August 14, 2008 / 12:02 PM / 11 years ago

Muscles, mind games help in medal poker

BEIJING (Reuters) - Think of it as poker with bells on. Barbells, to be precise.

Watching Olympic weightlifters plot their winning strategy is a fascinating mix of muscles, maths and mental strength, and as thrilling as any card game.

But the stakes here are much higher, as the latest accident in competition shows: Hungarian Janos Baranyai trying to snatch 148kg on Wednesday until his arm gave way in a gruesome twist that dislocated his elbow.

Anyone who thinks weightlifting is all brawn, no brain, should see the maneuvering that goes on before and during a competition.

The rules are simple — three attempts in the snatch, three in the clean and jerk, and the highest results from each category produce the combined total. Contenders set their own entry weights.

Sounds easy? Well, look at Turkey’s Nurcan Taylan, who competes in the 48kg bodyweight class. She won the gold medal in Athens and confidently set her entry weight at 84kg. Taylan failed to snatch that weight three times and was out before she even got to the clean and jerk.

Set your entry weight too low, however, and you might have wasted a lift that could have brought you closer to that elusive medal. After all, athletes did not train for this moment for four years just to take it easy on the mat.

MIND GAMES

Then there are the bluffs and mind games. Over the past few days, the large display hovering over the competition platform would suddenly show that the top contender had dramatically raised his or her targeted weight. A rival sees this, nervously ups their own weight, fails to lift it — and the top contender will immediately lower the targeted weight again.

“There’ve been so many surprises, people started to misjudge lifts,” said Sam Coffa, first vice-president of the international weightlifting federation.

“That’s weightlifting, you start off with what you’re going to think will happen but it’s always different. Expect the unexpected.”

When the targeted weights approach 200kg and the competition hall reverberates with primal screams and agonized groans, cool nerves can suddenly count for more than a track record.

In the 62kg class on Monday, a clutch of medal hopefuls panicked amid the fierce competition, went for weights that were too heavy and failed to execute the lifts. That left space for Colombian Diego Salazar, who had not been among the favorites, to pull past the others and win silver.

Sa Jaeh-youk from South Korea, who won the 77kg category on Wednesday, has his own strategy for keeping calm.

Asked if the failure of other South Korean lifters this week had worried him, he told reporters: “I tried to keep them out of my thoughts and since I’m a very simple-minded person to start with, that helped me keep my mind on the game.”

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