September 8, 2000


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Meet the world's strongest woman

Andy O'Brien

THE title of the world's strongest woman is a big one to carry, especially for a shy teenager from the high country of Poland. But Agata Wrobel has strong shoulders.

At 19, the Polish teenager seems too young to have such a mantle, but she has held more tonnage above her head than any other woman in the short history of women's weightlifting.

When the first World championships of women’s weightlifting were held at Florida's Daytona Beach in 1987, it was a significant moment for the sport, which will be rivalled by the events in nine days, when women make their Olympic weightlifting debut.

Holding centre stage in the prestigious super-heavyweight (75-plus kg) division will be the 118kg frame of Wrobel.

"I don't consider myself the strongest woman in the world yet - - I will have to wait and see what happens in the competition," Wrobel said from the team's training camp in Melbourne suburban gym.

"I think I have a good chance of winning the gold; I've got the European and world record, so I am in with a chance."

The world record Wrobel is talking about is a startling one.

At the World Junior Championships in Prague two months ago she became the first woman ever to lift 130kg in the snatch discipline.

Her combined total of the snatch and clean and jerk was 290kg, another figure never before reached by a woman.

She has reportedly broken that record since at a Polish competition putting together a snatch of 130 and clean and jerk of 162.5kg.

The lifts were not recognised by the International Weightlifting Federation because of a technicality, so the records remain in Chinese hands.

Wrobel has only risen to the top of her sport in the past six months, overtaking Chinese lifter Mei Yuan Ding by the slightest of margins.

The Chinese have dominated women's weightlifting for much of the decade.

It is only Wrobel's presence and the fact that each Olympic team is restricted to four women, while there are seven weight divisions, that will prevent a Chinese clean sweep.

Wrobel comes from a mountain town called Zywiec where, according to her interpreter, "Many strong women are grown. The air is clean and the food, milk and water are fresh, which all contributes."

She began lifting weights after watching the men compete at Atlanta and learning the door would be open for women in Sydney.

And now she’s here.

With no government in their country, Somalia rallies under banner of sports

Somalia, which hasn't had a government for nine years, is sending a small team of seven athletes - - six runners and one tennis player - - to the 2000 Olympic Games. None of the athletes have any realistic chance of winning medals in Sydney, nor has any Somali ever won an Olympic medal. But if the country’s participation helps uplift the national spirit and put Somalia back on the world map, their contribution may be worth more than gold.

Abdisamad Hussein Jumale, 18, took tennis lessons from his uncle, Ali, from the time he was three years old. Then one day, Ali was shot to death on the tennis court, a victim of Somalia's brutal clan war. Now, Abdisamad, the two-time Somali tennis champion, is heading to the Olympic Games to represent a country that technically doesn't exist. "I'll go to Sydney in the name of Somalia and in the name of my uncle," he said.

Since 1991, when the former dictator Siad Barre fled Somalia, the country has been ravaged by clan warfare and mired in anarchy. Once a stunningly beautiful seaside capital, Mogadishu is smashed.

But the otherwise hopelessly divided country is united in its love of sports. In the ruins of Mogadishu, children can always be seen playing soccer. The only public offices that have survived the war are the numerous sports federations, promoting everything from table tennis to basketball.

Some people now believe that sports can succeed where politics have failed. Seeing the old Somali flag - - blue with a white star in the middle - - at the Olympic Games may unite Somalis, and even help them forge a government. So far, only one of the athletes, 1,500 meter-runner Ibrahim Mohamud Aden, who is based in Europe, has actually qualified for the Olympic event, since none of the Somalia-based athletes have had a chance to travel abroad this year to earn a qualifying time in a major competition.

In fact, the Somali Olympic Committee asked for special permission from the International Olympic Committee to send all of its athletes. When Abukar Ahmed Mohamed showed up at the national stadium for soccer practice one day last year, the track and field coach there asked him if he wanted to compete in a 1,500-meter championship race. Abukar agreed — and proceeded to win the race.

Twenty days later, Abukar flew to Jordan for the All-Arab Games, where he finished the marathon in 14th place in a field of more than 100 runners, despite the fact that he had to run in sprinting spikes. He says he has no doubt that he would perform better if he had better support.

The sole female athlete on the team, Safia Abukar Hussein, who will run 400 meters in Sydney, wants to show that women also belong in sports. Female athletes are often frowned upon in Somalia, which is strictly Muslim and male-dominated.

"The old men have a very poor mentality," Safia said. "They sometimes tell me, 'It's demeaning for a woman to run around in the street. Why do you humiliate yourself? You should stay at home, and sweep the house instead of running around in pants and a shirt.' "

The team faces other hardships. There are no doctors in Mogadishu. None of the athletes has even heard of a physical therapist. Finances are tight. "I have no other job," said Abukar.

The Somali mission to Sydney is financed almost entirely by donations from local businessmen, but the athletes receive no commercial sponsorships.

The International Olympic Committee is supposed to pay for six athletes and two delegates to go to Sydney. That means the SOC will also have to come up with the money for two more plane tickets.

Abdisamad, the tennis player, used to receive instructional videos from the United States. Sometimes he had to go over to a friend to watch videos instead of going to the court to practice.

"I would come to the court and there would be gunfire," he said. "So I had to come back the next day. Once I couldn’t play for four months."

Abdisamad, who ranks his serve and topspin forehand as his best shots, hasn’t heard of Pete Sampras. But he said that if Sampras is the best player in the world, then Abdisamad wants to be him.

The athletes are from different clans. When they meet at the Benadir Stadium, the armed militias from rival clans also gather outside to watch - - and, for a moment rare in the last decade in Somalia, train their eyes on the Olympic hopefuls rather than on other clansmen.

That is what sport can do. It brings everyone together.


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