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No weight too tough

Talha Talib’s journey to Olympics highlights the talent hiding in the shadows waiting for recognition

By Nabil Tahir |
PUBLISHED August 01, 2021
KARACHI:

Imagine a hockey team preparing on a grass field for the Olympics, which will be held on AstroTurf. How will the players adjust to the change in the conditions? What results do you expect from them? Well, unfortunately, the Pakistani Hockey team wasn't able to make it to the Olympics, but a young Weightlifting athlete was. Despite having no international standard equipment, not only did he make his debut on the big stage but he also gave a tough time to his fellow competitors.

This is a story of 22-year-old Pakistani weightlifter Talha Talib, who finished at 5th place in the Weightlifting competition of 67kg category – falling back just 2kg from a bronze medal – and also defeated the Olympic Gold medalist China's Lijun Chen in the Snatch by 5kg.

Talib lifted 150kg in Snatch while Chen was able to lift 145kg, whereas, in the C&J event, Chen lifted 17kg more than Talha's (170kg), making Talha's aggregate total 320kg lift. Talib made all of this possible without access to international standard equipment and a proper gym as he trained in a partial school-turned-gym.

Hailing from Gujranwala, a city of Punjab well-known for wrestling, judo and weightlifting athletes, Talib is a son of a former Pakistani weightlifter and was coached by Naveed Aslam Malik and his brother, the former Olympian Arshad Malik, who competed at Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976 Olympics, which was the last time Pakistan was represented in a weightlifting competition at the Olympics.

After Naveed’s death, he was trained at the national camp under three coaches till 2018, when the camp ended and his father took the responsibility to train him. Since then, Talib, prepared under rudimentary conditions inside a room at a school-converted gym with some basic equipment and secured the invitational quota following his extraordinary performances in 13 international competitions, with five being the Olympic qualifiers.

 

God-gifted talent

Talib has grown up watching his father perform weightlifting. His father, Muhammad Islam Natiq, a passionate weightlifter to represent Pakistan, had to leave the competition early during the 1999 South Asian Games. “I was selected by a Belgian coach after impressing him with my style and speed. This resulted in my selection for the 1999 South Asian Games however, I sustained a shoulder injury. But that same year, I was also gifted with Talha," Islam, who was a National Junior Weightlifting Champion and also won a Bronze medal at the Asian Powerlifting 1999, told The Express Tribune.

According to Islam, although he was a weightlifter, he never imagined or wished his children to be in the same sport. “To be honest, I didn't know Talha would become a weightlifter someday. I still remember I took Talha to the weightlifting club for the first time at the age of two. It's unbelievable, but instead of playing with the other kids there, he went straight in where the bars were placed and tried to pick them up,” he said.

“Since then, I often took him to the club with me. But as he grew up, his interest in weightlifting increased. Sometimes, without my knowing it, he used to follow me to the club and lifted weights. There was a time when we were searching him everywhere, and he was in the club,” recalled Islam.

When Talha was only six, Naveed talked to Islam about the talent he saw in Talib of becoming a top weightlifter of Pakistan and competing internationally someday. “It was his eye that captured Talha's talent. I was not able to see that but he did. He said that Talha has a god-gifted talent in weightlifting and from that day he started working on him,” said Islam.

 

Breaking records

After Naveed started training Talha, he was all set to take the professional training for weightlifting in the next two years. At the age of eight, Talha began his professional training under Naveed, made age-group records, and won his first local title in 2008.

Ever since Talha became a professional weightlifter, he made multiple junior and age-group records - a feat that he carried till date. “His interest in the sport and the intense training he did resulted in Talha lifting 22kg in C&J when he weighed 16kg. He continued to lift more than his own body weight,” said Islam.

At the age of 11, Talha took part in the under-14 National Championship in Lahore in 2011. He was participating in the 40kg category but when he was weighted, he turned out to be 31 kg and still won a gold medal. While recalling the championship, Talha told The Express Tribune that the other weightlifters laughed at him after watching his weight. “I lifted 44kg when I weighed 31kg and that surprised everyone,” he said.

The stories of his dedication are no secret. He used to get up at night for Tahajjud prayers and then trained till Fajr prayers.

Talha, over the last six years, has continuously improved his performance. He began lifting 102kg Snatch, 115kg C&J an aggregate of 217kg in 56kg category in 2015 to 150kg Snatch, 170kg C&J, and 320kg total weight. This increase of 103kg was not an easy or smooth journey for Talha. During this time, he broke multiple records and had to face numerous issues but he kept going.

