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ATHENS 2004 | Bill Plaschke

A Clean Lift of a Nation's Spirits

August 22, 2004|Bill Plaschke

ATHENS — The Olympics' strongest man raised one bandaged hand and halted a medal ceremony Saturday, in mid-wreath, amid screeching and sparks.

The Olympics' strongest man won the bronze, but the cheering for him was so loud and prolonged it was nearly five minutes before officials tried to award the silver or gold.

The recording played one anthem, but the fans then sang his anthem.

The top two medalists left the stage in one direction, but he walked in the other, grabbing his three children from the stands, returning to dance with them on the empty top podium step.

The Olympics' strongest man is Pyrros Dimas, a scarred and weathered Greek who lifted far more than weights Saturday in a competition that had little to do with winning.

"He lifts up his entire country," student Ioannia Talaumis said.

Momentarily stronger than drug scandals and sparse attendance and huge deficits, Dimas snatched what may have been the most memorable Olympic moment so far on a night that nearly brought his tired eyes to tears.

"The people said today that they believe in us, that they believe in all of us," Dimas said.

The birthplace of sport certainly still believes in the spirit of sport, as singing and swaying fans showed during the 187-pound weightlifting competition in a jammed arena in a working-class neighborhood.

This was about history -- Dimas was his country's most decorated Olympian with three gold medals.

This was about legacy -- this was Dimas' final competition, at 32.

This was about citizenship -- Dimas is a transplanted Albanian who has become so beloved a stadium is named after him.

This was, more than anything, about Greece.

"People here are disappointed about the drugs, other things that have happened since the Games started," said Mildos Theacharis, a physical education teacher. "We have come to say goodbye to our hero."

So they filled the weightlifting arena, several thousand thick, and began chanting his name before the competition, hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

After all, Dimas had been virtually invisible after his gold medal in Sydney. He wanted to retire but agreed to train only because he wanted one last appearance at home.

He had also suffered several injuries earlier this year, leading some to wonder whether he would be able to lift even the lightest of his projected weights.

In billboards around town, with full hair and shiny smile, he looks very young.

But when he showed up Saturday with a black buzz cut and tight goatee and gaunt face, he looked very old.

"We know he's been hurting," Theacharis said before the competition. "We don't think he'll do much. But we don't care."

So they chanted, "Di-mas, Di-mas" until he stepped to the stage for his first weight, then, when he bent to lift the bar, everyone in unison whispered, "Shhhhhhh."

On this first attempt, he not only snatched 374 pounds above his head, but held it there while turning and smiling to both sides of the house.

The roaring and flag-waving made the small building look and sound like a giant snow blower, but it was only the start.

Dimas dropped the bar on his next weight but then successfully lifted his next two weights, setting up one final muscle toward a championship.

If he could lift 465.5 pounds in the clean-and-jerk phase, he had a chance to win. He couldn't. He dropped the bar, fell on his back, covered his eyes.

As the crowd's hush again became a roar, he stood up, removed his shoes, dropped them by the mat, and walked away.

"Dropping the shoes means that he has finished competing and come home to us for good," said Theodore Tsintziklozolou, a local gymnast.

But was he gone from the building for good? If any of the ensuing eight attempted lifts by competitors had been successful, he would have been knocked from third place and off that podium.

But all eight failed. It was fate. It was Dimas. And when the final lifter, Aijuan Yuan, collapsed, ending the competition, the fans leapt to their feet for a celebration that lasted nearly 30 minutes.

"Pyr-ros, Pyr-ros!"

"Hel-las, Hel-las!"

They sang folk songs, they sang their anthem, they sang his name, again and again.

The quiet Olympics came alive. The calm Olympics lost their cool. The Greeks treated this bronze as if it were gold and, really, when it comes to medals, aren't they all?

While standing alone on the bronze podium step for that nearly five-minute standing ovation, Dimas patted a hand to his heart and fought a lump in his throat.

"They believe in their athletes here," he said later, the weight lifted.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. For more Plaschke columns, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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