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03 Aug 1952
Helsinki 1952

Kono defies heavy burden to win weightlifting gold

American Tommy Kono was a poorly child who suffered from asthma. His parents, who were of Japanese descent, tried all sorts of methods to cure him, including traditional remedies, but nothing seemed to work.

To make his childhood even tougher, his family were moved to a detention centre during the Second World War, leaving behind their home in California. And yet there, out in the desert conditions of the Tule Lake camp, Kono found an unexpected form of happiness.

For one thing, the arid desert air helped his asthma. For another, he discovered weightlifting. It was a popular sport with some of the other people held in the camp, and it quickly became clear that Kono had natural talent, despite his slight frame.
He didn't enter his first competition until 1948, and then only because he happened to be at the venue. He came second of two, but enjoyed the experience enough to enter other local competitions, gradually achieving better and better results.

His childhood had given him an extremely strong will to win, and a large degree of mental resilience. But he also developed great technique and a versatility that has rarely, if ever, been matched. Kono was able to adjust his bodyweight by changing his diet, meaning that he could quickly switch from one division to another without apparently losing strength.

Kono had been drafted into the US Army, but they saw his sporting potential and, instead of sending him to the Korean War, sent him to the American Olympic trials, where he earned his place in the team for Helsinki, where he was entered into the lightweight category.

His preparations weren't ideal, as he came down with food poisoning not long before his event. However he bounced back to make the final. Wearing a pair of reinforced office shoes and spectacles, he cut a distinctive figure, but he also stood out as the outstanding lifter, breaking the world record in the snatch and setting a new overall Olympic record.

Kono went on to take gold in the light-heavyweight category in Melbourne in 1956, and the silver in the middleweight category at Rome 1960. He later became a respected coach and is, to this day, considered by many to be the USA’s greatest ever weightlifter.

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