August 6, 2008 / 9:00 AM / in 10 years

Taro and tattoo: Samoa's secret weapons

BEIJING (Reuters) - It takes six weeks to tattoo a Samoan because the traditional technique of hammering pigment into the skin is so painful and the customer loses so much blood.

Ele Opeloge was a little more impatient. She had hers done in a day.

Her pain-resistance will serve the 23-year-old weightlifter well when she competes against the formidable Chinese in the 75 kg-plus class — the heaviest Olympic category for women.

Asked how she copes with sore muscles in a sport where pain is part of the program, Opeloge said: “Ice. Deep heat cream. I go back home. I do some stretches.”

She described her daily routine in similarly minimalist terms. “Every day, I wake up, I go eat, I train with weights, I eat, I train, I eat,” she said after a work-out at the Olympic gym in Beijing. Her diet includes Opeloge’s other secret weapon: a little-known, knobbly tuber.

“It’s the secret of our strength,” Opeloge’s coach, Tuaopepe Jerry Wallwork, said of taro, a super-starchy Samoan staple crop. He said good weightlifting genes also helped: “Naturally, we are strong, naturally, we have the physique.”

Opeloge sees nothing special in her toughness and seems surprised that anyone would show an interest in her striking tattoo.

The dark blue pattern of stars and dots covers her strong thighs like a sprayed-on pair of cycling shorts, peeking out from underneath her clothes as she relaxed on a bench after the training session.

Known as a “malu”, the tattoo is part of a coming-of-age ritual for Samoans, symbolizing maturity and respect for one’s culture and society. Part of that culture is a certain stoicism, which is useful in a region that is too poor to afford physiotherapists or masseurs for its athletes.

“I feel good. A little bit sore for the body, but I feel good,” Opeloge said with a smile.

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