as more than just people who are capable of lifting a heavy barbell. The men and women who competed in Tokyo showcased daring and determination both on and off the platform.
For the fans, the Olympics are about witnessing tremendous feats of strength and skill, as well as bonding over the shared love of the sport. For the athletes, however, competing at an Olympic event often represents nothing less than their life’s pursuit. Hidilyn Diaz of the Philippines finally concluded that pursuit at her fourth Olympic Games by winning her country’s first-ever gold medal for her efforts in the Women’s 55-kilogram category.
To participate in four (medaling in two, with her silver medal from Rio 2016) Olympics is a resounding achievement on its own, but Diaz had an even harder journey leading up to Tokyo. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, international travel restrictions had left her stranded in Malaysia, where she was forced to continue her Tokyo preparation for months in an outdoor gazebo using second-hand equipment.
When the day of competition arrived, Diaz was matched against one of China’s most refined athletes, Liao Qiuyun, who was also the world record holder in the clean & jerk at the time. After tying each other in the snatch with 97 kilograms (213.8 pounds), the clean & jerk event saw three new back-to-back Olympic Record totals established and broken. Diaz, in the final lift of the day, jerked a single kilogram more than Qiuyun, raising the Filipino flag to the top of the stadium for the first time in her nation’s history.
At the final session of the Games, the man of the hour — if not the week — was Georgian Lasha Talakhadze. The Men’s +109-kilogram session was plenty exciting on its own merit, but the weightlifting world was anxiously awaiting Talakhadze to appear and take his six attempts after every other competitor had already finished.
[Related: Laurence Shahlaei: “I’d Love to See Lasha Talakhadze in Strongman”]
In the five-year stretch since his first gold medal at the Rio 2016 Games, no athlete has presented even an indistinct threat to Talakhadze on the platform. A surge of speculation had colored the days leading up to his performance about whether Talakhadze would attempt the mythical, as-of-yet unachieved 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) total.
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The prospect of the Georgian setting one or more new world records was basically a foregone conclusion. After all, Talakhadze had set new records in the snatch, clean & jerk, and/or total every single year (with the exception of 2020) since 2015. While he did not achieve the big 500, he did ink three new records (223, 265, and 488 kilograms, respectively) to the amazement of all but the surprise of none.
In roughly five years, Katherine Nye had gone from being a promising but little-known junior athlete to one of America’s best hopes for taking the top of the podium in Tokyo. After 49-kilogram lifter Jourdan Delacruz failed to register a total several days prior, Nye — the only lifter on Team USA to win a Senior World title — had a lot of eyes on her.
A nearly-perfect performance in the snatch portion of her session was punctuated by a very strict call from the jury, who ultimately overturned her final lift at 114 kilograms. Nye had let go of her barbell too early after being given the down signal — a violation of an obscure, but legitimate, rule stating that the athlete must maintain contact with the bar until it is below shoulder height.
Whether this call had ultimately cost her a gold medal (Ecuador’s Neisi Dajomes had won with a healthy 14-kilogram lead) will remain speculation for years to come. However, Nye was undeterred and left the jury absolutely no doubt when she secured her second-place finish by jerking 138 kilograms (304.2 pounds).
The athletes of Team USA each faced their own unique hardships and trials on their journey to the Olympic stage. While Kate Nye had come through in a big way to post the strongest finish by an American weightlifter in Tokyo, 87-kilogram Martha Ann “Mattie” Rogers showed perhaps the most heart in what could be considered the most decisive moment of her career in sport.
Rogers, who is one of the more seasoned competitors of Team USA, was visibly shaken after a series of mishaps had thrown her planned attempts into disarray. While fighting back tears and wearing her signature bracelet — gifted by her late father, who had assured her she would one day be an Olympian — she appeared onstage to take one final attempt at a 138-kilogram (304.2 pound) clean & jerk, her last chance to post a total and appear in the final rankings.
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After locking her barbell out overhead and receiving a valid down signal from the judges, Rogers was visibly overwhelmed by emotion and collapsed in her coach’s arms. While she may not have had the performance she hoped for, making her final lift had solidified her the irrevocable honor of being a true Olympian.
It is uncommon to say the least, but it does happen. In the Men’s 73-kilogram event, none besides the most devoted fans of weightlifting would have foreseen a podium finish from Group-B Indonesian lifter Rahmat Erwin Abdullah. The 73’s were considered one of the more competitive categories at the Tokyo Games due to the presence of heavy-hitters like Shi Zhiyong, Bozhidar Andreev, and the USA’s Clarence “CJ” Cummings Jr.
