by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

ATLANTA — The barbell sat there like a mountain. “Go ahead,” it seemed to say, “move me.”

Out came the last lifter. He already had won the gold medal; this was for history. The weight stood at 518 pounds. If he hoisted it to his shoulders, then pushed it over his head, he would better the world record by more than 16 pounds.

In the audience, his fans waved the flag of Greece.

In the hallway, the silver medalist, from Kazakhstan, watched with intense interest.

In the waiting room, the bronze medalist, from Ukraine, bit his lip and stared at the TV screen.

And alongside him, the fourth- and fifth-placers mumbled back and forth in a shared language. So did the sixth-, seventh- and ninth-place finishers.

They were all speaking Russian. Why not?

They used to all be on the same team.

Now they were pulling for an old friend, Akakide Kakhiashvilis, who looks like a young Sylvester Stallone. He bent over, heaved on the bar and yanked it up to his shoulders, the weight so heavy on each side, the bar bent in the middle. With a huge groan, Akakide Kakhiashvilis pushed that 518 pounds over his head, wobbled back and forth — then locked his knees for two seconds and let out a yell. The crowd roared as he dropped the barbell with an echoing thud.

Gold medal. World record.

Score one for the old country . . .

. . . wherever she may be.

“This gold medal means as much to me as the one I won in 1992,” said Kakhiashvilis, who now competes for Greece, even though he was born in the Soviet Union, was trained by the Soviet Union and won the last Olympic gold for the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. The reason for the change is simple:

When independence came, weights were less important than a roof over his head. Rent-an-athlete

The great unspoken story of these Games — brought to you by NBC, whose motto seems to be “If It’s Not Red, White and Blue, We’re Not Showing It” — is the success of the many small teams that not so long ago made up one big team: the Soviet Union.

You remember the Soviet Union, don’t you?

It was that evil empire that took little children and tested them at young ages, then sent them to special sports schools. They were nurtured like lab rats, trained relentlessly, then they burst on the scene — “out of nowhere,” we used to complain — won all kinds of medals, and were rewarded with something that their countrymen considered precious, such as toilet paper.

Well, all that ended when the Soviet Union collapsed. The schools closed. The labs were abandoned. The coaches fled for other nations. With the exception of East Germany, it was the fastest collapse of a sports superpower the world had ever seen.

Or was it?

Take a look at your medal standings as we head into the second week of these Summer Games. Sure, the United States is way out ahead with a home-field-advantage 54 medals. But who’s in second? Russia, with 34 medals, including 14 golds. And when you read “Russia,” that’s only a small part of what Russia used to mean. Add the medals won by Ukraine (8), Belarus (8), Kazakhstan (5), Uzbekistan (1) and Georgia (1) and the old USSR actually has three medals more than the States.

And while it’s true they wouldn’t have all those spots with one team, it’s also true that many of these athletes live in poverty-stricken lands, where jobs and food are in short supply.

“I had to leave my country because there was nothing left,” sighed Kakhiashvilis. “It wasn’t just that there was no bars or no weights. Sometimes there was no water.”

No water? The Soviet lineup

Kakhiashvilis was lucky. His mother was Greek. He went to her country, became a citizen immediately and moved his family there. Now, instead of cold Russian winters he has warm breezes off the Aegean Sea.

But he hasn’t forgotten his ties. On the victory stand, he was next to a man from Kazakhstan (the silver) and Ukraine (bronze.) They were followed in the standings by another Ukrainian, two Russians and an ex-Russian now competing for Germany.

That’s right. The top seven finishers in one weightlifting event were all Soviet-born. “On the bus ride over, we talk about the old times,” Kakhiashvilis said. “Although we are on different teams now, the men on the bus feel like students of the same big school.”

They are joined by the captivating 17-year-old gymnast, Lilia Podkopayeva of Ukraine, who won the gold medal in the all-around, and the lighting-fast swimmer Alexander Popov of Russia, who won two individual golds in the swimming sprints, and the gold-medal rowing team from Belarus and the gold- winning Greco-Roman wrestler from Kazakhstan.

All students of the same school. All scattered around the world. Imagine if the U.S. were suddenly divided by states — one nation from California, another from Florida. Would we still feel a tie? Would we still feel united?

There were no NBC cameras at weightlifting Sunday. Naturally. No Americans made the final. But lack of lenses doesn’t change results.

Let us be smarter. Let us salute the determination of Olympians who can still lift mountains when their homelands run short of water. We may not have always liked the old Soviet Union, but her sons and daughters are a huge story in America’s Summer Olympics. The men on the bus know it, even if NBC does not.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!