Commentary

This Sporting Life:
What I Worried About Last Weekend

Updated: June 24, 2009, 2:49 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | Page 2

The colors of the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran are red, white and green. Those colors are meant to represent faith and peace and courage. This I know without pausing to think because a few years ago I spent an evening being beaten over the head with one.

This was in the city of Doha in the Emirate of Qatar -- that little thumb of wealthy desert that juts from Saudi Arabia out into the Persian Gulf directly opposite Iran. I was there covering the Asian Games, a quadrennial sports get-together for half the planet on the order of the Olympics. America never sees much of it, and only rarely even hears about it. The rest of the world takes it very seriously.

[+] EnlargeHossein Reza Zadeh
Hassas Ammar/AFP/Getty ImagesHere's Hossein Rezazadeh, the pride of Iran.

And of the 10,000 athletes competing there, one was a star of such dazzling local magnitude that I'd never seen anything like it before in sports. His name is Hossein Rezazadeh.

It would not be incorrect to call him the Strongest Man in the World.

Retired since last summer from competition, Rezazadeh was a weightlifter. In fact, the weightlifter: a superheavyweight two-time Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder. Who was and is known as the "Iranian Hercules."

And if you could take all the passion and devotion and love and respect and hysteria and pride that Americans rain down across scores of sports and hundreds of teams and thousands of athletes and focus it all on just one man, you'd have some idea of how folks in the Persian Gulf feel about Hossein Rezazadeh.

So the night of the weightlifting finals in Doha, I'm sitting with the crowd up in the stands, not in the press area. The venue, a small converted banquet hall, maybe 500 seats, is packed tight and hot and close, smelling of rose water and sweat, and the sound of the cheering has no place to go but right into your skull. Nearly everyone in the building is from Iran.

All evening Rezazadeh comes and goes on waves of ovation, lifting with ease whatever is set before him. He is a great fat cartoon of a man, round and dimpled as a baby: a magnificent, unshaven baby. There are other superheavies present, sure, and they squat and lift and heave, but the outcome is foregone, inevitable, and the night is as much a coronation as it is a competition.

Across the aisle from me sits a man in his late 30s. Black-haired and dark-eyed, slender, he is of average stature. He has a pleasant, angular face, wide across the jaw, and a tidy beard of stubble no more than three or four days old.

He wears black dress shoes, white socks and dark brown trousers. His suit coat is charcoal gray, and he wears his white dress shirt without a necktie and open at the throat. The full Ahmadinejad.

And in each hand he holds a small Iranian flag.

And on each knee sits a son. And in each little fist they grip and wave small Iranian flags, too.

The boys, alternately rambunctious and still, are perhaps 6 and 7 years old. They've all come to see Rezazadeh work his mighty art.

During breaks, or as the lesser heavyweights falter and fall out, the two boys climb down and wander the aisles. Both are cute, with eyes as wide and bright as buttons, and every time they wander a few rows into the throng, they're gathered up in the arms of the Chinese women's weightlifting team, then passed around, giggling, like dolls. Mu Shuangshuang, China's heavyweight gold medalist, a giant panda of a woman, folds them into her lap like cubs.

But whenever Rezazadeh mounts the stage, the two brothers squirm free, run back to their father's lap, clamber up, sit very still and stare hard at the stage.

As Rezazadeh makes each lift, the room erupts. He nods and grins in return, a showboat in complete command of the moment. But it is the looks on those three faces across the aisle that rivet me. Eyes glistening in the dazzle from the stage, father and sons whoop and holler and smile, beaming pride and unabashed national happiness back at their hero with every success. And they never stop waving those flags.

Directly behind me are two young women. In their mid-20s, each is dressed in jeans, a sweater, sneakers. Covered thus in muted colors from ankle to wrist to neck, they also wear head scarves and expressions of deep seriousness. Each holds an Iranian flag of medium size -- 3 feet by 2 or thereabouts -- which they wave in front of them with unchecked passion and abandon whenever Rezazadeh hoists the bar. In doing so they repeatedly, though not unpleasantly, sweep the top of my noggin again and again and again with the satiny red, white and green of the Islamic Republic of Iran. So loud was it in that little box I was never sure if I heard them cheering or not.

Rezazadeh closed the show that night with a fast, effortless lift at 230 kilos to win the gold. The place exploded, and the crowd surged down to the stage, chanting "ray-ZAH, ray-ZAH, ray-ZAH!" As they waded onto the stairs to meet their hero, that father from across the aisle turned and smiled at me. And that smile was a thing of such complete purity and joy and easy humanity that I will never forget it.

Two weeks ago, Hossein Rezazadeh, now the coach of the Iranian national team, was giving campaign speeches on behalf of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

I don't know what has become of the others. But I spent the weekend thinking of them all, and hope very much that those two young women, and that father and his lively sons, and the one and only Iranian Hercules, are all well somewhere, and safe, today.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question: "What Are Sports For?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.