Iran's man-mountain 'Salimi' lifts for gold

Behdad Salimikordasiabi is looking to break the world weightlifting record, and the odds are in his favor.

Salimi (photo credit: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier)
LONDON - The vast Olympic training room at London's ExCel arena feels instantly smaller the moment Iran's 22 year-old super heavyweight weightlifting prodigy Behdad Salimikordasiabi walks in.
Not just because he stands 6 feet and 6 inches (198 cm) tall in a sport dominated by the short and squat, but because 'Salimi' also walks with the confidence of a man ready to win the title of the strongest man at the London Olympics on Tuesday.
Other lifters pause their training to watch him, volunteers linger over their duties to see him complete a lift, and almost every member of the weightlifting alumni that make up the sport's governing body stops to shake his hand.
No one goes away disappointed. Every hand offered is taken, dozens of people go home with a posed picture next to the big man, and every lift of a grueling training routine is completed without fuss and barely a grunt.
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Since Salimikordasiabi entered senior international competition at the Asian championships in 2009 he has yet to be beaten in the over-105 kg, super heavyweight division.
He won his first world title in 2010 and successfully defended it in 2011, setting the world record for snatch lift -- one of two Olympic lifting styles -- in the process.
That lift totaled 214 kg, roughly equivalent to two baby forest elephants, and earned him one of the three world records set by his mentor and two-time Olympic champion, Hossein Rezazadeh.
Rezazadeh is perhaps the only man capable of eclipsing Salimikordasiabi's presence in the weight room. After winning gold in the Sydney and Athens Games he has risen to the role of president of the Iranian governing body for weightlifting -- the top title in a country where heavyweight lifters are revered.
Rezazadeh will be right behind Salimi, both figuratively and literally, when he takes to the platform on Tuesday in the headline event of the Olympic weightlifting competition.
"I will be greatly pleased if he sets a new record and breaks my record. The name of Iran is important, not the name of Rezazadeh or Salimi," Rezazadeh said.
"His coach has helped him in technical terms and I'm going to help him in spiritual ways. I'm going to charge him before his competition, during his competition and help him give a better performance."
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Born to middle-class parents in Ghaemshahr in the north of Iran, Salimikordasiabi is an educated man studying for a university degree in physical education.
Speaking in broken but competent English, he politely explains that he has been advised not to give interviews to Western media, but when asked if he can break the world record he smiles: "Gold first".
That task seems well within reach -- his entry weight into the competition puts him 10 kg ahead of his closest rival and countryman Sajjad Anoushiravani Hamlabad.
To claim the world record for the clean and jerk style he needs to lift 264 kg, and if his best lifts in the snatch and the clean and jerk total more than 472 kg he will wipe Rezazadeh's name from the world record list.
The secret of his success, he says, is "good training, with heavy weights", but that understates the athleticism required to beat off the challenge of an international field containing notable competitors from Russia, Germany and Ukraine.
With his hulking frame barely covered by a XXL t-shirt, Salimi starts his training with low weights, perfecting the explosive speed needed to lift the barbell from the floor to an arm's length above his head in a single two-second movement.
He ends the routine in the gaze of camera phone lenses, taking the barbell from a stand raised to shoulder level and loaded with three red discs, a blue and a yellow -- a total of 245 kg -- then squatting to the floor with the bar across the back of his neck.
Slowly, and in complete control, he returns to an upright position, and replaces it on the stand with improbable delicacy. Training is over for the day.