The weighting game

A small group of dedicated athletes clings to dreams that few understand and that could take years to fulfill.

No one would mistake the weight room at the Hadar Yosef athletics stadium in North Tel Aviv for one of those trendy, expensive gyms across town. Hidden at the far corner of the building, under the sloping concrete slabs where spectators cheer on the country's track and field stars, the weight room is exceedingly plain, littered with just a few pieces of rusty equipment and absolutely unknown to the aerobics-three-times-a-week crowd. Stair climbers and stationary bicycles? Nope. Elaborate machines that trim the inner thigh? Forget about it. Steam room? You're kidding. Pacing back and forth in front of the mirror that extends along the length of one wall are a handful of men in plain Lycra shorts and old T-shirts. There is no fancy apparel here, no expensive "power" drinks to sip during tae-bo classes. There are no look-at-me poses, no pretentiousness. There is only this: a bar on the floor, loaded with weight, and the challenge of whipping it overhead. Stepping up to the bar is Ariel Barnetz, a solid but not overly muscled 17-year-old. Setting his feet under him he bends down, gripping the bar tightly. With a dip of his behind and a swift pull he heaves the bar up, squatting under it as his arms stabilize the weight in a broad V - a successfully executed snatch, in the parlance of Olympic weightlifting. As Ariel drops the bar - the weights, called bumper plates, are coated with rubber, and a wooden platform absorbs their fall - and resets for another repetition, Amir Nahum, chairman of the Maccabi Tel Aviv weightlifting club which runs the weight room, shouts instructions. "Ariel, you're starting out too quickly!" says the wiry Nahum, a former competitive weightlifter who oversees the team's development. "You have to start slowly - watch your back - yes... Now, snap! That's it." Barnetz, a member of the national team's youth squad, was a reluctant observer when he first arrived at the gym with some friends. They left; he stayed. "I love the competitiveness, but also the family atmosphere," he explains. "I spend more time here than I spend at home." He resets for another of what will be dozens of repetitions of the snatch, applying Nahum's tips. "That was good, Ariel," says the coach, "but keep your clinch closer to your body." Barnetz listens intently to Nahum's instructions, eager to use what the 35-year-old has learned to advance his own progress. "I have high hopes," he says matter-of-factly. "I know that if I stick with it, I'll fulfill them." There are hopes, though, and there is reality. Barnetz is one of a small number of competitive weightlifters in Israel, and even the best among them has a long way to go before the winner's podium becomes a possibility. Contrary to Israel's successes in diamonds and hi-tech, the country is no international powerhouse when it comes to weightlifting. In fact, the most famous episode for local weightlifting is, unfortunately, its darkest moment: the massacre of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich, Germany, in the summer of 1972. Three weightlifters - Yosef Romano, David Berger and Ze'ev Friedman - and weightlifting coach and judge Ya'akov Springer were among the victims of the Black September terrorists. "We remember them always," says Nahum, pointing to the plaque on the wall at the Hadar Yosef gym that commemorates the fallen athletes. Also named for the victims is the National Center for Weightlifting, dedicated earlier this year by the Israel Olympic Committee. In 1974, before pressure from the Arab states forced the Jewish state out of Asian competition and into the more difficult European circuit, Shlomo Ben-Gal (who would later become head of the Israel Athletic Association) set an Asian record in the snatch for his weight class. Since then, though, superior achievement has been exceedingly rare. Israeli athletes have competed in recent Olympic Games, for example, but they have never brought home a medal. Even in less prestigious competitions, accolades have been few. Marina Ochman and Evgeny Koshenetz, two of ASA Beersheba's brightest stars, took part in last month's European Championships, held in Lignano Sabbiadoro, Italy. They performed admirably, both setting personal bests, yet gave no one cause to fear blue-and-white weightlifters in the near future. Ochman, national champion for the past three years, broke three Israeli records in the 63 kg. weight class - hoisting 82 kg. in the snatch and 97 kg. in the clean and jerk, for a total of 179 kg. - on her way to 15th place (out of 20) in Europe, a whopping 56 kg. off the gold medal. Koshenetz, who at 19 has dominated the cadets and youths divisions of local weightlifting for the past four years, finished in 20th place (out of 23) in the 69 kg. weight class with a 121 kg. snatch and 155 kg. clean and jerk. To be sure, Koshenetz's combined total of 276 kg. is a lot of weight to lift - but it equals a mere warm-up for first-place finisher Tigran Martirosyan of Armenia, who lifted a combined 346 kg. That's a huge gap to close in a sport that demands years of training starting in early adolescence. The Israel Weightlifting Federation has set its sights on the 2012 Olympic Games in London, promising increased resources for athletes, coaches and facilities, with the goal of increasing both the number and the quality of those participating in the sport. That won't be easy, according to Nahum, who has struggled to recruit new athletes. "There's no exposure for our sport in this country," he says - contrasting the low esteem for weightlifting here with the almost rabid appreciation for it in Eastern Europe. (It is no coincidence that of the few dozen dedicated Olympic-style weightlifters here, most are from the former Soviet Union, rich as it is in weightlifting tradition.) There's no money in it, either. "In the last Olympics, the sixth-place finisher's score was the same as what my personal best was 12 years ago. But I quit competitive weightlifting at the age of 23," Nahum says, "because I didn't have enough money to put gas in my car." He switched to work as a personal trainer in commercial gyms, and took up industrial design; he donates his time to