They do make it a show at the weightlifting, with the countdown, the moody music, the competitors appearing through a dark side door and, in the case of the immeasurably engaging Zoe Smith, the participant’s mother being interviewed at half time.
This effort takes its effect, transporting the fundamental act of lifting an iron bar with weights attached into one of the most exhilarating pieces of sporting theatre at these Olympics, in which you wept at lunchtime today with Hidilyn Diaz, a Phillipina, and adored Christin Ulrich, a German who squealed and smiled her way to hauling weights beyond her experience. For Smith, an 18-year-old whose determination to take this unusual course in life, has seen her contend with unedifying lectures on what defines femininity, the ExCel theatricalities played a very unscripted part in her achieving a new British record.
It was while Smith was in the competitors’ area, coping with serious self-doubt after she had failed to push beyond her personal best in the snatch section of the women’s 58kg, that she heard the interview being conducted with her mother, Niki, booming out from front of house. “She will come back out. I feel so proud,” her mother said, at which her daughter dissolved into tears. "I feel like such a div because my coach says ‘never cry on TV’; never cry in a competition,” she reflected later. “But I did that, when I heard her, because I felt pretty rubbish at that point and I was hearing people say how proud they are of me. I felt I'd let them down. I thought 'I hope no-one can see this'. But I'm only human."
Smith’s nerves hadn’t quite finished with her. The 18-year-old’s desperation to lock on to the British record 121kg, which she heaved from the mat 15 minutes later, caused her to rush into a recovery position and drop it. “I was thinking “Oh Gosh this is so heavy” and it was going backwards. I just wanted to get it done and put it down,” said Smith, with her refreshing knack of demystifying a sport which is alien to many. It was then that her coach Andrew Callard, the one who doesn’t let her cry, and psychologist Dave Readle embarked on what seems to have been a good cop, bad cop routine, behind the scenes. "Dave tells me to calm myself down, do what you know best. And then Andy says 'come on', 'let's have it'. He says stuff I know to do anyway, but it does help having him there in my ear.”
The sport’s narrow lines were in evidence even as Smith discussed her new record. The Philippine coaching team threw a towel over Diaz’s head to prevent her weeping being broadcast around the world, when she had failed in three attempts at 118kg. She was still crying in the mixed zone 20 minutes later. Ulrich, the epitome of positive mental energy, was filmed being slapped around the face by her coach after surpassing expectations.
Smith, who finished 12th overall today in a competition won by Chinese favourite Li Xueying, has seen the sport from both sides too. She turned to Readle two years ago when she her “brain melted” at the Commonwealth Games and she literally couldn’t lift a weight, for a time. “Next time I want an Olympic record,” she said, displaying more of the spirit which promises to make this beautiful, effervescent individual a part of the national sporting landscape, if her progress can only continue. Smith also revealed how, after her first 121kg lift had failed, some rapid decisions had been required on whether she should attempt to beat the British record with her final lift – or smash it. “The plan was to go 116, 121, 125 but I had to work with what I had after failing at 121,” she said. “Andy said: ‘Do you want this again or 123? Part of me was thinking “Yeah. let’s put 123 on. But I wanted the record. I would have been so disappointed if I’d finished on 116 in the clean and jerk.”
This was nowhere near enough to clinch a medal - always the remotest possibility - but many will follow her progress, and perhaps her sport, from now. Her audience was sent off with the interview - in the arena, post-competition - in which Smith was asked about her mother. “Don’t make me cry!" she said, welling again. "She’s just a lovely, wonderful, supportive woman and I love her so much. Thank you mum!” Goodness knows how she will deal with a place on the podium some day.
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