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Phuket preview: Olympic champions among dozens desperate to take last chance for Paris

Hundreds of weightlifters from around the world will be going all-out in Thailand over the next two weeks as they make one final attempt to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

At the end of the IWF World Cup in Phuket, about three-quarters of the 466 entries will head home in disappointment, some to plan ahead for the 2028 Games, others to retire. Olympic champions and world record holders are likely to be among those who do not qualify.

Four gold medallists from the Tokyo Games are not currently ranked high enough, which means the top 10 in their weight category. Three are from China, sitting behind a team-mate in the rankings – Hou Zhihui, Wang Zhouyu and Chen Lijun. Neisi Dajomes is in a similar position, needing more kilos to overtake the Tokyo silver medallist Tamara Salazar, her Ecuador team-mate.

A fifth Olympic champion, Hidilyn Diaz from the Philippines, could drop out of the 59kg top 10 if she has a bad day in Thailand. “I expect to be not just 100 per cent, maybe 110 per cent or more,” Diaz said as she looked ahead to the World Cup.

Hidilyn Diaz (PHI)

Besides these five, at least 10 silver and bronze medallists from Tokyo have a lot of work to do, including Julio Mayora from Venezuela and Mirko Zanni from Italy. While injuries and loss of form are factors, the cut in quota places from 196 in Tokyo to 120 Paris, and in weight categories from 14 to 10, is the main reason why so many of the sport’s big names face such a challenge in Phuket.

“It’s going to be brutal in Thailand,” was the most popular prediction from athletes, coaches and federation officials during the penultimate round of qualifying, the 2024 continental championships held throughout February.

They all agree that the World Cup will be like no other international competition as everyone aims for career-high numbers and a better ranking position.

A good example of how “brutal” it will be comes in the first two Olympic weight categories at the World Cup.

Julio Mayora (VEN)

In the men’s 61kg only the top three in the simplified ranking list – one athlete per nation – have totalled 300kg or more. The entire A Group of 14 lifters in Phuket, including two each from China, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, have entries of at least 300kg. One of them, Seyitjan Mirzayev from Turkmenistan, needs to improve his best ranking effort by 23kg to match his entry.

All five athletes placed ninth to 13th go in the ultra-competitive B Group – Ivan Dimov from Bulgaria, Trinh Van Vin from Vietnam, Arley Calderon from Cuba, Simon Brandhuber from Germany and Shin Rok from Korea. That should be a session worth watching, not least because it will add more spice to the A Group.

In the women’s 49kg only the top four in the rankings have hit the 200kg mark, yet twice as many have entered on 200kg or more. Chiaki Ajira from Japan, 23rd in the long list (two or more per nation), has never bettered 182kg. Good luck.

Every day of competition in Phuket, from March 31 until April 11, will be highly competitive. Some sessions will be unmissable.

Li Dayin (CHN)

China decided not to send a team to the Asian Championships in Uzbekistan in February, preferring to focus on the World Cup. Double Olympic champion Shi Zhiyong’s contest against Rahmat Erwin, the multiple world record holder from Indonesia, at 73kg will be one of the highlights.

Li Dayin from China and Karlos Nasar from Bulgaria are separated by 1kg at the top of the 89kg rankings. The presence of Keydomar Vallenilla from Venezuela, Yeison Lopez from Colombia, Mir Mostafa from Iran and Nino Pizzolato from Italy adds to the allure of what could be the most exciting competition of all.

Or it might be the 102kg A Group. The 96kg Olympic champion Meso Hassona is up against Liu Huanhua from China, 96kg snatch world record holder Lesman Paredes from Bahrain, Jang Yeonhak from Korea, Yauheni Tsikhantsou from Belarus, competing as an Individual Neutral Athlete, and two closely matched Armenians, Samvel Gasparyan and Garik Karapetyan.

All of them could go higher than 400kg. In this category no athlete has ever made the world standards, set in 2018, of 191-231-412. Perhaps a world record holder will emerge in Phuket.

China is expected to dominate the women’s events, although DPR Korea will no doubt provide strong opposition even if its athletes are ineligible for Paris, having entered the qualifying programme too late.

Olivia Reeves (USA)

The rankings leaders in all five women’s weight categories are Chinese. Olivia Reeves, the improving 20-year-old from the United States, will be aiming to close the 11kg gap behind Liao Guifang at 71kg.

There are many questions to be answered in Phuket. Will super-heavyweight Lasha Talakhadze be fit enough to compete after sitting out the Qatar Grand Prix? Will Italy have two athletes in Paris, or if they avoid bombouts might it be as many as six? Will Mexico have none, or three? Will any from France make the top 10? Will those Individual Neutral Athletes from Belarus state their claim as medal contenders in Paris? Who might scare off China in the women’s categories?

The final ranking lists will be published soon after the competition ends on April 11. The top 10 in the 10 Olympic weight categories are eligible for Paris.

Nations who qualify more than the maximum three men and three women will have to notify the IWF of their selections by May 6. If China or the United States, for example, decline a place in any weight category because they have better medal chances elsewhere, a lucky athlete placed 11th will move into the top 10.

There will still be hope for some athletes lower down the lists, because 10 places are allocated to continental qualifiers, six to universality invitations, and a maximum of four for France as host nation. The complete rules and deadlines are available here.

It will be brutal, there will be bombouts, but the IWF World Cup is a competition not to be missed.

By Brian Oliver

Photos by Giorgio Scala/Deepbluemedia