U.S. weightlifters are powerfully frustrated. "My best international finish ever was eighth place in 1992 at Barcelona," said Tim McRae, 154-pound national champion from Daytona Beach. "I was really proud of being eighth-best in the world. But, since then, I've been able to lift more weight each year, but I keep falling farther behind against international competition."
One word haunts the Yanks. Steroids. Dangerous, illegal drugs that mightily can enhance an athlete's strength. "Sure, we suspect that some of the world's dominant lifters are using stuff," said 238-pound Wes Barnett of St. Joseph, Mo. "But all we can do is our best, while hoping that drug tests become as sophisticated as the cheating tactics."
Mark Henry, the largest athlete in Olympic history at 412 pounds, is not expected to make the top 10 among superheavyweight weightlifters. Eastern Europeans dominate. He says steroids are the difference. "It makes you mad, knowing why you can't equal the best lifters or beat them," Henry said. The massive Texan plans to quit the sport after the Atlanta Olympics to become a whopper of a showman and a rich man as a WWF pro wrestler.
"Our Olympic lifters are 100 percent clean," said Dragomir Cioroslan, coach of the U.S. team. "I'm proud of that. I'd rather be clean than be dominant. My guys work extremely hard. They deserve to be great prospects for medals in Atlanta."
But they won't.
"I've been living in a dorm in Colorado Springs for six years, training at our Olympic headquarters," said McRae, the son of a Florida hospital cook who holds American records in three weight classes. "You can't make a living as a weightlifter. I hope things change and our U.S. team can become competitive. It centers around effective drug testing."
Barnett said global champions know precisely when to ease off steroids use. "They know no testing will be done until the day of competition," he said. "It would be much more effective if Olympic officials simply showed up at your door, asked an immediate urine specimen and tested it. Then we would find out who's really doing what."
McRae, as a Florida teenager, dreamed of becoming a football running back. "My heroes were Tony Dorsett, Eric Dickerson and Walter Payton," the 26-year-old Olympian said. "When I got to Spruce Creek High School, I went out for football at 123 pounds. My coach said I'd be better off trying weightlifting, being strong for my size. At the time, I didn't even know weightlifting was an Olympic sport."
Timmy McRae has learned about weightlifting since. Become his country's best in three lighter weight classes. "My motivation has been the Olympics," he said. "Atlanta is my second Olympics. I've got about 15 family members coming to see me lift in competition for the first time. Both my parents will be here. That makes it all worthwhile."
Mutlu lifts for gold
Halil Mutlu of Turkey couldn't watch as he wrapped up the first weightlifting gold medal.
Mutlu responded to the challenge of a pair of Chinese athletes to win the first of 10 weightlifting classes _ the 119-pound division.
Mutlu won despite failing on his first attempt in the clean-and-jerk, when he fouled while trying to lift 336.2 pounds. He succeeded on his second attempt at that weight and then lifted 341.7 pounds on his final lift, which was good enough for the gold.
Mutlu's combined total in the snatch and clean-and-jerk was 633.81 pounds. Mutlu, who broke his own world record in the snatch in the first portion of the competition, holds the world record in the combined lifts at 119 pounds with a total of 639 pounds.
Zhang Xiangsen could have won the gold medal by succeeding on his final lift of 347.2 pounds. He came close, but failed.
Lan Shizhang then attempted the final lift of the competition, what would have been a world record in the clean-and-jerk of 358.2 pounds, but didn't come close.
Zhang wound up winning the silver medal with a total of 617.29 pounds and Sevdalin Minchev of Bulgaria won the bronze with 611.78 pounds.