“I never thought there will be this kind of reaction and support in Pakistan when I was lifting in the Olympics,” a very calm Talha Talib reflects while being exhausted and sleepless after his record-making performance at the Tokyo Olympics. A feat he worked hard for while training at a make-shift gym without quality equipment, with his father and his loved ones.
The 21-year-old became the first weightlifter for Pakistan on July 25 to compete in weightlifting after more than four decades. Talha was aware of the importance and his lack of resources compared to the top weightlifters he was up against, but he wanted to make Pakistan proud and did his best, taking the early lead in the event. He led the board with more than 10kg, but finished fifth only missing out on the bronze medal by two kilograms.
Talha’s determination to even chase the Olympics dream was courageous as he did not have the resources to compete in enough international events but also faced an eviction notice for the make-shift gym he was training at. The systemic lags in providing good equipment and facilities to him made his road a tougher one, but he stood firmly in the face of adversity.
“I just want to thank everyone who cheered for me and supported me. I’m very grateful. But I want to say that please don’t wait for the next 45 years to see another weightlifter at the Olympics,” Talha told The Express Tribune. “Do more for sports, for weightlifting, do more for all the sports, but for weightlifting please make sure there is not just me. I should not be the only one at the top. We need nurseries, we need to nurture the talent. I came from a youth system. I have seen a lot of hard days, lots of tough times, even when I was young and alone at the national camp in Lahore. I have even spent two years in Lahore alone, no matter what the season was, what the circumstances were, but I really worked hard for this. I just want to say, please don’t wait for another 45 years. We need constant support and consistent facilities and promotion for younsgters, please.
“This two-kg difference was not much and could have been covered had I gotten proper facilities and resources.”
Talha is a South Asian Games gold-medallist, as he lifted 150 in snatch, and 170 in clean and jerk to accumulate a total of 320 in the ongoing Olympics. He created a national record for the best total in 67kg and also the best snatch and best clean and jerk by any athlete from Pakistan.
“My snatch was always good, even when I was a kid. It has always been something I enjoyed too,” said Talha over the phone as he reflected back on his performance. His snatch was text-book and second best in the competition to Colombia’s Luis Javier Mosquera who took silver on the podium with a total of 331. China’s Chen Lijun made the Olympic record with 332kg and bagged the gold medal although his snatch was just 145kg, he took the lead in clean and jerk, while Italy’s Mirko Zanni lifted a total of 322kg to grab the bronze medal.
“This was a good snatch total in Pakistan because only Nooh Dastgir Butt lifts more than this and he is in the heaviest category. I know this means that I have made national records, South Asian and I think Commonwealth too, so I am happy. Even my father used to have this thing about him, he was good at snatch, maybe I took it after him, so snatch is my strength,” said the Commonwealth Games record holder.
Talha was without a proper coach as the Pakistan Weightlifting Federation chief Hafiz Imran Butt accompanied him. At one point he looked alone on the screen during the competition, and it felt a great disjoint as he was without his father Muhammad Islam Natiq, who has been training him and also was by his side at the Asian Championship in Tashkent in April, where Talha took the bronze medal with 148kg in snatch.
Talha’s performance was even more of a surprise because he was one of the three athletes to arrive in Tokyo late from the contingent due to flight schedule. He barely had three days to even get accustomed to the environment. Talha flew for Tokyo from Lahore on July 21, which makes the feat even bigger, if one looks at the nitty-gritty.
Making a statement
While Talha needed two to three-member coaching staff, which was not available to him, he missed his father, but carried his teaching in the heart.
“I was thinking about my father and my family and that I need to just lift the best weight I can. However, the total I had in my mind, I couldn’t achieve. But that is fine. We don’t get what we want all the time. But yes, my father had been training me, and usually the person who has been coaching an athlete consistently proves to be a good coach at the event too, in order to tell us where we need to push. We need a few people for coordination, looking at the score and calculating, but this was good too, I recruited someone special for help,” said Talha.
The world saw a Palestinian official helping Talha at the event. This was not something that happened on the spot.
Talha said he wanted the official from Palestine to stand with him as he wanted to show the solidarity with the Palestinians who have been traumatized and oppressed by the Israeli Defense Forces since earlier this year, even during the holy month of Ramadan.
The idea to have a Palestinian coach came from Natiq, who suggested that he should get trained briefly from the Palestinian official while Natiq himself could not be there.
“I wanted to make this statement that we are with the Palestinians. We Pakistanis stand with them and the official that everyone saw was with another team. But we trained with each other for two days, and I am so grateful for this. My father came up with this idea as he knows what I feel and how I can perform,” explain Talha.
The Gujranwala-based athlete said that he had great camaraderie with Mosquera at the event, while his heart went to the weightlifter who got disqualified. He feels the connection with other athletes is important and one needs to pick others up.
“I felt bad for the Turkish weightlifter and the French weightlifter. It is so hard for an athlete to even accept in that moment what had happened. I was sad for them,” said Talha.
Conquering the world on his mind
Talha’s next targets are South Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and the World Championships next year and beyond.
“Each athlete grows in stages and the targets move and change with each stage. My dream is to win nothing less than gold in the South Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games and go for the World Championship because there are three medals up for grabs in the championship.
“The biggest lesson for me from Olympics is that roads do open if I work hard enough, and there is no substitute to hard work,” said Talha.
He added that now he is more confident with higher morale for the events to come.
“I think my hard work helps, but weightlifting is about constant effort. Top weightlifters have to train 365 days a year, no short-cuts, no excuses, and that is the key to success,” concluded Talha as he went on to have a physiotherapy session at the Olympic Village.
He will return on July 29 from Tokyo.
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