Pulling Their Weight

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To celebrate the first-time inclusion of a women's event at the Olympics, the International Weightlifting Federation presented not only each of the 12 lifters in the opening event, the 48-kg class, with a red carnation, but every woman in the audience too. At the first of the modern Olympics in Paris in 1896 there were no women competitors at all. In Sydney they number about 4,400, making up about 42 percent of competitors in 121 events. For the first time at these Games, women are taking part in modern pentathlon, taekwondo, water polo, hammer throw and pole vault as well as weight lifting.

Though the sport involves a great deal of posing and strutting, the women seem to have bypassed the posturing lessons and gone straight for serious concentration. Their version of the sport avoids the theatrics of some of their male counterparts and cuts straight to business. Out of the dressing room and onto the stage, alone in the glare of the spotlights, they plant their feet, carefully place one talcum-powdered hand at a time onto the bar, focus on some distant spot and lift.

In recent years Asian women have dominated the sport, with China, Taiwan and India holding world championships in six of the seven weight divisions. So it was no surprise when pre-competition favorites China produced the goods and took three of the gold medals on offer, with Yang Xia taking the 53-kg gold in a new world record total of 225 kg. Yang's compatriots, Xiaomen Chen in the 63 kg and Weining Lin in the 69 kg categories, completed the hat trick for China. However, it was Bulgaria's Izabela Dragneva who won the first women's Olympic gold with a total lift of 190 kg in the 48-kg class. And surprise results gave Soraya Jimenez Mendivil Mexico's first weight-lifting gold, while Maria Isabel Urrutia will be taking home Colombia's first-ever Olympic medal. Jimenez Mendivil outlifted Korea's Asian champion, Song Hui Ri, in the 58-kg category after hot favorite Ri blew her chances of gold when, with two lifts remaining, she inexplicably failed to make a second attempt within the allotted time. In the 75-kg class all three medalists lifted the same weight — 245 kg — but under Olympic rules the lighter athlete wins, so the 73.28 kg Urrutia took gold, while Ruth Ogbeifo of Nigeria, weighing in at 74.22 kg, snatched silver from the 74.52 kg Kuo Yi-Hang of Taiwan. The idea of women weight lifting may still suprise some people, but as Jimenez Mendivil said after her win, "This is a sport for women. All sports are for women."