The increase in his weight every year was unreal and unusual for any Pakistani weightlifter. In the year 2018, when Talha was preparing for the Commonwealth Games 2018, the national camp ended and that is when his father took on the responsibility of training him further.

 

Limited Facilities

Although Talha was a dedicated athlete, he was not provided with the international standard equipment since the beginning. First, he trained at the local club, then at the national camp, and eventually had to train in a school that was also taken away from him just before the Olympics, so he had to prepare at his home.

Talha, who has won six each Gold, Silver and Bronze medals for Pakistan in international competitions, often got cash prizes from Pakistan Sports Board (PSB), who he used to buy equipment for training.

“Altogether, we have received around 2.5 million rupees from all the competitions. We have used that money to buy equipment and clear our dues. The place, after 2018, was provided by the owner of the school where Talha studied from primary to eighth grade,” said Islam.

“The owner of the school Chaudhry Mubashir Tung, who was also the president of Star Weightlifting Club, didn't ask for a single penny from us from 2018 to 2021. However, he eventually had to shut down his school due to financial losses. If we had to pay for that place, it would have been a monthly expense of Rs50,000,” he added.

 

Spurred on by victory

Since 2012, Talha was contracted for the WAPDA fund under which he used to get a Rs500 stipend during competitions. “But to keep him going, Naveed and I used to give him a trophy, chocolates or other small gifts whenever he increased his lifted weight. We continued this from 2012 till 2015 before he played his first competition,” said Islam.

After winning a silver medal at the 2015 Commonwealth Youth Games, WAPDA contracted him for a monthly stipend of Rs10,000 at the age of 16. “At that moment, he asked me if he wins more medals, will his stipend increase. This motivated him, and once he turned 18, WAPDA increased his monthly stipend,” said Islam.

 

No job, no sponsors

When he turned 18, he expected to get a permanent job at WAPDA whom he had served for five years however, he was kept on the same contract. “From 2015 till date, he is still on contract. It was GECPO's job to get him a permanent job at WAPDA, but they failed to do so,” said Islam.

This worried Talha a bit, that if new management comes at WAPDA, they might end his contract, or as he was at the position of line superintendent, so if they call him up for duty, he will have to leave the games and go serve the department.

“The permanent job really matters. The stipend I get from WAPDA is used to run the household. If that gets stopped for whatsoever reason, it will be challenging for me to run daily affairs and focus on my training,” said Talha.

Talha, who has won six medals each of gold, silver and bronze, is still searching for a permanent and big sponsor. “All the other players at the Olympics had several sponsors for their kits and finances, but here Talha was alone. Sponsors play a big role. If an athlete is well financially backed, he can concentrate more on his training and achieve more for his country,” said Islam.

According to Islam, Talha's most prominent sponsor is Tung, who gave him a place to train for three years and then PWF, who has never said no to providing funds for the competitions with PSB and POA support.

“This is one good thing about the PWF, PSB and POA that they have never said no to Talha. Whenever he is to go to international competitions, he is provided with the funds. Still, there is a lot of room for a big sponsor. Unfortunately, we live in an industrial hub, where there are big factories and businessmen, but they are yet to consider Talha as a deserving athlete for a sponsor,” explained Islam.

 

A student in search of teachers

Talha, who had his last education in matriculation, couldn't continue his studies due to the clashes between the exams and competition dates. “Talha took admission in intermediate but during the exams dates, he had international competitions," said Islam.

“This is a drawback in our system. Talha was a brilliant student and wanted to pursue his further studies, but unfortunately the Punjab Board couldn't help him as there was no policy for the national athletes. I recommend that the board either give some leverage in the dates for the athlete or they should form an academy at the national camps and give them grace marks if they miss exams,” he suggested.

 

The rise of 'Talha Babu'

As Talha started winning the local championships, he started to be known by the name Talha Babu - a nickname that was given to him by her sister. “He got famous by this name. Everyone in the area and community started calling him by this name, which was his first title,” told Islam.

Four years later, the big day for him finally came when he was called and selected for his first international competition, the 2015 Commonwealth Youth Games but he couldn't celebrate much. “Talha's coach, Naveed, referred us to the president of Pakistan Weightlifting Federation, Hafiz Imran Malik, for the trials of Commonwealth Youth Games. We went there and gave trails, and Talha was selected.”

