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.

Afshin Valinejad
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.

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.

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."

Inspiration came in many forms. "When I moved from gymnastics to weightlifting, I used to watch Hossein Rezazadeh's victories and felt that I wanted to be like him," recalls Salimi.

The weightlifter knows that expectations are high. The Iranian team coach is Kourosh Bagheri, himself a former world champion.

"I have less than 1 percent doubt that he will snatch a gold in London," says Mr. Bagheri. "The Olympics is not a small place. All of the world's stars are gathering there to win, and, of course, to compete with them is not easy. But Behdad has strength, power, and confidence. He can do it."

Salimi has become something of a celebrity in his hometown – and, in fact, throughout Iran. After his workout, a group of kids come over to have their photo taken with him. He patiently obliges. When he goes out in public, he's approached by so many people now that he says it sometimes becomes "too much." But Salimi appreciates the adulation.

"I can never pass by and ignore the people's warm greetings, leaving their sincere emotions unanswered," he says.

Pleasing them at the Olympics will be what they want – what all of Iran wants.

One religious pilgrim in the shrine city of Mashhad, in northeast Iran, expressed his "most heartfelt hope" for Salimi's victory, when asked about the weightlifter.

"We ... at this time need joy, a medal, a big name at the international level so that everybody in the country could share the honor and feel proud," said Reza Alavizadeh.


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