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Originally published August 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 20, 2008 at 11:46 AM

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Ron Judd

A touching Olympic moment that wasn't to be missed

So you love the drama of the Olympics. You can't take NBC's Today-Show-From-Yesterday canned prime time approach. And you're working during...

Seattle Times staff columnist

So you love the drama of the Olympics. You can't take NBC's Today-Show-From-Yesterday canned prime time approach. And you're working during the day, when lesser sports are broadcast on cable.

Solution: Set your recorder to MSNBC or, if you have it, Universal HD (which often simulcasts MSNBC coverage in full, glorious HD) and just let it run through the daytime coverage.

It's like watching a different Olympics. A better one. The real one. Nothing less than a spectacle of incredible sports. No features. No interviews. Just action.

Sometimes it drags. But it jumps around between sports just enough to keep you interested.

And sometimes, you literally strike gold.

Tuesday morning, the network jumped over to men's weightlifting, heavyweight division, where one of those memorable Olympic moments was unfolding on the lifting platform.

Three heavyweight lifters, from Germany, Russia and Latvia, were locked in a duel in the clean-and-jerk final, alternating at attempts to lift upward of 550 pounds over their heads. The concept in itself is stunning. How often do you ever really see something like that?

The weights are so heavy that the thick, hardened steel barbell holding them bends like a Q-tip when the lifters hoist them to their massive shoulders. The combination of brute strength, mental focus and lightning-quick reflexes required to get that much weight 8 feet off the ground is astonishing. I've seen it in person, and it was even more amazing.

The heavyweights weren't expected to be a big story in Beijing. A lot of the air went out of this contest when Iranian super lifter Hossein Rezazadeh, the two-time defending gold medalist, retired from the sport in July, citing injuries. But as is often the case, another athlete with his own compelling story filled that void.

He walked out of the tunnel and into the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics Gymnasium wearing a black singlet and a red T-shirt. Matthias Steiner, 25, of Germany is a concrete block of a man with a boyish face and massive shoulders.

He had been trading ooh-and-awe-inspiring lifts with opponents Evgeny Chigishev of Russia and Viktors Scerbatihs of Latvia, the latter the event favorite. Each lifter, with his highest snatch and clean-and-jerk lifts combined, had hoisted more than 1,000 pounds in the competition.

Steiner decided to put everything on the line for his last clean-and-jerk. He set up the weights for 258 kilograms — 568.8 pounds. Even America's greatest strongman, NBC commentator Shane Hamman, was impressed with the cargo: "That's like putting the entire U.S. gymnastics team up there," Hammond said in his Oklahoma drawl.

Steiner squatted, stared, gripped, released, re-gripped, and then, with a ferocious grunt, cleaned the weight gracefully off the floor and onto his thick shoulders. He paused and regrouped, but the jerk — the clearing of the weight over his head — was never in question.

Once that weight went up, Steiner owned it. With his elbows locked, grimacing, he took a step, squared his feet, and held it for a second beyond the drop signal from the officials, just to show how much he had left.

When the weight went down, the curtain went up for Steiner, an Austrian by birth and plumber by trade who sat out three years of competition to become Olympic eligible for Germany.

He collapsed to the floor over the weights. He wailed, raised his arms in triumph, then leapt around the stage, a man possessed.

Steiner screamed. He cried. He embraced his coach, and together, they danced like children in Beijing.

As he exulted, broadcasters told his story: Steiner's past year had been an emotional hell on earth, after his young wife of two years was killed in a car accident.

When Steiner went to the medal stand, he didn't go alone. He had tears in his eyes, and clutched in one hand a snapshot of his wife, Susann.

The 6-foot, 321-pound hulk suddenly looked so fragile, so human.

He had promised the gold medal to his wife.

"There was so much emotion that I cannot describe," Steiner told reporters. "It was, after a few weeks last year, a big motivation to fight for the gold medal. For her. For friends, for family."

It was heartbreaking and wonderful all at once. It's why we watch the Olympic Games. It's a shame we don't see more of their many moments like this, through the lights, noise and hype.

Ron Judd: rjudd@seattletimes.com. Read his Olympics Insider blog at www.seattletimes.com/Olympics

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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