“Unfortunately, at the same time, Naveed got seriously ill and was admitted to the hospital. Just two days before Talha's departure, Naveed passed away. Naveed was so involved with Talha that when he was in ICU, his son came out and told us that his father is training Talha in his unconsciousness," he said.

However, Talha, who stayed focused, went to the competition, won a silver medal, and set a national record in the Commonwealth Youth Games. “The pressure of playing my first international competition was there. I was worried about how I will represent my country there. With the help of prayers, I won a medal and also set a record, which was a huge achievement for me and a proud moment for my coaches,” said then 15-year-old Talha, who lifted 102kg in Snatch and 115kg in C&J an aggregate of 217kg in 56kg category to win silver.

Islam said that at that time, after watching Talha's performance, Paul Coffa, the Australian coach, predicted that this boy will be a top Commonwealth Game athlete.

From then on, there was no stopping for Talha. After Naveed’s death, Talha was sent to the national camp under the coaching of the son of the PWF President Imran, Irfan Imran Butt, along with Ali Aslam and Illyas Butt, who worked on further polishing his talent till the end of 2018 when the camp was called off due to financial issues.

Under Imran, Talha became one of the best Pakistani players in the history of Commonwealth Youth Championships and won two gold medals and four each silver and bronze medals. The rest he won under his father training. Talha also shifted from 56kg to 62kg and then to the 67kg category under Imran.

 

Qualifying for Tokyo

After playing in eight international competitions, Talha decided to shift from 62kg to 67kg category Olympics qualification. “It was time for targeting the Olympics. He wanted to prepare for the 67kg category, and that is what I did. We focused on his diet and on lifting more weight smoothly,” said Islam.

The Olympics qualification was based on the International Weightlifting Federation's (IWF) ranking of the player in each continent. Talha was targeting to lift the heaviest weight to gain Asia's qualification.

Talha won five international competitions from 2018 to 2021 but could not top the charts as he missed two contests. One the 13th South Asian Games as it was not considered for qualification and other Asian Junior Weightlifting Championship 2019 as he missed his connecting flight from Beijing due flights delay following bad weather.

 

Olympic Invitation

As Talib was declared the best athlete in the 67kg category of the Commonwealth Games and had won bronze at the last competition, the PWF requested the Pakistan Olympic Association. He talked to the International Olympic Community to consider Talah's recent records and invite him to the Olympics on the Tripartite Commission quota.

“The IOC was kind enough to consider Talah's achievement and grant him the quota invitation. This was all due to the substantial support that Talha got from the President PWF, Imran, who was a national youth champion at the age of 12,” said Islam.

For Talha, this was a dream come true. “Every athlete dreams of playing at the Olympics, and this was all because of all the hard work that my coaches, father and president Imran did to make me who I am today,” said Talha.

 

The Olympic Feat

Talha, who made his debut at the Summer Tokyo Olympics 2020, left a considerable mark by finishing at the fifth spot and beating the Olympic gold medalist in Snatch.

“I thank Allah and the nation who prayed for me,” said the star weightlifter. “I am grateful to the PWF and the POA. I dedicate my success to the nation. Soaring Pakistan's flag up high was a proud moment for me.”

Talha said that he was not nervous about performing at the Olympics. “The learning I got from performing at the big stage, but I was not nervous as I had already faced all the weightlifters in different competitions, and I was happy that I defeated Chan in Snatch," he said, adding that there is still a long way to go.

 

New equipment and next target

After Talha made it to the Olympics, the PSB has provided us with a dedicated area at the Shahbaz Sharif Gymnasium in Gujranwala with all the international standard equipment. “The accuracy of the international equipment is very high. He can now perform the same internationally as he does at home,” said Islam.

Talking about his next target, Islam said he will now aim for 325kg or 330kg for the upcoming Commonwealth Championship to be held in October in Singapore, and then for the world record in Snatch by lifting more than the current record of 155kg.

 

A journey against all odds

2008 - started Weightlifting training

2011 – Played first gold at U14 National Championship

2015 – Made international debut at Commonwealth Youth Championship winning silver medal in 56kg category (102kg in Snatch, 115kg in C&J, 217kg total)

62kg Category events

2016 Oct – 9th at 2016 Commonwealth Weightlifting Championship in 62kg category (240kg total)

2016 Nov – 2 Silver, 2 bronze at Asian Youth and Junior Championship 2016, Tokyo. (Snatch 117kg, C&J 138kg, 255kg total) - Won four medals including two silver in Snatch (117kg) and total lift (255kg) and a bronze in C&J (138kg) of 62kg category at Asian Youth and a bronze in Asian Junior by lifting 117kg in Snatch.