Prior to the commencement of the session, gold was considered a lock for China, leaving the United States, Bulgaria, Albania, and Venezuela to contend for silver and bronze. No one had expected a dark-horse performance out of Group B.
At the Olympics, lifters are separated into either a Group A or Group B category based on the value of their entry total — the sum of their declared first lifts in the snatch and clean & jerk. Abdullah had listed a respectable 320 kilograms, but it was not enough to place him in the A’s on the day of the competition. However, due to a stroke of lucky strength (or deliberate misdirection), Abdullah posted a final total of 342 kilograms.
A bad day for Albania’s Briken Calja caused him to forfeit his bronze medal to Abdullah by a single kilogram in the end. The 20-year-old Junior Asian Champion from 2019 had the performance of his life and was rewarded with one of the most prestigious honors in weightlifting for it.
A level of scrutiny and criticism hung over New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard as she took to the platform for her first Olympic appearance in Tokyo. Hubbard’s historic nomination to represent her country in the Women’s +87-kilogram category had sparked both outrage and acclaim internationally as she would be the first openly transgendered athlete to compete at the Olympic Games.
Despite some considering Hubbard’s presence itself to be more of a highlight than her actual athletics, she had expressed publicly that her only desire was to perform to the best of her capabilities and emblematize New Zealand on the international stage. While Hubbard did not have the day she wanted — she failed thrice to record a snatch and was unable to proceed in the competition — she still competed with poise and grace in the face of heavy vitriol.
Italy saw rising levels of success at the Tokyo Olympic Games, much of which was predicated upon the early success of 67-kilogram lifter Mirko Zanni. The runner-up from the 2021 European Weightlifting Championships was considered to have an outside chance at best of making the podium if things went his way.
However, things were developing very differently for the 23-year-old Italian. After missing his second and third snatch attempts at 150 kilograms (330.6 pounds), Zanni proceeded into the clean & jerk portion in the fifth position, six down from the leader and behind several athletes known for throwing massive weights in the clean & jerk.
Zanni found himself in another bind when he missed his first two lifts at 172 kilograms (379.1 pounds) and 177 kilograms (390.2 pounds) — the latter of which was seven above his final lift at the 2021 Europeans. With gold and silver locked up for China’s Chen Lijun and Luis Javier Mosquera of Colombia, respectively, Zanni came out for his final lift and secured it overhead. His 177-kilogram lift, a new personal best, had both kept him in the competition rankings and won Italy its first weightlifting medal in Tokyo.
Competing at the Olympics is undeniably stressful. To do so in front of your fellow countrymen in your nation’s capitol adds another element of pressure entirely. For 67-kilogram lifter Mitsunori Konnai, performing well in Tokyo likely meant more than just a possible medal.
While some athletes are renowned for their seemingly effortless lifting, others earn acclaim by showing jaw-dropping levels of determination on the platform. Konnai made what was undeniably the most impressive save of his session and possibly one of the better lifts of the entire event with his second clean & jerk of 172 kilograms.
In weightlifting, even the heaviest lifts are often begun and completed in the blink of an eye. Gold medalist Chen Lijun took just under eight seconds to break his 187-kilogram (412.2 pound) barbell off the ground and stand with it overhead. Konnai’s 172-kilogram lift took him over 22 seconds from start to finish — more than half of which was spent trying to stabilize himself in the jerk.
Konnai took steps forward, backward, and side-to-side, his face contorted in effort but expressing an outright refusal to give up in front of his home crowd. When he finally received his down signal from the judges, the stadium erupted in praise.
From Tokyo to Paris
The weightlifting event in Tokyo shocked, surprised, and satisfied as lifters from all over the world synthesized years of preparation down to seconds of effort. While some triumphed and others faltered, there were more than enough moments to make the Tokyo Games memorable.
Despite weightlifting’s rocky relationship with the International Olympic Committee and trepidation among the athletes regarding the future of their careers, weightlifting is, as of now, confirmed for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Scheduling accommodations due to the COVID-19 pandemic have also led to the rare occurrence of a World Championships taking place in the same year as an Olympic event, meaning there is still a lot more lifting to come in 2021.
Featured Image: Stephen Galvan for the IWF