ATHENS, Aug. 22 -- "Huuh!" says Tigran Martirosyan.
"Ahhhh!" says Aliaksandr Anishchanka.
"Ooooooo -- ooooo -- ah!" says Ivy Shaw.
There's an eloquence to the grunts that Olympic weightlifters utter as they heave their heavy burdens toward the sky. There's a kind of crude poetry to the groans that emanate from their grimacing faces, a poetry that requires no translation, a universal language of pain, strain and, sometimes, gain.
But there are subtle linguistic differences to the grunts and groans, and individual styles can be discerned if you listen carefully during matches here at the Nikaia Olympic Weightlifting Hall. Actually, you don't have to listen too carefully -- the grunts are loud enough to be heard all over the hall.
Mi Ran Jang, the Korean who took second in the women's heavyweight division Saturday, launches her deep grunts with a guttural "N" sound: "Nyah!" Or "Nnnnnnahhh!"
Pyrros Dimas, the great Greek weightlifter who won Olympic gold in 1992, 1996 and 2000 but had to settle for bronze Saturday, begins his sharp, quick grunts with a "B" sound: "Bah!" or "Bat!"
Sergo Chakhoyan, an Australian who competed against Dimas, uttered multi-syllabic grunts as he struggled to lift about 450 pounds over his balding head. "Ahh-ooooo-yah!" he groaned as he lifted the bar to his shoulder, then held it there for a moment, grimacing, before he dropped it to the platform and watched as it bounced almost to his waist.
Weightlifting is a tribute to the donkey work that created civilization: toting that barge, lifting that bale, humping the stones that built the Pyramids and the Parthenon. Weightlifters' grunts and groans are the timeless sound of humanity straining to bear the weight of the world. These are the noises heard in emergency rooms, birthing rooms and boudoirs all over the planet -- the primal sounds of conception, birth and death. They're the kind of grunts that James Brown turns into music.
Just as eloquent are the grimaces. Weightlifters' faces are masks of agony. Their eyes bulge, their mouths twist, their flesh trembles.
"Aaaahhh," Anishchanka groans as he heaves the barbell, about 440 pounds of it, to his shoulders. His mouth opens into a wide oval, then collapses into a tight line, his lips squeezed tight.
"Yaaaah!" he grunts as he pushes it over his head.
"Good lift," says the PA announcer.
She's not congratulating Anishchanka, merely reporting the results of his herculean efforts -- in other words, that he completed the chore. She has only two messages to deliver -- either "good lift" or "no lift." Weightlifting is not subtle.
Now, Dimas steps to the platform and the packed arena explodes into cheers.
"Di-mas! Di-mas! Di-mas!" thousands of Greeks chant, whistling, stomping, waving their blue-and-white flags.
He steps up to the barbell, which holds about 445 pounds -- more than double his weight of about 184. He bends over, puts his right hand on the bar, then his left.
"Shhhhh," people hiss. The crowd quiets. Now the arena is as silent as a cathedral. The fans want to let Dimas concentrate. Or maybe they want to hear him grunt.
Dimas squats. He wiggles his legs, shifting his weight, then he pauses, holding still, concentrating. Suddenly, with an explosion of effort, he hefts the bar up to his throat.
The crowd cheers. Then: "Shhhhhh!" And silence.
Above the barbell, Dimas's face trembles. His veins bulge. His thin black mustache twitches, riding his grimacing lips. His goatee bobs up and down. His face looks as though it's composed entirely of right angles.
"Bah!" he grunts as he pushes the bar over his head and stands beneath it. His whole body trembles for a long moment, then he drops the bar.
Dimas leaps triumphantly into the air, then blows a kiss to the crowd.
The fans scream with joy. "Di-mas! Di-mas! Di-mas!"
The Greeks are mad for weightlifting. So are millions of fans in Eastern Europe and Asia, many of whom have come here to cheer for their countrymen. But Americans have never warmed to the sport.
The U.S. team has some excellent lifters. Cheryl Haworth took sixth in the women's heavyweight division Saturday despite an injured elbow, and Shane Hamman is considered a medal contender in the men's heavyweight competition on Wednesday. But Americans don't seem to care. In the Olympics, we prefer sports of speed and grace to this test of brute strength. Perhaps it's because so few of us do grunt work anymore. We let machines handle that, while we seek jobs that require, as the old joke puts it, "no heavy lifting."
It's our loss, because weightlifting competitions build to high drama. Saturday night's match came down to the last lift by the last man, Aijun Yuan of China. He was in fifth place and decided to go for the gold, which meant he had to lift 215 kilos (473 pounds) -- 10 kilos more than anyone else had even attempted that night. If he did it, he'd win -- in the process killing Dimas's chance for a bronze medal.
Workers hustled to the platform and loaded more weight on the barbell. Yuan powdered his sweaty hands, stepped up to the bar, squatted down. The arena went silent.
"Aaaye!" Yuan grunted as he hoisted the bar to his shoulders, holding it there, grimacing, straining, then -- "Yaaahh!" -- dropping it.
It was over. Dimas's medal was safe. The crowd roared.
Reporters hustled toward the platform to interview the winners and losers, but it was a pointless exercise. Their grunts had already said it all.