SYDNEY, Australia - It seems like such a simple event. You walk up to a barbell and pick it up. Whoever lifts the most weight wins. But weightlifting at the 2000 Olympics has been anything but simple. It is the Marx brothers on steroids.
It's a bombardment of chaos and comedy. You don't know where to laugh first. You might want to get out your atlas, though, and find a little oil-rich country in the Middle East called Qatar. Its story will be coming to a theater near you soon, probably as a Mel Brooks production.
The entire Bulgarian weightlifting team has been kicked out of Sydney. Three Bulgarians - all medal winners - tested positive for furosemide, a diuretic and banned substance.
Izabela Dragneva, the women's 48-kilogram winner, was stripped of her gold medal. That means Tara Nott, the silver medalist, becomes the first American to win an Olympic weightlifting gold in 40 years.
"I'm kind of in shock," she said afterward.
Sevalin Milchev lost the bronze medal he won in the men's 62-kilo weight class, and Ivan Ivanov surrendered his silver in the 56-kilo category.
If you competed in a weightlifting event here and didn't win a medal, don't leave yet. Hold those exacta tickets because there is an inquiry.
"We are trying to send a message," said Tamas Ajan - one very scary-looking individual and secretary general of the International Weightlifting Federation.
If so, something has gotten lost in the transmission.
Earlier in the week, it was revealed that three Romanian weightlifters also had tested positive, and the team was banned from the Games by the IWF. But instead of being sent home, the Romanians paid the wrestling federation $50,000 to stay in the Games - something they were allowed to do under federation rules.
I think Tony Soprano is an officer in the International Weightlifting Federation.
The Bulgarian team members couldn't pay their way out of their mess. The difference, apparently, is that the Romanians tested positive before they competed, with the testing done by the weightlifting federation, and the Bulgarians tested positive after they competed, with the testing conducted by the International Olympic Federation.
"There was not an option of Bulgaria paying the fine," Ajan said. "We would not accept the money."
At least not unless it was in a brown paper bag.
What about Qatar? We're getting to that. In order to tell the short but remarkable history of Qatar weightlifting, it was first important to lay the groundwork with the Bulgarian exploits.
The Bulgarian weightlifting team could have paid the $50,000 and then some. They are rolling in money because, apparently, Bulgarian weightlifters are a dime a dozen - or, in Qatar's case, $1 million for eight.
Qatar has a lot of oil and natural gas - and a lot of money. Two years ago, the country decided it wanted a national weightlifting team. So people went to the Bulgarian weightlifting organization and asked if it had any weightlifters to sell. For $1 million, they bought eight Bulgarian weightlifters
It's not slavery, mind you. The payoff is for the Bulgarians to come to Qatar, become Qatarians and compete without any protests filed by the Bulgarian government.
Just like that, Qatar was an international weightlifting power, winning three gold medals, one silver and three bronze at the 1999 World Championships.
Two of the former Bulgarians-turned-Qatarian weightlifting legends - Fadul Yousief and Badr Nayef - new names, by the way; they had different ones in Bulgaria - were supposed to lift yesterday. But suddenly, just a few hours after the Bulgarian team was expelled, an Olympic press official walked into the press room at the Sydney Exhibition Centre and declared, "The weightlifters from Qatar who were scheduled to compete today have withdrawn from the Games. It seems that they ate outside of the Olympic village last night and are suffering from diarrhea."
The room erupted in laughter.
It turns out that the diuretic the Bulgarians took causes diarrhea. It is also taken to mask the presence of steroids in drug tests and to lose weight to compete in a lower class. One of the Quatarians - Fadul Yasif - competed all year internationally at 94 kilograms. He was entered in the 85-kilo class here.
The official reason given for the diarrhea was that the weightlifters ate some bad food. But it was all Yousef A Al-mana, president of the Quatar Weightlifting Federation, could do to keep a straight face when questioned by reporters in a hallway outside the press room.
"They are in bad condition, from food or something else," he said.
The team doctor was standing next to him, but when reporters asked if they could speak to him, Al-mana said, "No, he might give you the right answer, which could be the wrong answer."