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Wednesday, July 14, 2004
Will Greece's lifters pull off another miracle?

Associated Press

The Super Bowl is a certain TV ratings generator in the United States. In England, World Cup soccer does the trick. In Greece, there's Pyrros Dimas and Kakhi Kakiasvilis.

They may be virtually unknown to all but the most devout of Olympic watchers in America, but in their adopted homeland Dimas and Kakiasvilis are as-real-as-it-gets reality TV.

When they each compete for a fourth Olympic gold medal in Athens this summer, 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, much as Americans do with Tiger or Shaq. When he and Kakiasvilis lift during an Olympics, it's not just sports fans who watch but virtually the entire country.

Dimas' 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 Kakiasvilis both won gold in Atlanta four years later, after Kakiasvilis had emigrated from Tsinvali, Georgia, the TV ratings were the second highest in Greek history despite starting times past midnight local time.

Want to guess the magnitude of the celebration should Dimas, Kakiasvilis 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 past four years out of competition. He returned to finish a disappointing fourth at 187 pounds (85 kg) in the European championships in April, just as Kakiasvilis did at 207 pounds (94 kg).

Both looked plenty strong enough but understandably struggled with their technique following long layoffs; after Sydney, Kakiasvilis didn't compete again until failing to place in the 2003 European championships.

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 4-foot-11 Mutlu will go for a third straight gold that would tie him with Pocket Hercules, this time at Suleymanoglu's old weight (137 pounds, 62 kg).

Despite his size, Mutlu might be the biggest favorite at 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 can 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.

No American man has won an Olympic weightlifting medal since 4-foot-10 gold medalist Charles Vinci in 1960, and it will be a surprise if any of the three on this year's team do so.

Super heavyweight Shane Hamman is a training companion of Greco-Roman wrestling champion Rulon Gardner and holds every U.S. record but has not yet closed the considerable gap between him and the elite lifters. His best total for two lifts, 940½ pounds, is nearly 100 pounds below Rezazadeh's best.

"But I'm going to load up the weight and I'm going to try it,'' the 345-pound Hamman said. "I think I do have the ability to be in medals and, honestly, I do believe I'm there. ... I'm not looking at finishing fifth or something here again, it's going to be all or nothing for me.''

The United States' top medal hopes probably are the same as in 2000: returning 105½-pound gold medalist Tara Cunningham and super heavyweight Cheryl Ann Haworth, who took a bronze home from Sydney at age 17.

Cunningham, known as Tara Nott before she got married, had never finished above sixth against world-class competition until her surprising second in Sydney. A bigger surprise came three days later when Isabela Dragneva of Bulgaria failed a drug test and lost her gold medal, which then went to Cunningham. It was one of three such failed tests for the Bulgarian team, which was briefly thrown out of the games until being reinstated on appeal.

The 32-year-old Cunningham hasn't been a big player on the world stage since Sydney, placing seventh in the past two world championships. But she decided to hold off retirement until after Athens, saying, "I feel blessed to be able to do this, and I felt led to try to do this.''

Haworth sat out last year's world championships following elbow surgery but was fourth in 2002 at age 19.

"I was a little more nervous going into 2000,'' Haworth said. "Everything was a little new to me, a little unexpected, but now I have things in perspective. Anything can happen, everything's different, but I feel a little bit more relaxed.''

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 7-for-7. Again, their biggest problem might be deciding which three potential Olympic champions to sit down.