She is another of those Britons in whom we should not let expectations race too far ahead.
Zoe Smith, whose Olympic moment arrives tomorrow in the ExCel arena’s 58kg weightlifting event, is an extraordinary athlete for sure, who has broken 350 records in her sport. But lurking in the way of the 18-year-old’s outside hopes of gold is Li Xueying, a wheat farmer’s daughter from her own country’s Henan province and one of a Chinese team whose preparations include hefting weights without knowing how big they are. In the Chinese training culture, the numbers are the coaches’ responsibility. The lifters don’t ask questions.
Yet Smith - whose journey to this moment has included the unedifying challenge of incurring Twitter abuse for the lack of femininity in her sport, as some see it – has the motivations. She won a bronze medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, aged 16, and standing just 5ft tall and weighing 9st 12lb, she lifts 150kg – more than 23 stone - at her best. She has also seen most things on her way to a position just beneath the world’s best. At one European Championships event, she heaved up the bar, found herself falling forward and “ran after it” – as she later described it – only to fall flat on her face, almost taking the judges out.
British Weighlifting saw enough quality in her to move her to Leeds where they are based, to train full time, just four years after she burst onto the scene – transferring from gymnastics to weights when Team Greenwich needed a 12-year-old girl for the London Youth Games.
A traceable genetic link has drawn Smith towards her sport. Her mother, Niki, was a practitioner of Kempo Jiu-Jitsu, a discipline developed by the Japanese samurai. Smith jnr says that by succeeding at these Games she wants to demonstrate to a generation of young women that muscularity in women is perfectly fine. “We’re normal girls – just stronger than other people.”
A formidable field today also includes the Belarussian Anastassia Novikava, Thai Pimsiri Sirikaew and North Korean Jong Chun Mi, all of whom are in the elite A tier of lifters, who perform later in the day. Personal bests coming into the Games determine the rankings, though a place in the B-group does not affect Smith’s medal prospects. Smith flits between the 58kg and 63kg disciplines and the decision to enter her for 58kg – which forces her to ‘make weight’ today – was taken with her competitiveness at 58kg level for the 2016 Rio Olympics in mind. Smith, whose training weight is 61kg, still had 1kg to drop yesterday. “I’m eating grilled chicken and drinking bottles of water constantly!” she said.
Her Chinese rival has not been terribly effusive about these Games. “My responsibility is to my country,” she said recently. “I put my heart in weight lifting because I don’t want to disappoint my coaches and team leaders … I wouldn’t say I’m excited about London.” Where raw excitement is concerned, Smith certainly does have a head start.