- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 22, 2004

ATHENS — The bar is imposing. And the plates? Don’t even ask.

Bulging deltoids. Twitching neck. Blowfish cheeks. Up comes the bar, plates in tow, over his knees and onto his chest. A moment of literal gravity: thrust more than twice his body weight overhead, hang on and a gold medal is likely his. Fail, and the best he can hope for is bronze.

Pyrros Dimas inhales. All Greece holds its breath.

“We don’t expect a medal,” says Nick Kostelidis, 39, from Athens. “We just come to support him. It will be a little difficult to win tonight.”

Wait. Go back. An hour earlier, inside Nikaia Hall. Greek flags, T-shirts, blue-and-white hats. A woman with a low-riding Greek flag tattoo. They are here to see Dimas, the 32-year-old weightlifting icon, the man who hoisted an entire nation.

Di-mas!

Di-mas!

Dimas is ailing, four years removed from his last international victory, a gold medal at the Sydney Games. His knees are balky. His right wrist is taped, aching, injured just this week. No matter. They can will him to victory, to an unprecedented fourth consecutive gold.

Twelve years ago, Dimas punctuated his winning lift in Barcelona with a cry of “for Greece!”; tonight, all of Greece will shout for him, shout above the rushed stadiums, the international ridicule, the ongoing embarrassment of disgraced runners Kostas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou.

Dimas begins to push.

“This will be the most important day of the Olympics for us, after what happened with Kenteris and Thanou,” says Manolis Fafalios, of Athens, here with wife Fotini. “Dimas is an Olympic symbol for the Greeks. He really loves Greece. He loves that he is our symbol. This is his last opportunity, in his home country.”

Stop. Hold up. The people’s champion is with them but not exactly of them. Dimas carried the Greek flag in the opening ceremonies. An arena near Mount Olympus — yes, that Mount Olympus — bears his name. His Grecian name.

Dimas was born Pirro Ohima, the son of ethnic Greeks living in southern Albania. His family spoke Greek. So did neighbors. But Ohima lifted for Albania.

A Greek sportswriter spotted him at the 1990 European championships, knew that Pirro was a Grecian appellation. The writer posed a question: Are you Greek? Ohima mumbled a response, afraid that the wrong person in Albania’s communist regime might overhear. But he spoke in a familiar tongue.

Down went the Iron Curtain. Ohima crossed the border, changed his name, then discovered Albanian immigrants weren’t especially welcome. He worked in construction, hauling concrete blocks. Took a job at an electronics store. Joined a weightlifting club. On the eve of the Barcelona Olympics, he secured a Greek passport.

Up goes the bar.

“He’s a winner,” says Vulla Kiokiosedes, here with her son from Thessaloniki. “He gives us happiness.”

Freeze. Not yet. Dimas’ first Olympic triumph was shocking: Before it, Greece had won just two golds since the 1896 Games. In Atlanta, Dimas had a second gold wrapped up, one lift left. He had nothing to prove, no reason to risk injury. He ordered more weight onto the bar, then broke his own world record.

He returned to Athens a hero. Twice. Some 60,000 fans met him at Panathinaiko Stadium. Another 30,000 crowded outside. At the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the city’s mayor gave him a third gold medal. He vowed to win in Sydney. He did. He vowed to win in Athens. For Greece, in Greece.

Across the country, Adidas billboards with Dimas’ image read IMPOSSIBLE IS LIFTING YOUR COUNTRY. Such was the task at hand. His lifts in the snatch are promising, theatrical. Right wrist taped, he blows kisses to the crowd, taps his heart, holds the bar overhead nearly twice as long as his competitors. After hoisting 375 pounds, he leaps in the air, pumping his fist.

“I am sure he can win tonight,” says Kiokiosedes. “That’s what we come for.”

Now. The final lift.

Dimas trails Georgia’s George Asanidze, needs a clean-and-jerk of 465 pounds to stay in contention. Silence. His arms lock, the bar above his head. Squatting, halfway to standing. No farther. The weight drops forward. Dimas falls backward. He lies on his back, hands over his head.

Dimas leaves his shoes on the mat. This is his last meet. He will settle for bronze.

Still, the crowd cheers.

“Pyrros will always remain a symbol,” says Fafalios. “If he wasn’t injured, he had the gold medal in his pocket. Another athlete with an injury might pull out. But with this crowd, he will try his best. That is why we love him.”

And love him they do. Backstage, Dimas shakes hands with a group of volunteers. One kisses him on the cheek. He returns for the medal ceremony, waves, places a hand on his heart. What seems like all of Athens roars in response.

Pyr-ros!

Pyr-ros!

“Pyrros Dimas is not the bronze medalist,” Asanidze says later, correcting anyone who suggests otherwise. “He is a three-time Olympic champion and hero of the Greek people.”

Dimas claps his hands, as if in prayer. He leaps onto the podium, one last time. Holding his medal, he offers a sheepish smile, a what-can-you-do? shrug. No one’s buying.

Hell-as!

Hell-as!

Dimas shakes his head, taking it all in, the unconditional adoration. He bites his upper lip. The chant continues. Two minutes. Five. Finally, he cracks: a hand to the face, eyes moist. Dimas can finally exhale. Greece can finally exhale. He remains their favorite son.

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