Oh my, Sherif

Othman2Not many people will know the name Sherif Othman. Maybe a few geeky pub-quizzers but for the most part, even the most hardened sports jock is likely to shrug his (or increasingly her) shoulders at the very mention.

No disgrace in that. I only became aware of him a few months ago and I am paid to know about sport.

I came across Othman because I was invited to help the International Paralympic Committee with its live streaming coverage of the European Powerlifting Championships in November 2015. Othman wasn’t in Eger, Hungary but his spirit was. His name was whispered in awed tones by athletes, coaches and referees alike.

151210113506430_Powerlifting+World+Cup+logosIt is the same in Dubai where he was competing in the 7th Fazza IPC Powerlifting World Cup in Dubai, one of the last two qualifying tournaments for the Rio Paralympics. Not that Sherif needs to worry about qualifying. He can take his pick of categories.He won gold in the 56kg category at the Beijing and London Paralympics; he holds world records in the 54, 56 and 59kg categories.

British lifter Ali Jawad has good reason to feel sniffy about Othman – the Egyptian’s presence in the 59kg category has forced Jawad to look for gold by moving up to the 65kg category – but instead there is only admiration.

“I have no doubt that pound for pound, Othman is the best lifter in the world right now,” he says.

“There are various different formulas people use to try to work out who is the best across the categories but I am certain he will be top in all of them. He has such strength and technique, it is quite amazing.”

I saw Othman live for the first time on Tuesday morning. It lives with anything I have witnessed in a professional capacity over the last quarter of a century.

Like all great champions across many many sports you can tell he is a champion before he even gets to grips with the competition. He has the prowl of a wild beast, that ability to turn the hunter into the hunted. Mohammad Ali had it, Diego Maradona had it. And one of my own boyhood heroes, the West Indian cricketer Viv Richards had it.

Every time Viv came out to bat, the bowlers withered as he rolled his shoulders, swung his bat, chewed his gum and surveyed the field. His field; no one else’s. No wonder they called him the King.

Sherif Othman shows off his gold medal in London (www.paralympic.org)

Othman takes charge in the same way. His disability gives him a slightly rolling gait; he walks up the ramp like John Wayne about to slug it out with the town bully.

When he arrives on the stage, Othman doesn’t head directly for the bench. As the two minutes counts down on the clock, he circles the front of the stage, his eye never wavering from the bar. He is the lion lining up his prey. He stops, stands stock still for a moment, his focus angling in deeper and deeper into the bar. Then he swoops towards the bench and readies himself for the lift.

This is all very deliberate as Othman told me later.

“I like to talk to the bar,” he says.

Othman5“I speak to it. In my head. I am telling it, today you will not beat me. You will not get the better of me. I will beat you. It doesn’t matter about the weights on the bar, that can change. It is the bar.”

It is never in doubt. The bar hasn’t a chance. Othman, who weighed in at 58.55 kilograms, easily lifts 190 kilograms to open, good enough to get on the board and win the competition; second-placed Mohammed Tarbesh will only manage 171kgs.

For his second lift, Othman swots away 200kgs, leaving open the option for a crack at his own world record of 210kgs.

Two years ago, he broke the world record three times on the way to becoming world champion. Expectation now follows his every lift. He doesn’t disappoint.

With 210.5kgs on the bar – four times his own body weight – he goes through the now familiar routine before settling under the bar. He takes the strain, brings the bar down to his chest, level and steady, then smoothly raises it high above his head until his elbows lock and the lift is complete.

Three white lights flash up on the scoreboard, the PA lifts the roof with the cry of “New world record” and the Egyptians go bananas. The mask of cool control temporarily slips from Othman’s face as he leaps from the bench and then slumps to his knees to kiss the mat and give thanks.

Sherif Othman is a great athlete and a truly great champion. Watch out for him in Rio.

©Barney Spender 2016

Follow me on Twitter @bspender