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Durres, Day 6: Teenager and 77-year-old show Italy is on right path for weightlifting success

An athlete and a retired coach with an age difference of 60 years represented the past and future health of Italian weightlifting on day six of the IWF World Youth Championships in Durres, Albania.

In his second international competition Simone Abati (ITA) went up 15kg in body weight and 78kg in performance to finish second in the men’s 96kg behind Sami Baki Kiymet (TUR).

Abati came desperately close to making six from six but just failed with his final attempt, leaving Kiymet to decline his final lift on 145-180-325. Abati made 144-173-317. It was an impressive display by both men, who finished well ahead of Ashot Margaryan (ARM) in third place on 137-163-300.

Abati had finished fifth and last in his only previous competition, the European Under-15 Championships in 2021 when he lifted in the 81kg category and made 239kg in total. That was a few weeks after Italy had won more medals than any other European nation at the Tokyo Olympic Games, a feat they aim to repeat in Paris as a long-term development programme continues to bear fruit.

Watching on at the Ramazan Njala Sport Complex, as Abati won Italy’s first medal on total this week, was 77-year-old Salvatore Scarantino, who has played a significant role in the story of Italian weightlifting across seven decades.

Salvatore has the same surname as one of Italy’s most illustrious weightlifting families, whose youngest member lifted in Durres this week. But he is no relation to the multiple Olympians Giovanni and Mirco Scarantino. The connection is that they all come from the same city, Caltanissetta in Sicily, which thanks to Salvatore’s intervention became the “weightlifting capital” of Italy.

But for Salvatore’s decision to bring weightlifting to Caltanissetta in 1968, Giovanni Scarantino may never have made it to Seoul 1988, Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996, and his recently retired son Mirco to London 2012 and Rio 2016. 

And maybe, too, Antonio Urso, general secretary of the IWF, 12 times a national champion and head of that long-term development plan as president of the Italian Weightlifting Federation, might never have taken up the sport.

“In weightlifting there is nowhere else in the world like Caltanissetta, and Salvatore Scarantino is responsible for the city’s enthusiasm for our sport,” said Urso, who is from the 63,000-population regional capital. “Nobody talks about football in Caltanissetta, only weightlifting.”

Salvatore was in the fire brigade and wanted an indoor sport at the barracks to help keep the firemen fit. When he was watching live television coverage of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, he decided weightlifting would fit the bill.

When he asked for help, the renowned coach Roberto Migliaccio was sent from Rome and he stayed for two years, coaching athletes and coaches. Salvatore himself was the first coach in Caltanissetta, and was active for more than 50 years until he retired two years ago.

“Caltanissetta is the most important city in Italian weightlifting,” Salvatore said in the break during Abati’s competition. “We have had great coaches – Ettore Pilato, Salvatore Parla, Maurizio Sardo and now Alessandro Spinelli in the national team.

“We have had 42 athletes from Caltanissetta in the national team, six at the Olympic Games, we have won more than 500 national championships. There will be more.”

One of them may be Claudio Scarantino, Mirco’s brother who was 17 this week. Claudio, who won a European youth medal last year, made only two good lifts at 61kg here but is definitely one for the future. “If he maintains his progress he will for sure achieve good results,” said Urso.

Both Giovanni and Mirco are now helping their nation off the platform. Giovanni is working on training and selecting young talent in a special project in which the Italian Weightlifting Federation (FIPE) has invested 400,000 euros.

Mirco, 11 times a European champion, retired last month and will now focus on coaching and sport university. “We want all our top achievers to attend sport university. We need people like them so we can use their experience of elite weightlifting,” said Urso.

There was a surprise in the day’s other medal event in Durres, the women’s 76kg. Ella Nicholson (USA) was hoping to qualify for the Pan American Youth Championships in Venezuela in August with some personal-best lifts – and she did that in style by breaking all three continental youth records and winning a world title.

Nicholson, 16, came to the sport through CrossFit and is from an active family. Her mother does CrossFit, her brother is in wrestling and football, and her dad goes to the gym too.

“I’m motivated by all the strong women in weightlifting and CrossFit, I look up to them and want to be like them,” she said. “I’ve been on a weightlifting track for the past eight weeks and I’m going to stay on it for sure.”

Nicholson made 101-121-222, posting a clean and jerk personal best by 7kg. That left her ahead of Rahma Ahmed (EGY), last year’s winner, on 99-122-221. Ahmed needed to make 124kg on her final attempt to take the title but her coaches failed to enter the correct weight in time. Anna Amroyan (ARM) was third on 88-116-204.

By Brian Oliver, Inside the Games