The Tyranny of the Scales

Aug. 12, 2008, 6:13 p.m. (ET)
  BEIJING - Bantamweight boxer Gary Russell, Jr. trained most of his life to reach the Olympic stage, but his fight was lost before it began because he failed to report at weigh-in. He had collapsed the day before, while trying to sweat off the final pounds. Although his Olympic legacy will forever bear the scar of what some might consider to be a rookie mistake, his plight is not unique in Beijing.

Judo players, taekwondo athletes, weightlifters, and wrestlers also face weight restrictions at the Olympics so they spend much of the Games dieting, sweating, and foregoing liquids to ensure that they're not an ounce over the maximum allowed in their competitive divisions.

"That's your job - making weight," said freestyle wrestler Andy Hrovat.

When Hrovat arrived in Beijing, he was 15 lbs over his 185-lb. weight limit and considered himself to be a wrestler on the "higher end" of the overweight scale. But he wasn't worried. He said wrestlers lose 6-8 lbs at practice and figured it would take 2 ½ workouts to achieve his ideal weight.

At the 2004 Pan Am Championships, however, Hrovat misjudged and his body shut down, just as Russell's had. The lesson, Hrovat said, was that "foreign environments can sometimes make your body react differently."

Daniel Cormier, another American freestyle wrestler who tends to arrive heavy to meets, had to lose 19 lbs to lose by August 21 to make his 211½ lb limit in Beijing. "Two weeks out, that's normal for me," he said.

"Two days before [weigh-in] I want to be nine to 10 pounds over," Cormier added. That may sound high but he explained, "I've been doing this for 14 years. I've got it down to a science."

Before the 2004 Athens Games, Cormier had 24.5 lbs to lose 16 days before competing, made weight, and placed fourth.

In 2006, however, Cormier admitted he had "a real problem with weight that year," and learned that a positive attitude was a critical factor in his dieting regimen. "It's pretty mental when you're losing weight. You start to pout and mope but there's no way out of it," Cormier said.

Two-time Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner might have competed in three Games had he not missed the 1996 US Olympic Trials weigh-in. Not that he was overweight, he was simply 22 seconds late.

Matt Ghaffari represented Gardner's weight class in Atlanta instead, and captured the silver medal. "I sat home upset and angry and thought, what am I going to do? I'm going to train and make the 2000 team," Gardner said.

Gardner came back and won gold in Sydney by handing Russia's Aleksandr Karelin his first loss in 13 years, and returned in 2004 to capture the bronze (after aggressively cutting 20 lbs to the point where he fought lightheadedness).

Gardner's advice to Russell? "Make this make you a better person. You can't go through life thinking about it. When your body says it can't go any more, it just wasn't meant to be.

"Look at [Floyd] Mayweather in 1996," said Gardner, referring to the boxer's controversial semifinal defeat. "He got screwed at the Olympics and how good did that make him in the ring? He said, ‘I'm not going to be good, I'm going to be great [as a pro].' It's not always a negative situation. Don't make it a failure. Make it a setback. Find another way to succeed."


Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for This feature was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.