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Kakhi Kakhiashvili, Olympic Champion

Georgia and Greece share their greatest athlete
by Ana Datiashvili, The Messenger Online, Georgia (2007)

Kakhi Kakhiashvili, a three-time Olympic weightlifting champion, is one of the most beloved athletes of Georgia and Greece. He is modest, and speaks little. Kakhiashvili owes his fame and incredible successes, he says, to God and the good people around him.

Kakhiashvili was born and raised in Tskhinvali, now the de facto capital of secessionist South Ossetia. The 38 year old was an athlete from the time he could walk. First he played football, then gymnastics. Then came weightlifting.

His first success came when he was 13, winning his school's athletic competition. He followed that by winning a Soviet student athletics title for 1983–1984. An athletic career was in the making.

The civil war put all that on hold. As violence escalated in Tskhinvali, Kakhiashvili moved to Tbilisi where he won a gold medal in the intra-Soviet 1989 Friendship Cup.

Kakhiashvili's trainer, Vano Grikurov, knew the young athlete had talent. He convinced him to pursue his career in Russia. Kakhiashvili moved to Rostov in 1990.

His first success came in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Game, where he won gold by hoisting 235 kilograms above his head.

"Each country has heroes. For Georgia and Greece Kakhi Kakhiashvili is one of them. With three Olympic gold medals won successively at the Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney Olympic Games the Georgian born weightlifter is an outstanding, athlete and example for future generation. After earning an Olympic title for his country of birth, Georgia, he offered the Olympic title twice to his new homeland, Greece. Olympic champions are heroes, who motivate young people, the dreams they inspire of participating in the games encourage the youth of the world to practice sports."

Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee

More dramatic than the lifting competition, however, was the award ceremony.

Kakhiashvili competed on the Unified Team, composed of most of the former Soviet republics. As Kakhiashvili walked towards the podium to claim his medal in front of a clamorous crowd, the Georgian weightlifter realized that something was wrong.

"I could see Jano Bagrationi, the president of Georgian Olympic committee, gesturing frantically to me, and all the other Georgians were shouting," he recounts. "I looked back and saw that instead of a Georgian flag, the Russian flag was waving behind me...I refused to go up on the podium. The organizers were shocked—they didn't get what was going on."

The Georgian delegation talked to organizers, who quickly swapped out the Russian flag for a Georgian one. Georgians erupted in cheers as their national anthem came out over the loudspeakers.

"This victory was particularly special for Tskhinvali," he says. By that time, his hometown was devastated by the ethnic conflict. The Olympic gold gave a desperate, hopeless town something to cheer about.

It would be 12 years before Zurab Zviadauri and Giorgi Asanidze won another pair of Olympic golds for Georgia.

After his victory in Barcelona, the homesick Kakhiashvili came back from Russia to live in Tbilisi.

There was little support from the Georgian government for sports at the time, Kakhiashvili recalls, with not even adequate food provided for athletes.

"It was a hard time for Georgian athletics. There were no training facilities, none of the basic things you need. I participated in all kinds of trainings and competitions under the Georgian flag...I began losing games, because of injuries and because I couldn't prepare properly," says Kakhiashvili.

"I realized I had to leave sports, or find a way out of this situation."

International athletics organizations knew about Kakhiashvili's difficulties, and many countries offered to host him as their own athlete.

Hungary, Germany and Russia all gave him good offers, but the government of Georgia would have had to pay travel expenses to get him there. It couldn't, and Kakhiashvili was stuck in Tbilisi.

Then, an invitation came from the International Olympic Committee. The committee president, who was Greek, offered Kakhiashvili a place to live and train in Greece—all expenses paid.

The champion got to keep competing. He made the move in November 1995, and won a gold medal in the Atlanta Olympics the next year.

It wasn't easy to leave Georgia.

"I left my home. Moving from Georgia to Greece was as difficult as moving from Tskhinvali to Tbilisi," Kakhiashvili says.

Everything was new to Kakhiashvili. He had no friends or relatives there. He didn't know the language or the lifestyle, their traditions or rules.

"It was tough. At one point, I wanted to go back to Georgia. I was depressed. I'm glad I didn't, though. I see now that I would have lost out on everything if I had left Greece," he recalls.

The athlete soldiered on. 13 years later, Kakhiashvili is still in Greece.

"I won many competitions, I became a two-time Olympic gold medal winner," Kakhiashvili says. "I know that all these things wouldn't happen without this country, which loved me so much and took care of me. My success today is all thanks to Greece."

And Greeks are proud of his success. He has legions of fans.

"Greek citizens had their eyes full of tears when I was winning—it's impossible to forget these moments," Kakhiashvili says. "I think this is the most an athlete can ever dream for. I feel the love of the people, both Georgian and Greek."

Tskhinvali-born Kakhiashvili received Georgian citizenship more than a decade after winning Olympic gold for his country. President Mikheil Saakashvili invited him from Greece to honor him with citizenship for his achievements.

"This was a very emotional moment in my life. I never felt that I wasn't a son of Georgia, but the gesture was a huge motivation for me," Kakhiashvili says.

Kakhiashvili speaks often about the similarities between Georgia and Greece.

"These two nations, Georgia and Greece, look very much alike. I'm trying to bring them closer together—we have plenty in common in culture, in traditions, in appearance... Most importantly, we have the same religion," he says.

The devout Orthodox Christian received plaudits from Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II.

"Your significant triumphs bring us great joy. Of course, you are competing under the Greek flag, but the Greeks know that you are from Georgia. For this reason your Olympic gold medals contribute to the strengthening of the relations between our two countries that also share the same religion.

May God bless you.

May God grant you heaven-sent strength so that you can enjoy many more blessed achievements for the benefit of both of your countries."

Ilia II, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia

Kakhiashvili says he will try once more to earn the greatest of athletic achievements. He will compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and then retire. He will do so as one of the greatest weightlifters in the sport's history, one of only four to win three consecutive gold medals in the Olympics.

Besides his inspiring athletic successes, Kakhiashvili has two qualities which have won the hearts of Georgians and Greek. The first is his love for his God and respect for his Church. Religiosity was repressed in Kakhiashvili's childhood, but he says he preserved his faith and soul.

And then, there is his love for country—both his native Georgia, and Greece, his adopted home.

The Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Christodoulos wrote a letter to Kakhiashvili expressing admiration of the traits that made a strong man into a beloved athlete:

"Dear Kakhiashvili,

I pray that God will grant you health, so that you may offer Greece yet another gold medal at the Olympic Games, making both Greeks and your Georgian countrymen very happy.

May you always enjoy good health and be able to offer as an example to future generations your code of ethics, which comes from the depths of the centuries and is the Christian Orthodox ethos.

This is what connects happiness in life with spiritual peace and a serene conscience.

May God bless you and be with you at all times.

With fervent wishes,"

Christodoulos, Archbishop of Athens

 

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Gallery

Videos and Gallery of Kakhi Kakhiashvili is available in his section of the Hall of Fame @ Lift Up.

 

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