Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

An Iranian Olympian carries the weight of a nation

Behdad Salimi, a world champion weightlifter, goes to the London Games bearing the expectations of all of Iran – and is the country's best hope for gold.

By Afshin ValinejadCorrespondent / July 24, 2012

Iranian weightlifter and world champion Behdad Salimi trains for the Olympics at a special facility in northern Iran. He is the country’s best hope for a gold medal in London – a muscular embodiment of Persian pride.

Afshin Valinejad


bojnourd, iran

Up close, the "world's strongest man" doesn't look as if he's been mislabeled. Behdad Salimi is built like a small warehouse. His neck and head seem to be the same appendage. His arms are bigger than most people's thighs. His thighs ... well, just use your imagination, then double it.

Skip to next paragraph

Yet when he shakes hands, he is uncommonly gentle. In fact, for a man who can lift the equivalent of three people over his head, he seems downright genial.

Until he grips a barbell, that is. Suddenly, his jaw tightens. His face contorts. Then he lets out a primal shriek – "ya Ali molaye man" (oh Ali, my leader) – and makes unfathomable amounts of tonnage defy gravity.

It's a shout that may be heard all the way to London. As he prepares for the summer Games at a training center here 400 miles northeast of Tehran, the Iranian strongman faces a difficult task: lifting the heaviest weight a man can hoist, while carrying the enormous expectations of a nation on his prodigious shoulders.

Iranians have been disappointed by their inability to qualify for the London Olympics in popular sports such as soccer and volleyball. But Mr. Salimi, the 23-year-old current world champion in the super heavyweight (+105 kilogram) snatch category, is their hope for redemption and recognition. He is the embodiment – the massive embodiment – of Persian pride.

It helps that he is already, literally, the world's strongest man. In 2011 he lifted 214 kilograms (472 pounds) in the world weight-lifting championships in Paris, breaking the record of his fellow Iranian Hossein Rezazadeh – long a childhood icon.

Training at a special camp with a dozen other members of the Iranian national squad, Salimi works on honing his technique and strength. He is methodical and patient. When he makes an attempt and fails, he tries again. When he injures his hand slightly, he continues, unperturbed. His Olympic dream awaits. And all of Iran will be watching.

"Nothing will satisfy me in the Olympics except a gold medal," says Salimi, during a break. "I am going to London to take it and bring it back home. I did not wish just to be an Olympian; my serious desire has been no less than a gold medal."

While Iran has a long tradition of producing strongmen, Salimi's first instinct was not to be one of them. Growing up in the remote town of Ghaemshahr – known for producing big men who excel at wrestling and weightlifting – Salami wanted to try gymnastics.

Then a friend suggested his body type was more suited to weightlifting. He visited a local club and fit right in with the dreamers of strength and greatness.

"I come from a simple, ordinary family – not poor, not rich, just a warm atmosphere of family," says Salimi. "My father is a retired teacher and nobody was a professional athlete, but they all encouraged me."


Read Comments

View reader comments | Comment on this story

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer


Doing Good


What happens when ordinary people decide to pay it forward? Extraordinary change...

Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

The athlete-adventurer co-founded a relay run called One Run for Boston that started in Los Angeles and ended at the marathon finish line to raise funds for victims.

Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!