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Tuesday, September 19, 2000

Was win only skin deep?

  SYDNEY -- The face of women's weightlifting is an advertisement for acne.

 Lift weights at the Olympic level, girls, and you, too, can have a face full of pimples. A round face. A neck with pock-marks. Glazed yellow eyes.

 Cheats, most of them, in their first Olympic Games. Even if they don't get caught, they sure look like cheats.

 "Does weightlifting cause acne?" I innocently ask Canadian coach Pierre Bergeron.

 "Not that I know of," he answers.

 "Then how do you explain how so many girls in this sport have skin problems?"

 "I can guess, but I don't want to."

 "Performance-enhancing drugs?"

 "You said that, I didn't."

 You should know that Maryse Turcotte, the gracious Canadian who finished fourth in the 58-kg class yesterday at the Sydney Convention Centre, has the complexion of an infant. Clear, beautiful skin.

 "I'm just lucky, I guess," she said when asked about it.

 Just lucky, or one of the few clean ones in a filthy sport. She didn't win a medal here, but she is certainly deserving of one. Turcotte has the face of a champion -- and in this game, that means she does not own the textbook steroid face we learned about while spending too many weeks listening to the Dubin inquiry of Ben Johnson fame.

 "This was her gold medal," Bergeron said of Turcotte. "I'm so proud of her. She did great."

 There were 17 women in yesterday's competition. Ten of them looked like they had the measles. Three others were in serious need of Clearasil and looked as much like men as women. Four had no visible skin problems. They were my champions, even though only one of them won a medal.

 "It sure seems like a lot of them have (acne)," said Bergeron. "And I wish that wasn't so. Look at Maryse. She is a normal-looking girl. She is not huge like some of them, she doesn't have big muscles. If you saw her on the street, you wouldn't think she could lift almost 270 pounds."

 The same is not necessarily true of Soraya Mendivil Jimenez of Mexico, the surprise winner of the gold medal in Turcotte's event. She didn't exactly come from nowhere to win here, but her ascent to the top has been astounding. Little more than a year and a half ago, she wasn't even competitive on the world stage. Then, all of a sudden, wow, it's like she's found the secret. She improved her clean-and-jerk lifting by 42 kg.

 "That's just unbelievable," said Canadian coach Bergeron. "That's unaccountable. If you compare it to what Maryse has done, it doesn't make sense. The last three years, Maryse, in training seriously, went up 5 kg, then 7, and then 2 in the past year.

 "That's a normal progression. What she (Jimenez) did isn't normal."

 "I don't know if that's possible," said Turcotte of the increase in strength. "I guess it depends if you gained weight, improved your technique, changed your coaching, those kind of things."

 She will not say there is something desperately wrong with her sport. She will not say there are women whose faces are so disfigured they seem grotesque. She will not say anything to discredit a sport she has worked too hard in, one that just made its Olympic debut -- and she doesn't want it to go away.

 That is the great dilemma for Turcotte. By all rights, she should be screaming about the injustice done to her and about the lack of integrity in a sport with more than image problems, but she will not say any of that on this stage at this time.

 "It's not only weightlifting, but everyone picks on weightlifting,'' Bergeron said. "Unfortunately, one of the ways to increase strength is by taking illegal stuff. Some people get caught. Some weightlifters (men) got sent home. Most (in all sports) don't get caught."

 Maryse Turcotte came to the Olympics to win a medal. And, in the end, she gambled to try to get there. She needed a lift of 122.5 kg, 2.5 more than she's attempted before, to be the bronze medalist. She tried twice, failed twice.

 "She had to go for it," her coach said. "She came here to go for it."

 But the weight and the playing field were not level in the end. "It was too much for me," Turcotte said with a smile. "Under the circumstances, I did the best I could."