Oklahoman carries heavy expectation

Updated: August 17, 2004, 1:58 AM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Iran's Hossein Rezazadeh has been known as the world's strongest man since lifting a weight equivalent to three regular-sized refrigerators to win the super heavyweight gold medal in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

American rival Shane Hamman performed a similarly impressive feat of strength in last year's world championships in Vancouver: He raised an entire country into the Olympics with a single lift.

Hamman didn't come close to beating the phone booth-sized Rezazadeh in those finals, but his American-record 507-pound lift in the clean and jerk gave him eighth place.

More importantly, it earned the United States three men's berths in the Athens Olympics; had he missed, no American male weightlifter would be competing.

The biggest lift of his life, in size, also turned out to be the biggest lift of his life in importance.

"That's pressure," said Hamman, the Mustang, Okla., native who on Aug. 25 will go for America's first Olympic men's weightlifting medal in 20 years. "I knew if I didn't make it that it wasn't only me who wouldn't be going to Athens, but nobody else, either. That was incredible pressure.

"Even when I think about it now, I can't believe it."

Despite finishing 10th in the Sydney Olympics, Hamman -- a training partner of Greco-Roman wrestling gold medalist Rulon Gardner -- has been one of the most visible U.S. Olympians before and during the Athens Games. He appears in three national TV commercials, including a widely seen spot for Gateway computers -- an uncommon amount of exposure for a nonmedal winner.

He's also been spotted signing autographs in Athens, where he attended 2000 gold medalist Tara Cunningham's unsuccessful attempt Saturday to medal again at 105½ pounds.

Hamman's likable personality, sharp sense of humor and ability to read lines in commercials could make him a winner should he unexpectedly medal in Athens.

He's got that gee-whiz, all-American background that marketers love; he became strong by lifting heavy pallets of fruit at his family's Oklahoma market. He was so strong and could move the heavy loads so quickly that friends and neighbors often showed up to watch.

No doubt they will be watching again next week in Mustang, Okla., when Hamman raises the most important weight of his life.

"That's the key -- getting a medal," he said. "That's the hard part."

No kidding. The 5-foot-9, 350-pound Hamman, a powerlifter turned weightlifter, has gradually inched up the charts in world-level competition, but has never finished higher than fifth in a world championship.

He has thought about what it would be like to stand on the medals podium, hoped for it, tried everything he could to close the gap and achieve it. He knows it can happen: Cunningham was similarly close in 2000 before unexpectedly winning a gold medal at 105½ pounds, even though she needed a rival's failed doping test to move up from silver to gold.

Still, to put the enormity of Hamman's task in perspective, consider this: Iran's main news service reported Rezazadeh lifted 583 pounds in the clean and jerk during a recent practice session. That's 76 pounds more than Hamman raised nine months ago in Vancouver.

"I think I have the ability to be in medals," said Hamman, who might be too old -- he's 32 -- to hang around for the 2008 Beijing Games. "It's exactly what I'm expecting to do. It's going to be all or nothing for me at this one. I'm going to load up the weight and I'm going to try it."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press