2017 May – 7th place at Islamic Solidarity Games 2017 in Baku (253kg total) - The next year, 2017 was the only year when he made no improvement. During the Islamic Solidarity Games 2017 in Baku, Talha got injured after lifting total of 253kg to finish at 7th place. He was also the youngest weightlifter in those games.

2017 Sept – Gold medal in Commonwealth Junior Championship (126kg Snatch, 146kg C&J, 272kg total)

2017 Sept – Silver medal in Commonwealth Senior Championship (126kg Snatch, 146kg C&J, 272kg total) - At Commonwealth Junior and Senior Championship 2017 won gold medal in Junior and a silver in senior. Talha lifted 19kg more than his last competition. He lifted an aggregate of 272kg (126kg Snatch, 146kg C&J) both in junior and senior events.

2018 April – Bronze medal and national record in Snatch at Commonwealth Games (132kg Snatch, 151kg C&J, 283kg total) - Won a bronze medal and made a national record in Snatch category by lifting 132kg and 151kg in C&J to end with a total of 283kg (11kg more than last competition).

2018 Aug – 3 national records and 7th place at 17th Asian Games (133kg Snatch, 154kg C&J, 287kg total) – He lifted 133kg in Snatch and 154kg in C&J to end with 287kg total which was a record in all three in 62kg category and finished 7th.

Olympics Qualifications and 67kg category events

The Olympics qualification was based on the International Weightlifting Federation’s (IWF) ranking of the player in each continent. Talha was targeting to lift the heaviest weight to gain Asia’s qualification.

2018 Sept – Shift to 67kg category for Olympics

2018 Dec – 1 gold, 2 silver and 3 national records at 5th Islamic Solidarity Weightlifting Championship (136kg Snatch, 155kg C&J, 291kg total) - Talha made another three new national records as he won three medals, one gold medal in Snatch by lifting 136kg in 67kg category while a silver in C&J by lifting 155kg weight. He also won another silver medal by successful lifting 291kg of total weight.

2019 April – 5th at 2019 Asian Weightlifting Championship (140kg Snatch, 164kg C&J, 304kg total)  - Talha made the entry of the Championship by 295kg and ended up in lifting 304kg. He lifted 140kg in Snatch and 164kg in C&J. He also made a junior world record attempt but failed to do so and ended up at 5th position in the event.

2019 Oct – Missed Asian Junior Weightlifting Championship 2019 (Missed connecting flight due to bad weather) He missed the connecting flight from Beijing. He was traveling to Korea, but due to bad weather condition, the flight from Islamabad to Beijing was delayed that made him missed the connecting flight to Korea

2019 Dec – Gold medal at 13th South Asian Games 2019 (This tournament was not considered as Olympic qualifier)

2019 Dec – Best Weightlifter in South Asia

At the 13th South Asian Games 2019 in December he won gold medal for Pakistan, but unfortunately the Games were not considered for Olympics and Talha missed a clear chance of qualification. He was declared as the best weightlifter in South Asia.

2020 Feb – 3 gold medals at 6th International Solidarity Championship (142kg Snatch, 162kg C&J, 304kg total) - He kept his old record with 142kg in Snatch and 162kg in C&J to end with total of 304kg and win three gold medals for Pakistan in all three.

2021 April – Bronze medal at 2020 Asian Weightlifting Championship (148kg Snatch, 167kg  C&J, 315kg total) - 2020 Asian Weightlifting Championship which was scheduled to be held in April 2020 but was postponed due to COVID and then was rescheduled for April 2021 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Talha scored 148kg in Snatch to win bronze medal missed two bronze as he lifted 167kg in C&J and 315kg total weight which was just 1kg behind the Uzbekistan’s Adkhamjon Ergashev.

2021 April – Finished Olympic Qualification campaign at 4th in Asia, 7th in world.

2021 June – Gets the invitation on Tripartite Commission quota

2021 July – 5th place at 2020 Summer Tokyo Olympics (150kg Snatch, 170kg C&J, 320kg total)