2018 Asian Games, Tokyo 2020 Old clashes with new as Indonesian weightlifters go for gold

Indonesia hands huge bonuses and lifetime pensions to athletes who win Olympic medals.

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Weightlifting is gaining Indonesia large medal hauls in international competitions but lags behind badminton in popularity play

Weightlifting is gaining Indonesia large medal hauls in international competitions but lags behind badminton in popularity

(AFP)
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Inside a spartan weightlifting gym in Indonesia, teenagers chalk their hands, grit their teeth and thrust faded metal barbells above their heads, hopeful of Olympic glory.

Many of Indonesia's sporting legends were bred in small-town clubs, whipped into shape by old-school coaches and relentless training.

But as Indonesia strives to increase its gold-medal haul at the 2018 Asian Games and Tokyo 2020, there's a push to modernise such sports.

The import of foreign expertise and an unprecedented focus on nutrition and rehabilitation was credited with Indonesia's weightlifters bagging two silver medals at the Rio Games.

The podium finishes gave weightlifting a much-needed publicity boost.

"Indonesia has a lot of talent in weightlifting," national team manager Alamsyah Wijaya told AFP.

"It's time for us to promote that to the world."

But the sport still struggles to attract the funding and fan base enjoyed by badminton -- Indonesia's main medal earner, and a source of national pride.

In weightlifting, hopes for gold in major championships are pinned on a crop of promising youngsters emerging from threadbare academies across the country.

The federation is trying to lure these budding stars to the capital Jakarta, where tailored exercise programs ensure they have their best shot at building strength, avoiding injury and winning medals.

It can be a challenge getting some young lifters to leave their beloved hometown clubs for the big smoke, Wijaya said, and even harder to convince their coaches to let them go.

Legendary school

Things are still done the old-fashioned way at weightlifting clubs across Lampung, a forested province in Sumatra famed for developing top-class lifters.

Of the 10 Olympic weightlifting medals won by Indonesia, a staggering seven were claimed by athletes who either hailed from, or trained in, Lampung.

Nur Vinatasari (L) trains at the 'elephant club' which has produced many of Indonesia's best weightlifters play

Nur Vinatasari (L) trains at the 'elephant club' which has produced many of Indonesia's best weightlifters

(AFP)

Many trained at the 'elephant club' in Pringsewu -- arguably the most famous no-frills weightlifting clinic in the entire country.

For nearly 50 years Imron Rosadi -- an octogenarian former world champion with an eagle eye for talent -- has slowly expanded the modest gym at the back of his family home into a weightlifting club with a fearsome reputation.

Much of the equipment is decades old: bench presses and metal weights chipped of all paint, and wooden lifting platforms splintered from thousands of dropped barbells.

Today roughly 30 boys and girls eat, sleep and train together at the academy year round, for free, surrounded by trophies and pictures of the champions that preceded them.

"We provide everything here," Rosadi told AFP.

"This academy is run like a family."

Most of the recruits are from poor neighbourhoods who see weightlifting as a path to unimaginable wealth.

The rationale is understandable: Indonesia hands huge bonuses and lifetime pensions to athletes who win Olympic medals.

Three-time Olympic medallist and Lampung native Eko Yuli Irawan only chose weightlifting as a child because his local football club charged a fee.

"Number one is money, because people here are poor," said Rosadi's son Edy, a coach at the club, of his student's motivations.

"They want a better life, and to help their parents and family."

Fresh approach

Wijaya -- who also trained in his youth at Rosadi's clinic -- is concerned these hopes and dreams could amount to zero if provincial clubs don't evolve with the times.

Pumping iron around the clock, with little rest, was once de rigueur in the weightlifting fraternity.

But these regimens pioneered in Soviet-style sports clubs left athletes crippled and coaches looking for alternatives, he said.

"They didn't use sport science, only power science," Wijaya said.

"Weightlifting is changing, and we're trying too but face many constraints."

Pringsewu in Lampung is home to the 'elephant club', a gym that has produced many top weightlifters play

Pringsewu in Lampung is home to the 'elephant club', a gym that has produced many top weightlifters

(AFP)

Most local clubs are set in their ways and don't care for rest days or nutrition, he said, resulting in high injury rates.

At a recent national youth championship south of Jakarta, selectors pulled aside athletes displaying poor technique, fearing a potential career-ending injury.

Wijaya has been sending Indonesia's team doctor to Lampung for periodic visits, but is careful not to tread on toes and offend "the legend" Rosadi.

In Jakarta, the federation has been working with a government committee whose sole objective is moulding promising athletes for gold.

They want to win 20 gold at a the next Asian Games -- a far cry from the four snagged at the last meet.

Wijaya has his eyes on three lifters from Lampung who show potential, including 15-year-old Nur Vinatasari, who won silver in the World Youth Championships in Penang in October.

The bright-eyed, broad-shouldered teenager is from Pringsewu -- where a statue elephant lifting a barbell guards the city gates -- and dreams of competing at the Olympics.

"I want to be the pride of Indonesia, and become world champion," she told AFP.

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