If you are a pro Olympic weightlifter or a hardcore fan of Olympic weightlifting then Leonidis Valerios need no introduction. Valerios is unarguably one of the best Olympic weightlifters in history. Earlier in his career, more specifically in between 1986 and 1991, Valerios represented the soviet union and won four gold medals in the 64kg class. Two in the USSR weightlifting championships and two in the summer Spartakiad of the USSR. Fast forward, after 1991, Valerios went on to represent his homeland Greece. Representing Greece, he participated in five European championships, four world championships and the famous Olympic games of Atlanta 1996 where his legendary battle against Naim Sulaymanuglu took place.
His medals at these championships were as follow:
- One gold (64kg class), three silvers (64kg class) and one bronze (69kg class) in the European championships
- Two silvers (64kg class) and one bronze (69kg class) in the World Championships
- Silver in the Olympic games of Atlanta 1996 (64kg class)
In this interview, which is the fifth series of six series that I filmed during my visit to the national Olympic weightlifting center in Greece, we discuss various topics ranging from his career and his legendary battle with Naim Sulaymanuglu to the current Greece crisis.
Below is the first part of this interview where we discuss briefly Valerios’s career and certain interesting events that happened during his legendary battle against Naim in the Olympic games of Atlanta 1996.
Taha: Hi Leonidis, how are you doing today?
Valerios: It is yourly, yourly dearly….
Taha: You were one of my favorite lifters when I was growing up, I was always watching your clips online on the internet. Alex told me that you are the head coach of Greece’s National Olympic Weightlifting Team so I was really excited about meeting you and the other guys from the team and I was bugging Alex all the time to interview you. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Valerios: What do you want me to tell you about myself. Today we have the internet and it is very simple to know everything about someone. Well, I was an athlete for many years now I’m fortunate to be the head coach of Greece national team of Olympic Weightlifting. I competed in many world championships and in the Olympics, I never left the sport when I stopped my career as an athlete in Olympic weightlifting and I started coaching right away. I’ve been coaching for many years now.
Taha: How long?
Valerios: Till the date of today, 9 years as the head coach of Greece national Olympic Weightlifting team.
Taha: How did you get to know Alex?
Valerios: The first time I met him, it was in 2008/2009 during The University World Championship. We met each other briefly and we spoke Greek a little bit. After like 2 years, around 2010, we met again during the World Championships, then in 2012 he came to Greece.
Alex: It was during that time when I started the administrative procedures that will allow me to represent Greece.
Taha: You had a very successful career in Olympic weightlifting, undeniably you were one of the best Olympic Weightlifters of all time. What was the best year of your entire career as an athlete?
Valerios: I have two competitions that I consider special. Not just the one in Atlanta 1996 but also the one in 1994 World Championship that took place in Turkey Istanbul. These two competitions were very exciting for me. During the 1994 World Championship, it was the first time that I got so close to Naim Sulaymanglu. We started knowing each other. I wanted to beat him and to close up the gab but Naim didn’t expect that I was strong and ready for that competition, that was the key element of excitement in that competition. Moving on, now that Naim became more aware of my abilities, there were some interesting events that took place during my competition against him in the Olympic game of Atlanta 1996. Before my last attempt of the Clean Jerk in Atlanta 1996 there was Something that happened and was against the rules. The official who calls the attempts told me to go to the platform for my last attempt and the rules dictate that after calling the athlete to the platform you can’t change the weight and the rules are very clear on that. But in my case, they started changing the weight while I was on the platform to do my attempt then I had to leave the platform because they lowered the weight to 155kg then they put back the weight to 182.5kg and Naim went out. I was just waiting and waiting, I didn’t understand what’s going and people around were fighting and my coach (Christos Iakovou) got hit. It was very sad for me because our sport is very simple and clear, you go out and you lift the weight and that’s all. After missing my last attempt, later in the warm-up room, the president of the IWF back then approached me and told me that he was very sorry and that there was a lot of crowds around and that if you would have gotten the attempt there would have been a big fight and everything around would have been destroyed.
Alex: They were scared because there were a lot of fanatics and he was competing in Turkey against Naim, and if he could have won in Turkey there would have been a big riot.
Valerios: They thought that they crushed me psychologically because I stayed 10min or maybe even more before I did my last attempt.
Alex: They aced him, he was able to do his last attempt 10min past the normal waiting time, which is not the usual in Olympic Weightlifting.
Valerios: I was in competition mode anyway, my mental strength was really high so anything outside the competition becomes nothing for me. Anyway, there are rules to be respected! For example in another competition, the world championship in China, I came second because of the body weight rule, although I lifted more than Naim. I did 148kg in the Snatch (a World Record) and Naim did 147.5kg in the Snatch, then both of us did 180kg in the Clean and Jerk, but he still won again because of the body weight rule back then and I took Silver medal. It depicts very nicely my career against Naim.
Taha: what was your relation with Naim?
Valerios: It was very good, I had his phone number and we used to talk from time to time but then I lost contact with him. I always asked about him by contacting other ex-athletes and other good friends of him, they told me that he was doing really bad because he had alcohol problems. The last time I saw him was in Antalya 2011, I spoke to him and he seemed to be doing fine after he sought doctors help but later on he started falling back to the same issue.
Taha: let’s talk about the Greek Olympic weightlifting system. What was the training like under coach Christos Iacovou?
