Michigan's Cunningham must beat Chinese weightlifter to repeat as gold medalist

Monday, July 19th 2004, 8:12 pm
By: News On 6

Tara Cunningham must beat one of China's so-called Dream Team weightlifters to repeat as an Olympic gold medalist in Athens next month.

Unlike the Sydney Games, when Cunningham, then competing as Tara Nott, unexpectedly won the gold medal at 105 1/2 pounds after original winner Isabela Dragneva of Bulgaria failed a drug test, she apparently will compete this time against one of China's top weightlifters.

Perhaps the only surprise was China didn't choose 19-year-old Wang Mingjuan, the two-time defending world champion at 105 1/2 (48 kg), but Li Zhuo, who beat out Wang before this spring's Asian championships. Zhuo set world records in both the snatch and the clean and jerk in September, but Wang won the world championship two months later in Vancouver.

``With the Chinese team, this girl is as good as the other one is,'' Cunningham, of Mount Pleasant, Mich., said Monday in a telephone interview. ``They're interchangeable. They're all very good.''

Because no country can enter athletes in more than four of the seven classes in Olympic weightlifting, China is sitting down former Olympic and multiple-world champions for Athens. Tang Gonghong was chosen over returning champion Ding Meiyuan at 165 pounds-plus, even though Ding, at 20, was the youngest Olympic weightlifting champion in history at Sydney.

China, which won five of the six weight classes it entered in last year's world championships, also chose to bench former world champion Liu Xia at 138 1/2 pounds and four-time world champion Sun Caiyan at 128 pounds.

China's Olympic team announcement was scheduled for last week, but was delayed until the weekend because its coaches found the decisions so difficult.

Still, Cunningham said weightlifting is such an individual sport that athletes often are oblivious to what other competitors are doing.

``You're really only competing against yourself,'' said Cunningham, who has gotten married since the 2000 Olympics. ``It's not like a soccer game. If I go and set personal records, I'll be happy because I did the best I could do.''

U.S. women's coach Michael Cohen said China's decision to enter Zhuo at 105 1/2 pounds will make it harder for everyone, not just Cunningham, to win the gold, but could lighten the field.

``In 2000, their girl at 48 was probably 25 kilos better than anybody, and why they didn't send anybody there, I don't know,'' Cohen said. ``But countries may see now that China is there and say, `There's no way we can win,' and hold back some lifters (for another class). It's a double-edged sword.''

Cohen was more surprised with China's decision to bench Ding, which he said could benefit returning bronze medalist Cheryl Ann Haworth of Savannah, Ga. The competition has increased significantly at super heavyweight since Haworth took third place at age 17 in Sydney.

``As far as I'm concerned, as Cheryl's coach, Ding is a proven pressure lifter and has never been beaten,'' Cohen said. ``Tang has a history of faltering and she doesn't have the savvy that Ding has. If I had my druthers, I'd rather have Tang in there.

``There are six super heavyweights that can win and, without question, it's the tightest, thickest, deepest class in the Olympics, male or female,'' he said. ``When I saw their starting four, I called Cheryl and she was excited. The only thing I can think of is there has got to be an injury (to Ding) involved.''

In other pre-Olympics weightlifting news, defending men's super heavyweight champion Hossein Rezazadeh set an unofficial world record last week during a training session by raising 583 pounds in the clean and jerk, or nearly five pounds more than his own record.

Rezazadeh surprised two former Olympic champions, Andrei Chemerkin of Russia and Ronny Weller of Germany, to win in Sydney and has since won two world championships.