BARCELONA — Is he the guy who put the jerk in the clean-and-jerk? Is he a political dissident and proud Muslim who felt outrage at having to acknowledge the Russian flag? Or is weightlifter Ibragim Samadov, a 24-year-old mountain man with a gold tooth, simply a victim of his own temporary insanity?
All we know for sure is that Comrade Samadov has been asked to leave and knows not where to go. He has been praying to Allah, thinking, drinking, has taken up smoking, is begging forgiveness and fears for his family's future after making the most controversial gesture at an Olympic awards ceremony since ones by unhappy Americans in 1968 and 1972.
"What am I going to do with my life?" Samadov asks.
Ordered expelled from the Olympic village for conduct unbecoming an athlete after his brazen refusal of a bronze medal--twice it ended up on the floor--Samadov has been granted a form of Olympic asylum there while authorities attempt to straighten this out.
Refuge for a scoundrel? Perhaps, but Samadov's greater concern is what happens Thursday, when he is supposed to fly home.
Eyes low, voice lower, this remorseful son of a retired Siberian construction worker says:
"I love my country, and I would not like it to abandon me. If there were no other choice, well, I would like to be chosen by a nation where nobody would make me feel so small, where I would feel useful."
At Mexico City in 1968, American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith stood with raised fists during the playing of the national anthem, and at Munich in 1972, sprinters Wayne Collett and Vince Matthews elected not to stand at attention, all in protest of conditions back home. Also in '72, U.S. basketball players jilted the awards presentation and to this day have never accepted their silver medals.
Most signs point to Samadov's action being nothing more than a temper tantrum. However, in his hometown of Grozny, in the mountainous Chechenia region, there has been an outcry for independence from Russian ties. And yes, there are those who will tell you that natives of that region are known to be high-spirited or hot-tempered, take your pick.
But even the explanation from Samadov himself boils down to: "I lost my head." His exact words, in fact.
At first it was thought that Samadov had been upset by rowdy Greek spectators who heckled him. Or that he did not care to honor a flag that is being used--for the last time--to represent all athletes of the former Soviet Union.
But all that evidently upset Samadov was losing.
He intended to win, expected to win. The 5-foot-6, 180-pound lifter's third-place finish in the 82.5-kilogram class devastated him, Samadov says, particularly since his family depends solely on him for economic support. And, having lost the gold and silver medals on a technicality--Samadov hoisted the same weight as his Greek and Polish rivals, but was penalized for being one-tenth of a pound heavier--he snapped.
"I suffered an emotional choke," Samadov says, claiming he can scarcely recall his behavior at the ceremony. "It was not a premeditated gesture. I did not wish to offend anyone. I only remember that that medal was very much wanted.
"I committed an error, and I am at the mercy of those, whoever it is, from whom I must ask forgiveness."
After matching Greece's Pyrros Dimas lift for lift in the snatch and clean-and-jerk, Samadov had hefted a total of 814 pounds. But his heart was so heavy afterward that he could not bear the thought of wearing a few ounces of bronze.
Fidgeting behind the award pedestal, Samadov stepped up when his name was called. But when Nikos Filaretos of the International Olympic Committee reached up to place the ribboned medallion around his neck, Samadov stopped him, placed it on the pedestal and stalked off.
After the playing of Greece's anthem, gold medalist Dimas retrieved the bronze medal and gave it to Samadov, who reportedly flung it to the ground.
Reaction was immediate. Tamas Ajan, an officer of the International Weightlifting Federation, said of Samadov: "He did not respect the International Olympic Committee, the spirit of the Games, his colleagues, the anthems or the flags. He did this in front of 4,000 people (at the weightlifting arena) and a television audience of billions."
The IWF unanimously voted to ban Samadov not only from the Olympics but from all further competition, and the IOC asked Samadov to hand over his athlete's credential. Samadov was distraught. Although he does not smoke, he says he went through a pack of cigarettes in one night. He turned to alcohol as well.
He says: "I have cried a lot. If I am unable to compete, what am I going to do with my life? From when I was 14 years old, I have lifted weights. And I do not know anything more to do. I am not prepared for another type of life.
"It is as if I am falling from an airplane. I do not know how to defend myself."