Valerios: Is not exactly like that, there was no specific system under Christos Iacovou. He was a coach who brought up athletes from other systems. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that the coach must be flexible and keep a watchful eye on how each exercise is being executed during the implementation of a program. For example, if I prescribed you some exercises and you did not learn how to do them properly, you risk not increasing your performance, like in the case of not properly pulling the bar from the floor. The coach has to be involved with the athlete all the way during the execution of the program. A coach can’t be just writing the program for an athlete and sitting there watching him. This also might be a good goal for the coach to work on if the athlete had good general preparation like the athletes who come to the national team but they lacked technical proficiency. In other cases, it might be a different goal. For example, in my case, I had good preparation and good technique and I did not have to do a lot of technique work but I had to work on other things. But recently, based on my own observations, all the weightlifters who are coming to our national team has a lot of problems with their technique so we work a lot on that here.
Alex: like me.
Valerios: Like everybody. Some guys who come a little bit early to the team, like Jakobi, I work with them on the basics.
Taha: Talking about the basics, what is the ideal age for an athlete to start working on Olympic Weightlifting technique?
Valerios: Talking about technique….technique cannot be though by just explaining it verbally or making the athletes watching it. The coach has to teach the technique by making the athlete execute certain exercises by himself or making him doing the movement itself. You can’t just tell the athlete to bring the bar to this point. That’s a joke! For example, if you want to learn the technique, you can call me and invite me to your gym and I’ll spend time with you, coaching you on how to properly execute the lifts like we coach young kids on the proper way of executing the lifts. Learning technique from videos is ridiculous.
Taha: So you have to be with the athlete on the platform to teach him the Olympic lifts technique?
Valerios: Exactly! It is very important to teach the basics properly. If the athletes learn bad mechanics in the early stages, it will always be difficult to correct his technique in the future. Some guys will be talented and strong, a good technique will help display his potential.
Taha: So to learn the technique properly you have to learn it with a coach.
Taha: So this is one of the problems prevalent in North America. We have people writing books about Olympic weightlifting technique and they try to sell them to people so they can learn technique from them. It is kinda ridiculous!
Valerios: Books are for coaches who are looking for new ideas or useful information to use with their athletes, to help improve their performance.
Alex: Books are for coaches, to educate themselves about coaching cues and new ideas.
Valerios: For example in my case, I read some books and I learn information that I can use for programming and training. Learning technique from scratch from books is ridiculous!
Taha: How long do you think it will take a coach to get the athlete to develop a good technique in the Olympic lifts?
Valerios: It depends, which year the athlete start to learn the Olympic lifts. In between 5 to 10 years old most training is gameplay, therefore you use light implements like sticks or plastic bars to teach the individual the technique in a context of gameplay to keep him engaged and to allow him to develop properly. Maybe after 11 or 12 years, you can start slowly loading the body in different positions. It also depends on the maturity and development of the athlete’s body(biological age). In my opinion, you never stop working on technique, it is a continuous work. It is always included in training whether for children or adults. This way you develop strength in the right positions and angles and train properly the right muscle groups which will be your defense from injuries. It is very important! Having a very good technique will make you have fewer injuries and help you display your performance, so it is very important to keep working on technique.
Taha: Let’s assume we want to develop a high caliber athlete in Olympic weightlifting, what would be the ideal age for such athlete to start Olympic weightlifting?
Valerios: For me, I started when I was 15 years old, a bit older, but I was doing other sports like gymnastics which helped me build a very good foundation. In my opinion, 11 or 12 years old would be a good age to start Olympic weightlifting or maybe a bit younger.
Taha: So between 10 and 12 years old?
Valerios: Yeah between 10 and 12 years old.
Taha: And at that age what should the athlete focus on?
Valerios: Focus on technique. You need to combine Technical work using junior equipment with physical conditioning and preparation, like sprinting, jumping, etc. For this age category, you need to make training interesting. Don’t just take the 10 years old guys and make them do the snatch and clean and jerk. Everything should be like a game. Moreover, you should make them do other physical activities, like running, jumping, etc. This kinda game plan/ training should include many parts from athletics (jumping, running, etc) with a little bit of weightlifting inside. keep increasing the volume of the activity of Olympic weightlifting slowly and at the same time reduce the volume of other activities slowly as you progress in the training. That is because we need to develop big and successful athletes. Also in Olympic weightlifting, we need the ability of jumping.
Taha: So basically, general physical preparation and Olympic weightlifting technique. If these athletes, after receiving the proper physical preparation and development, decides to transition to focus fully on Olympic weightlifting, when they should start focusing on developing maximum strength?
Valerios: Look, it is not just age. Every child is different, you can’t be like”ok”, ” today you are 11 years old you should start working on strength”. Every child is different, he/she might be a talent. You need to observe how this child develops physically and psychologically.
Alex: He is right because, in North America, everybody is stuck on “age, age, age….”, “You know if you do this at a young age, it is not good maybe if you do this, it is not good….”, but that is because people there are afraid of getting sued if somebody gets hurts. But here we are smarter, you have to look at different athletes then you can tell when to start training for strength or other motor capacities.
Valerios: For me when I started I was 15, I was different and my coach observed that I had a talent, and he saw that I was ready so he progressed me in training accordingly, and it showed because he started me in weightlifting for a year then a year and a half later I won my first major competition.
At this point, the camera ran out of battery, so I couldn’t record the last part of this interview which included another couple of questions which I asked him at the end of the interview. These questions will be added shortly to this interview….stay tuned