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Nurudinov smiles his way to gold and heads for the beach

By Brian Oliver at Riocentro, Rio de Janeiro
Ruslan Nurudinov put a smile on the face of his sport when he won the men’s
105kg and gave Uzbekistan their first Olympic weightlifting medal of any

Every time he lifts, the shaven-headed Nurudinov smiles. “It helps to fight
the stress,” he said. He also lolls his tongue every time. Asked if he had
ever bitten it, he said, “No, not yet.”

After months of hard work, and a year out recovering from a knee injury,
Nurudinov is now looking forward to sleep – and the beach.

“I am so tired, so very tired, I just want to sleep,” he said. “Then I want
to swim. If I’m lucky, man, I might go to the beach here in Brazil.”

He had knee surgery on a damaged meniscus twice in the past two years, and
thanked the German doctor whose operation rescue his career. In lifting
431kg and winning by 14kg he lived up to his title of “Pride of Uzbekistan”.

“I was given that award, Pride of Uzbekistan, in 2013,” said Nurudinov, 24,
who won Asian, World and Universiade titles that year. “There is one higher
award, Hero of Uzbekistan, but that is very hard to win. For this gold
medal, I don’t think so. But if I win in Tokyo…”

Simon Martirosyan of Armenia put in a remarkable performance to take silver
at the age of 19, finishing ahead of two men who had beaten him at the
European Championships in April with a career-best 417kg. That was 14kg
behind Nurudinov.

It was Armenia’s first medal in any sport in Rio. “I am the happiest man in
the world,” said Martirosyan, who became the youngest medallist ever in
this weight category.

The bronze went to Kazakhstan’s Alexandr Zaichikov. If Zaichikov’s third
clean and jerk had not been overruled it might have been closer. Zaichikov
was called up for a press-out by the jury so Zaichikov dropped from first
place to third. Nurudinov still had two lifts to come at that point.

“I thought it was a good lift but the jury decided otherwise,” he said.

Nurudinov had not competed at this weight since he finished third at the
2014 IWF World Championships in one of the most famous contests in
weightlifting history.

Nurudinov, Kazakhstan’s Ilya Ilyin and the Russian David Bedzhanyan all
broke world records in the clean and jerk in a memorable contest at 105kg
in Almaty. Ilyin and Bedzhanyan are absent from Rio because of doping bans.

Three months before the 2014 Championships Nurudinov had his first surgery.
“Somehow I managed to perform in Almaty, and then my knee went bust,” he
said. He had a full year of rehabilitation. After a second operation in
Germany he had nine months to prepare for Rio.

Before last night his only competition since Almaty was in this year’s
Asian Championships, where he finished fourth at +105kg.

The contest started at 3am in Uzbekistan but “most people would have been
watching” said Nurudinov.

The hero of the B Group was David Katoatau, who had already become a social
media hit at these Games when he carried the flag, or rather danced with
the flag, at the opening ceremony.

Katoatau raised more cheers than any other lifter, including a Brazilian,
throughout the session.

Katoatau’s dances became a trademark of his victory in the Commonwealth
Games in Glasgow, Scotland two years ago. That was the first gold medal in
any global sporting event for Kiribati.

“Most people don’t know where Kiribati is,” Katoatau said. “I want people
to know more about us so I use weightlifting, and my dancing, to show the

Kiribati is suffering “extreme coastal erosion not just of the beaches but
also of the land” according to its government. Some scientists have
predicted a rise in sea level of 2.3metres, which would have a catastrophic
effect on Kiribati’s 21 inhabited islands.

“I wrote an open letter to the world last year to tell people about all the
homes lost to rising sea levels,” he said. “I don’t know how many years it
will be before it sinks.”

That letter was distributed at a Commonwealth Games federation meeting by
Katoatau’s coach, Paul Coffa.

“We don’t have the resources to save ourselves,” Katoatau said.

Kiribati also lacks the resources for basic sports facilities. “There was
no gym when I started training as a boy, and there is no gym now,” said
Katoatau, 32.

Katoatau moved to the Oceania Weightlifting Institute when he was 16 and
has been coached by Coffa since then. He lives and trains at the Institute
is Noumea, New Caledonia.

His next target is defending his Commonwealth title in Gold Coast,
Australia, in 2018.

He won a state reward of $A11,000 ($US8,400) for his Commonwealth gold and
used it to build a home for his parents on Tarawa island. It was destroyed
in a cyclone soon after being built, he said.

“We have built another one, but it’s close to the sea so there is always a

Katoatau, who finished 15th on his Olympic debut in 2008, finished 14th
this time with 349kg, 1kg more than his Commonwealth Games effort. “I am 32
but still improving,” he said.

Richard Mason, the Canadian who is announcer at every session in Rio, said
“Good lift” 13 times in a row at the start of the B Group. The first fail
was Giorgi Chkheidze on 173kg.

There was another big celebration for the German Jurgen Spiess, who
finished with a personal best clean & jerk of 220kg for a total of 390kg.
It matched his joy in the European Championships when Spiess made his last
lift to earn a place in the team for Rio.

“I hope to be back again in four years,” said Spiess, who is looking
forward to seeing more of his infant son, Ben.

“It has been a very hard time for my girlfriend Julia, because of my
training,” said Spiess, 32. “Now I can spend some time at home.”