In a few days, we'll all be watching the Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo.
The Games have always been, to me, a joyous addition—an extra helping, a cherry on top—to the traditional sports calendar. Not everyone feels the same. To some athletes in sports with lucrative professional leagues, and their clubs/teams, the Olympics are little more than a nuisance. NBA players in the United States have tended to skip the tournament in favor of longer summer breaks or to recover from minor injuries.* Top European soccer clubs bar their players from leaving preseason training to participate; this year, England’s Liverpool rejected requests from Egyptian Mohammed Salah and Japanese Takumi Minamino to compete in Tokyo.**
These are far from the only cases.
But for athletes in individual sports, like Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Yuna Kim, and Apolo Anton Ohno, the Olympics is the platform—one attempt every four years to capture glory, before the world tunes out. No brushing off the dust, visiting the Seychelles, then competing for another Olympic championship next season.
This past week, I’ve been preparing for the Games by going on YouTube and looking up videos using search terms like “best” or “most emotional” Olympic moments. I've watched at least a half hour of video compilations.
If you’ve done the same, there's a chance you've seen the clip of the story I’m going to write about here. The hero’s journey of German weightlifter Matthias Steiner.
On the Rise
As I explained in my first A Hero’s Journey Case Study of the Biblical figures Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego, the formula I apply is simple; anyone can use it for their storytelling or to analyze stories they’re familiar with from popular culture.
Hero encounters an obstacle; hero is changed.
In 2004, our hero, Matthias Steiner, was a three-time national champion in weightlifting in Austria, the country of his birth. Fresh from competing in the Summer Olympics in Athens, he was a star on the rise.
Boyishly good-looking, Steiner's television appearances during the Olympic caught the attention of a German woman, Susann, who had developed a crush on him. But, unlike the average person, Susann didn't collage magazine pictures of Steiner or tweet out "What I'd do for five minutes with this stud!" Instead she hounded Eurosport, the network that had aired the Games, and asked if they could help her get a message to Steiner. Naturally, they denied her request. But, she kept calling and emailing. She was relentless. After exasperating the network an employee relented and gave her Steiner’s email address, likely expecting her message would sit unread in his inbox with thousands of others.
But Steiner was intrigued by Susann's interest in him. They arranged to meet in Austria on an informal date. Within a year, they were married; Steiner was 23, and she just 20.
Around the same time, Steiner was in a heated dispute with the Austrian weightlifting federation, which had just fired his head coach against his wishes. Steiner, who at 18 had discovered he had diabetes, was struggling to get down to his preferred weight class, so the federation made him move up. Without his preferred coach, he was forced to debut in the next and heaviest category—+105 kgs (above 230 pounds)***—at the European championships. After being placed in the B-group, he floundered, missing all three of his attempts at the snatch (the first of two lifts in Olympic weightlifting competition). Steiner's new coaches accused him of deliberately failing. It was too much for him.
Steiner consulted with Susann. And, with her support, he quit the federation and left Austria behind.
To ensure he would still allow be allowed to compete at the 2008 Olympics, Susann helped Steiner devise a plan to switch nationalities. Steiner applied for German citizenship. Because of international sports rules, he was barred from competing internationally for three years, until he was officially a German citizen. If everything worked out just right, Steiner would be eligible to compete just in time for Beijing.
Then, it happened. The unexpected.
The End of Something
On July 17, 2007, Susann was driving when a vehicle careened down the wrong side of the highway and struck her car head-on.
The hospital called Steiner, who was at training. A doctor told him not to worry but to come to the hospital quickly. Once there, he was told: Susann was dead.
Steiner was devastated.
“I didn’t know what to do with my anger. It was impossible. I stopped understanding anything.”
Susann had been the spark that had given him hope of becoming an Olympic champion. Mourning her death, Steiner stepped away from training. After three weeks, his new German coach, Frank Mantek, called him: “Matthias, if you want to go through with Operation Gold Medal, you have to come to training tomorrow. If you don’t, I’ll accept it. But, you have to make a decision.”
When Mantek showed up to the gym at 9 a.m., the lights were already on. Steiner was inside in his training gear.
“I realized that even if I stopped, what had happened was not going to change,” Steiner said. “It’s going to stay with me for the rest of my life.”
In early 2008, Steiner was granted German citizenship. After receiving the news, he rushed to Susann’s grave. “She should be the first to know,” he said at the time. In the months that followed, Steiner dedicated himself to improving on his performance from the 2004 Olympics, when he finished seventh. Participating was not going to be enough. He was going to win a gold medal—for Susann.
A Promise to Be Kept
Prior to the Olympics, Steiner unexpectedly won gold at a mini-tournament in China. At the subsequent European championships, he claimed a silver medal, winning the snatch and placing third in the clean and jerk.
His confidence mounted. But, commentators weren't convinced; they gave him only an outsider's chance of claiming gold in Beijing.
