After 21 years of raising the bar, the first woman ever to compete in weightlifting at the Olympics is still going.
Loa Dika Toua of Papua New Guinea was the first athlete to step on stage when women's weightlifting made its debut at the 2000 Sydney Games. She was first up on Saturday morning in Tokyo for her fifth Olympics, setting a record for a woman in her sport.
“It’s an amazing feeling. You know, when you think about the Olympic Games, your dream is to go to one and maybe the second one," Toua said. "I’ve never imagined in a million years I’d make it to my fifth.”
The 37-year-old Toua's Olympic journey has taken her to Australia, Greece, China, Britain and now Japan, with a best result of sixth at the 2004 Athens Games. She only missed out on the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, when she stepped aside to give her sister a shot at qualifying in the lightest category. When her sister's bid was thwarted by financial problems, that spurred Toua to come back and try for Tokyo, where she finished 10th.
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Two of the women competing against Toua in the 49-kilogram category were born in 2002, when Toua was already an Olympian. One of them, 19-year-old Windy Cantika Aisah of Indonesia, won a bronze medal on Saturday.
Chinese lifter Hou Zhihui earned gold. The 2018 world champion lifted a total of 210 kilograms in the snatch and the clean and jerk. Chanu Saikhom Mirabai of India took silver by lifting 202. Aisah lifted 194.
American competitor Jourdan Delacruz was third after the snatch but didn't record a valid lift in the clean and jerk.
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China is in contention for a possible clean sweep of gold medals in all eight weightlifting events it has entered. The team's chances have been helped by doping sanctions which restrict the roster size of some traditional powers and by North Korea's decision not to compete in Tokyo because of coronavirus concerns.
Hou finished 3 kilograms off her own world record total, but said she was happy to leave that for another day.
“I just wanted to enjoy the Games. I don’t care about the world record or something,” Hou said through a translator. “I just want to be myself, be all of myself."
Toua competed Saturday after only five hours of sleep after carrying her country's flag at Friday's opening ceremony. She marked her first successful lift in the snatch by forming a heart with her hands, and celebrated her clean and jerk lift — making her an official finisher — with a shriek and a double fist pump.
Unlike most athletes in the Olympic bubble, she's got family with her because her coach is her husband. Having no crowd makes little difference, she said.
“When you are up on the stage, you sort of like block yourself and you put yourself in a bubble where it’s just you and the weight on the platform,” she said.
Toua joins a group of record-breaking female Olympians in Tokyo. There's Georgian shooter Nino Salukvadze, who will be the first woman at nine Olympics in any sport and who made her debut for the Soviet Union in 1988. And age-defying gymnast Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan, who is still vaulting at 46.
Hiromi Miyake of Japan was another female weightlifter making her fifth Olympic appearance on Saturday. She started her Olympic career at the 2004 Athens Games but couldn't end on a high note in her last competition before retirement after failing to record a valid clean and jerk lift.
The one-year delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic means Toua only has to hold on three more years to reach her sixth Olympics, and she hasn't ruled out coming back for the 2024 Paris Games.
“I’m not getting any younger," she said, "but I will take it one step at a time.”
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