Britain’s Emily Campbell wins historic Olympics weightlifting silver medal

  • First British female Olympic weightlifting medallist
  • 27-year-old inspired by ‘This Girl Can’ campaign

With one extraordinary act of strength and defiance, Emily Campbell ripped a 161kg barbell off the floor, rested it on her shoulders, and began to squat. With another she exploded upwards to thrust the weight - more than two beer kegs worth put together - high above her head.

There was a little wobble of the knees. A steadying smile. Then a beep. And, just like that, Britain had its first ever female Olympic weightlifting medallist - and surely its most powerful, heartwarming and potentially life-changing story of these Games.

Team GB will never say so. But some medals are simply more inspirational than others. And watching Campbell, a big, strong and proud black woman from a deprived community win an over-87kg super-heavyweight silver medal was a real This Girl Can moment.

Five years ago Campbell was working full-time with children with special educational needs and had never snatched or clean and jerked a barbell in her life. She hoped the iron game would turn her into a stronger shot putter and hammer thrower, having been a national U23 champion. Instead it hurled her life down a wondrous new path.

And what made the 27-year-old’s journey even more remarkable is that, unlike almost every Team GB medallist in Japan, she is not on lottery funding. Instead a few odd jobs, and the help of her local community helped her scrape and strive towards an impossible glory.

“It hasn’t been easy,” she said. “I’ve worked pretty much my whole weightlifting career to fund it and to make sure I’m in the best shape I can. But my community’s spirit is just amazing. Every time I go to the local market they give me free fruit and veg. The cobblers sort out my boots and raise money for me. And, now this kid, who was raised in Bulwell, Nottingham, is an Olympic medallist.”

A large media contingent had arrived at the Tokyo Forum to write about Laurel Hubbard becoming the first openly transgender woman to compete in an Olympic Games. But when the 43-year-old Hubbard failed in all three of her attempts at the snatch a half-shut door suddenly swung wide open.

A snatch of 122kg put Campbell in fourth place. Then two clean and jerks, of 156kg and 161kg respectively, pushed up into bronze - and then silver - due to her combined tally of 283kg. Then came a scream, before she fell to the floor in tears of disbelief and joy.

“Winning the first British female weightlifting medal is something that will obviously be with me forever and I’m just thankful that I managed to put weightlifting on the map,” said Campbell, who had dyed her hair red and blue five hours before the competition.

“Because us females have worked so so hard in these past few years to prove that we are not here to just participate, we’re here to compete with the rest of the world. And I hope that you know that the country gets behind us, and we have some more girls doing weightlifting.”

That message was echoed by the British weightlifting team leader, Stuart Martin, who said the astonishing high number of drug bans across the sport had given women like Campbell a chance that was not there before.

Emily Campbell of Great Britain, gold medallist Li Wenwen of China and bronze medallist Sarah Robles of the United States on the Olympic podium
Campbell, gold medallist Li Wenwen of China and bronze medallist Sarah Robles of the United States on the Olympic podium. Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock

“Let’s not beat around the bush,” he said. “The sport has been in a tough place for a number of years. It’s great to see that the International Weightlifting Federation is making a difference and today really showed the impact that’s having. So hopefully the International Olympic Committee gives the sport that opportunity to go to Paris.”

When it was put to her that she had become an overnight role model for This Girl Can, the Sport England campaign to persuade women and girls of all shapes and sizes, to get more active, Campbell nodded: “I hope so,” she replied.

“I really do hope so because my sole aim in this life is to inspire somebody to follow their dreams. And if I can help those little girls find their dream, even if it’s not weightlifting or a different sport, then I’m very happy.

“I had done some weightlifting before but when I started I essentially was right at the bottom with a 45kg snatch and 60kg clean and clean and jerk and worked my way up - just like everybody else,” she explained. “I was very strong and powerful but my technique was very minimal. And without technique in this game you have nothing. So I started from the bottom and worked up. It wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen overnight.”

Not that Campbell is finished yet, of course. She is also trying to make an impact in women’s fashion too by changing the perception around clothing sizes, and by urging brands to do more for women with fuller figures.

Meanwhile, far in front of everyone was a 21-year-old, Li Wenwen of China, who took gold with a combined overall lift of 320kg, an Olympic record. When asked why the Chinese were so good at the sport, Li replied: “This is the Chinese power, this is the Chinese strength. We are strong.”

It was hard to argue. But being the second strongest woman in the world is a pretty cool accolade too. Just ask Emily Campbell.

Contributor

Sean Ingle at Tokyo International Forum

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