Tokyo 2020: Mahassen Hala Fattouh, the weightlifter making Lebanese history

Hala hoping to inspire future generations with her journey to the Olympics

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Having lifted her personal best of 95kg in the snatch, Mahassen Hala Fattouh, Lebanon’s first internationally competitive female weightlifter, needed a successful clean and jerk to take a step towards Tokyo.

Hala’s coach had managed to buy her some time. Despite failing the first two lifts of 116kg, he requested an extra kilogram be added to the bar just to give her some breathing space before having to go again.

At that point, I had to make it or I was out,” she recalls.

As she had done so many times, she got into her setup, finding her grip, straightened her back, and looked forward.

It was a good lift. Relieved, Hala smiled as she dropped the bar, stepped back, and gave a wave to the applauding crowd. Her work was done.

“It was so intense, but so much fun once it was over,” Hala told The National.

That was March 2020, and Hala had just successfully competed in the fifth out of six different meets she needed to be in with a shot of going to the Olympics in the summer. Her final qualifying competition was just one month away.

However, within days of the competition in Cuba, the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, and just over two weeks later on March 24, the Tokyo Games were postponed.

Like the many thousands of athletes, Hala was left with unanswered questions. All qualifying competitions were cancelled as international travel became prohibited.

Months went by and qualifying criteria was revised and updated, as organisers tried to keep up with the changing circumstances and travel regulations. Meanwhile Hala kept up with her training, setting up a makeshift gym in her garage, where she could send video updates of her progress to her coach.

It wasn’t until May 2021 shortly after the (postponed) 2020 Asian Championship that Hala found out that she had done enough to earn her place in Tokyo.

“I was actually sitting on the floor in my room folding laundry,” Hala recalls.

It was only when her husband read through the latest article released by the IWF with new criteria, he realised that she had met the qualifying standards for her 76kg weight category.

“I just thought, well it's not going to change what I do today - my workout was still my workout, and my laundry was still on the floor,” she said.

Now with the Games just days away, Hala is excited to be on the big stage. Although being in the limelight is not something that has come naturally to her. As a teenager growing up in Florida, she wasn’t particularly sporty or competitive.

“I was always terrified of being in front of people, and having them looking at me."

It was when she discovered weightlifting at the age of 15, that started to slowly change.

“Initially I just did it for fun, I never really expected anything out of it, I just enjoyed it.”

Success in weightlifting is progressive and gradual, building more strength and honing technique. She was fortunate enough to be at a school which had a renowned weightlifting programme, surrounded by a supportive peer group.

"During a time when people were body-conscious, our goal was to be strong and celebrate that strength," she remembers.

After competing in school and in university, Hala took a short break from the sport to focus on her studies. It was when she was looking to get in shape for her wedding that she took it up again, and once more surprised herself with her strength.

“I was getting stronger than I was before. I thought, ‘let’s see where we can take this'.”

It wasn’t long before Hala started looking at bigger competitions and at international meets. After some research, she realised that despite an enthusiasm for strength sports in Lebanon, the country had never produced an internationally competing female in weightlifting.

Seizing the opportunity, Hala made history when she competed in the 2014 International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

“It was an opportunity both to do something positive for Lebanon and be proud of my accomplishments.

“I realised I deserved it; I knew then I was good enough to compete at these events.”

She never looked back. Hala went on to compete in numerous regional, continental and world championships, and in 2017 she partnered with world renowned weightlifting coach Ray Jones.

In 2018 she won the first ever international medal for Lebanon in women’s weightlifting, a silver at the Mediterranean games. In 2019, she became the first female Arab Champion for Lebanon at the Arab Championship held in Amman, Jordan.

Looking ahead to the Games, Hala has been tapering down to rest and recover - ensuring that she will be at her peak when she grips the bar on August 1. Hala will be the only representative from the Middle East lifting in the women’s 76kg weight category.

She hopes her participation will set a positive example for Lebanese women. Having spent some of her childhood in Lebanon, she knows that she had a privilege not afforded to many, and looks forward to finding ways to nurture talent in her native home.

“When that time comes, it would be great to set up some camps, and bring in some kids to get involved and figure out a way that if they like the sport, will enable them to keep doing it. To make it so that they too can compete.”

In the meantime, Hala remains focussed on the goal at hand. “It is so hard to put into words, I have been working towards [the Olympics] for so long, that the fact that it is here, it doesn't always seem real. But it’s very exciting and overwhelming in a good way.”

Updated: July 22, 2021, 10:27 AM