the Maccabi Tel Aviv weightlifters out of love for the sport. "From the sports club we receive just enough money to maintain this humble gym and to give the competitive athletes a few shekels here and there," he says. "But honestly? If not for the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team, we wouldn't even exist." The difficulty in reaching potential recruits is compounded, he says, by the near impossibility of convincing schools to approve weightlifting classes. "Principals have their ears closed to any suggestion of getting kids to lift weights," Nahum says with a distinct sadness. "The effort it takes just to get my foot in the door at a school is like splitting the Red Sea. It's bizarre: Everyone knows we have a problem of child obesity, yet I find myself tilting at windmills." A QUICK LOOK around the Hadar Yosef weight room reveals something missing, something usually quite common in fitness clubs: females. "Unfortunately," Nahum says by way of confession, "I haven't been able to bring girls into the gym. I've had some come in and start to really develop - only to have their mothers intervene. I constantly have to fight the old wives' tale about weightlifting stunting your growth. It's nonsense, and it's been disproved over and over again, but what can I do? Jewish mothers still think their kids will end up dwarfs if they lift weights." Those who, nonetheless, do come to see what the sport is all about rarely stick with it long enough to accomplish anything. Unlike bodybuilding exercises, which tend to isolate muscles and can be learned quickly, Olympic weightlifting's snatch and clean and jerk exercises, and the movements that help develop power for them, require a high degree of coordination - and a whole lot of patience. "One of the best exercises in the world is the deep squat," Nahum continues. "It's such a great combination of strength and flexibility. It's great for your legs, for your back... it's fantastic. But it requires a whole lot of very, very precise work." Teenagers rarely have the patience for such work - and they suffer for it, Nahum says. "I believe that, for adolescents, Olympic-style lifting is much healthier than the kind of exercise they do in regular gyms. It's more athletic, and it teaches you how to use your entire body in unison. The problem is it takes a lot of time to teach someone how to do this correctly. There aren't enough kids with the patience for it, and there aren't enough trainers who know how to teach this the right way." Still, for some, there's no cure for the lure of the iron. Tomer Bohadana, a soldier wounded in the Second Lebanon War who became famous for flashing a "V" sign while being evacuated to the hospital, has worked out in the Maccabi Tel Aviv gym for years, Nahum notes with pride. One of the most regular members is a 57-year-old lawyer who started coming to the gym three years ago, he adds; the lawyer had complained of terrible back pain that prevented him from exercising for years, Nahum relates, but since he's been at the gym, his back pain has dissipated. Members of the gym pay NIS 100 per month - a fraction of the rate charged at full-service fitness clubs - for the privilege of sharing the dank room with some 15 competitive lifters. One of them is Yuri Bagni, a 19-year-old who immigrated from Ukraine 10 years ago. "You see that one over there?" says Nahum, pointing to Bagni, with massive thighs and upper back muscles, imposing except for his constant smile. "He's the child of a single mom... in short, they've had it rough. There was a time when he used to beat up all the other kids in school. His teachers warned me not to even get involved with him. But look at him now - he's proof that if you can succeed in sport, you can succeed in life." Bagni, now a national team member recognized as an outstanding athlete, receives special treatment from the army, working from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. at the Sde Dov airfield, close to home, so he can maintain his five or six times per week training schedule. He usually arrives at the gym around 3 p.m. and often stays until late at night. "Whenever I'm on leave, I'm here," he says. "I come here to train, but I hang around because of the friendships. This is like my second home." When Bagni first arrived at his base, he says, "no one really understood what I do or why I do it. But now they ask how my training is going... and, of course, every so often someone yells out, 'Hey, weightlifter! Come over here, we have something heavy for you to carry!'" Another success story, and another example of the weights' transformative effect, Nahum says, is 15-year-old Matan Segelman. A year and a half ago, the skinny teen had gained weight after his parents' divorce. Already having difficulty fitting in at school because of ADHD, Segelman was on an emotional roller-coaster and in need of something to ground him. He tried capoeira, and then volleyball, but dropped both. "I was getting a belly. My father said, 'You have to find a sport to do.' So he started looking up different sports on-line, suggested all kinds of things. Eventually I just asked, 'Well, what's open today?' He said, 'Weightlifting.' I said, 'No way, I don't want do that.' But he insisted that I had to do something... so we came, and I fell in love with it." Segelman trains at Hadar Yosef four times per week, in addition to the push-ups, pull-ups and crunches that he does every day. "In ninth grade, I was the kid that everyone picked on. Now I'm the strongest kid in my grade, and no one messes with me," he says, gushing. "A lot of guys in school are interested in going to the gym. I try to explain that bodybuilding is only part of it, that here we develop the body and develop strength... But they think weightlifting stunts your growth, so they're afraid. Even my mother tried to discourage me, saying it would stunt my growth." Instead, weightlifting has helped Segelman grow - in confidence as well as in stature. He took fourth place in the 62 kg. weight class in the recent National Championships, and has his sights set on international glory. Even his ADHD, Nahum says, has come under control. "Every day," the teen says with a grin on his way back to a loaded bar, "I thank my dad for making me come here."