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Local lifters struggle to make grade

IF you’ve been to the weightlifting training centre at Aung San Stadium recently, you might have noticed a change in atmosphere. Most of the familiar faces from past national teams are long gone – and hopefully, with them, the drug scandals of recent years – and have been replaced by a new generation of up and coming athletes.

“We have been struggling for some time to develop new athletes who are good enough to compete in international events and to achieve success, whether records or medals. We are hoping that our efforts now will pay off at the 2011 SEA Games,” said U Myint Swe, the secretary of the Myanmar Weightlifting Federation (MWF)

“In the past, the federation would only send athletes from the national side who could get medals to competitions. However, this meant that promising and junior weightlifters missed out on getting international experience,” he said. “The new organising committee will now also send younger athletes to international competitions.”

The lack of opportunities meant that many potential stars turned away from the sport and pursued other interests, contributing to what U Myint Swe calls a “generation gap” in Myanmar weightlifting that has hurt international results in the past five years.

To rectify this, the federation has established weightlifting camps in townships such as Pyinmana and Myaung Mya and in April held a qualifying event at Aung San Stadium for the 1st Youth World Weightlifting Championships, which will be held in Thailand from May 19 to 24.

At the same time, the federation has employed Chinese coach Mr Xij Jiazhen since 2008 to train four male and ten female athletes for this year’s SEA Games, to be held in Laos in December.

“Up to now they have been training with a focus on strength and technique rather than pushing themselves too hard. But from June we will try to get them focusing on the competition ahead in December,” said U Myint Swe.

In recent years, the federation has had only female weightlifters, such as Yar Thet Pan, Shwe Zin Win and Thaw Rae Phaw, on its books. No male weightlifters from Myanmar have competed at the Olympics since the 1980 Games in Moscow.

Yar Thet Pan, a silver medallist at the 2005 SEA Games and 2006 Asian Games in the 69kg category said she had set herself the lofty target of a gold medal at this year’s SEA Games in Laos.

She added that to achieve success at international competitions a country generally needs to have a deep pool of talented and motivated athletes to draw from.

The poor results that prompted the MWF’s new outlook and youth policy are particularly disappointing given Myanmar’s rich history in the sport.

At the 1st Asian Games, held in New Delhi, India, in 1951, Myanmar weightlifters Maung Maung Lwin, Thein Han and Ba Thein all took home bronze medals. Three years later in Manila, Maung Maung Lwin went two places better in the heavyweight category, winning a gold medal, while Tun Maung won a gold medal in the featherweight event.

The weightlifting category is the closest Myanmar has come to snatching an Olympic medal. At the 1972 Games in Munich, Aung Gyi led the competition in the snatch, setting a new Olympic and world record, but a disappointing lift in the clean and jerk meant he only finished fifth overall, outside the medals.

Female weightlifter Kathy Win went one better in Sydney in 2000, finishing just outside the medals in fourth position. Since then, however, it has been a steady downward slide for the sport. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, female weightlifter Nan Aye Khine was expelled by the International Olympic Committee after testing positive for a banned steroid. After winning a silver medal in the 75kg event at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Oo Mya Sandar failed a drug test, testing positive to a metabolite, while Than Kyi Kyi was expelled from the 48kg event for testing positive to a banned diuretic.

At the 2007 SEA Games in Thailand, Myanmar’s weightlifters struggled to match their Southeast Asian rivals.

The federation has also committed itself to taking a tougher stance on drug testing.

“We always test the athletes after every competition to know whether they are using any banned steroid. If we need to, we send the athletes’ urine sample to Thailand. Now we are more wary of the threat of banned drugs,” U Myint Swe said. (By Aung Sithu Hein, MYANMAR TIMES)