Steiner's opportunity to prove his detractor's wrong came on the afternoon of August 19, 2008 at the Beihang University Gymnasium. After making his first two attempts in the snatch portion of the event, he failed his third attempt. As he attempted to stand up the weight, the bar dropped onto his neck and fell to the ground. Steiner was uninjured, but his second successful lift had only been good enough to place him fourth in the standings. He needed to do better in the clean and jerk if he was going to make the podium.
In the warmup area just before going out, Steiner attempted a weight he had hit hundreds of times before. But, he couldn't stand it up.
Steiner’s coach, Mantek, had set the weight for the opening lift about 24 pounds heavier than the weight Steiner had missed in warmups. In weightlifting, achieving a 5-pound jump in weight is considered a success for an athlete competing at elite levels. Steiner went up in front of the judges and crowd—and he missed.
From failure at his last snatch attempt, Steiner was in trouble; bested by the spotlight, choking on the biggest platform. “There’s no coming back from that,” you can imagine a commentator saying to the viewing audience.
“It was already, for me, pretty bad,” Steiner said. “But, now my coach had to decide in 30 seconds what to do: were we going to add more weight or try again at that weight. Adding more weight was obviously going to increase the pressure.”
Even though he had missed his first attempt, Mantek added an additional 2kgs (4.4 pounds) for his second. If Steiner could lift it he'd be guaranteed a medal.
To the average person the move by Steiner's coach seems absurd. If I’ve just failed the jump shot and the layup, why would I go for a dunk? Buddy, I know you just missed from the penalty spot—but let’s try the next one from 50 yards out!
Steiner made it.
But, he hadn’t promised Susann the podium. At her grave on the day he had become a German, he had promised her gold. So gold is what he went for.
In order to be crowned Olympic champion, Steiner needed to add 10kgs—about 22 pounds—for a third and final lift of 569 pounds.
“When I first came to Germany, my coach told me the very best athletes are distinguished by one thing. They compete a lot of times; but only a few times will they have one attempt that will decide everything—that can change their life. And you have to grab it. That’s the difference between a very good athlete and a champion.”
Steiner was the final man to lift. The competition was in his hands.
To complete the lift and win gold, Steiner had to do two things. In the first part of the clean and jerk—the clean—a lifter pulls the weight from the ground, and forces themselves underneath the bar, where they attempt to catch it in a full squat. If they do, they stand it up. Step one complete. Once standing, the bar resting at the highest part of their chest, the lifter repositions their hands, takes a deep breath, and attempts to simultaneously push the bar up high enough to lock out their elbows, while getting underneath it with enough room to power it the rest of the way up using their legs.
Steiner had completed the clean. The crowd erupted in shouts and applause. After a few seconds, they fell silent. Steiner took a deep breath. Then he exploded. The crowd erupted again, cheering him on. Steiner got the bar above his head. His feet inched forward, fighting to steady themselves.. He needed to be perfectly in control for the judges to give him the signal the lift was good, that he could drop the bar.
The all-clear came.
Steiner dropped the bar and collapsed over it. He pounded the platform. He jumped into the arms of his coaches, his face reddened and tears falling like waterfalls out of him.
“It felt like a thousand chains had come off me,” Steiner said. “Everything just burst out. Everything I had been suppressing."
Susann was not there to experience Steiner's victory. But, in his gym bag throughout the competition, Steiner had carried her picture. He rushed to grab it before the medal ceremony. As the gold was lifted and placed around his neck, he held her photo up to his face for the crowd to see the woman who had made his dream possible.
“I wanted my wife to be there. I wanted to show the world that I wasn’t standing up there alone.”
Fast forward to 2:00 to watch Steiner’s lift and his reaction after completing it. Before you do, make sure you have a tissue box nearby.
You can learn more about Steiner’s story after Being 2008 as part of the Olympics’ “Legends Live On” series.
*This year, Steph Curry, Anthony Davis, and LeBron James were three of the biggest names to decline invitations to Team USA. Some sports analysts have called the decision by American NBA players to skip the Games a key reason why Argentina won the tournament for the first time at the 2004 Olympics in Athens—though, I’d argue, Argentina’s “Golden Generation” of players matched up well against a USA team that featured Allan Iverson, a young LeBron, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, and Tim Duncan. The U.S. have since won gold in 2008, 2012, and 2016, and are favorites, despite some hurdles, to win the tournament again in 2021.
**Particularly cruel for Minamino, who is Japanese and spent the last season on loan at another club. In 2008, Lionel Messi had to plead with Barcelona to release him to compete in the Olympics. The club brought the case to the Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS), which ruled they did not need to release him. His manager at the time, Pep Guardiola, realized the club would only suffer with an unhappy Messi in the squad, so he gave his permission for him to leave. Messi wound up winning gold with Argentina—their second consecutive gold medal at the Summer Games.
***For context, +105kg is considered weightlifting’s super heavyweight category, and it’s uncommon to see top-level competitors under 300 pounds. The defending Olympic, European, and World champion in the category, Lasha Talakhadze, weighs 389 pounds. Steiner bulked up to 320 pounds for Beijing; he was the fourth heaviest man there. Since retiring from weightlifting, he weighs about 210 pounds.