Brian Oliver ©ITG

Anybody who follows the world of weightlifting closely must be in need of an uplift, judging by recent headlines on insidethegames and elsewhere.

Perhaps Dika Toua, a mother of two who survived a life-threatening illness - no, not coronavirus - can provide it as she stands on the verge of another remarkable Olympic landmark.

The coronavirus pandemic has plagued weightlifting just as much as any other sport, disrupting the Olympic qualifying programme and giving the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) plenty of problems to solve at last week’s video-conference Executive Board meeting.

That meeting also featured an update from the IWF’s Oversight and Integrity Commission, created when the governing body’s long-standing figurehead Tamás Aján stood aside for 90 days while Richard McLaren’s independent team of experts investigate allegations of corruption made in a German TV documentary.

There may or may not have been a mention of transgender issues, with New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard closing in on an Olympic place. And another challenge is governance reform, which was the top campaigning point for the new regime who recently took over the Pan American Weightlifting Federation, and is a particular bugbear for the IWF’s acting President, Ursula Papandrea.

But while all the negative headlines have been swirling around the sport and catching the unwanted attention of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), there have been a number of good performances on the platform in the early weeks of 2020.

Dika Toua and Sir John Dawanincura ©Oceania Weightlifting Institute
Dika Toua and Sir John Dawanincura ©Oceania Weightlifting Institute

Loredana Toma of Romania was in record-breaking form in Rome, while the ever-popular Spaniard Lidia Valentín won in Malta, where lifters from France and Bulgaria were in good shape.

There was an impressive return from injury by Iran’s Sohrab Moradi in Dubai, though his chances of making it to Tokyo 2020 remain very slim.

In the men’s super-heavyweights there was a sensational career-best total for Iran’s Ali Davoudi in the Fajr Cup, and yet another six-from-six victory for the incomparable Lasha Talakhadze in Rome. The Georgian, surely the strongest favourite across all weight categories for Olympic gold, maintained his remarkable record of making every single lift a good one in Olympic qualifying, 27 from 27.

And then there is Eileen Cikamatana, the Fijian who cannot compete at Tokyo 2020 because she changed nationality and missed the first phase of qualifying after a dispute with her national federation. In her first competition after leaving the juniors, the outstanding Cikamatana, now Australian, tried to set a senior world record in Rome. 

She failed, but it will happen soon enough.

While all this has been going on, one of weightlifting’s most enduring talents has been working as hard as ever, way over on the other side of the world, in her quest to go into the sport’s record books. It is probably fair to say that outside Oceania, only the most dedicated followers of the sport have ever heard of Dika.

This is despite the fact that she was the first woman ever to make a lift in the Olympic Games, as a 16-year-old at Sydney 2000, where women first competed. She heard about her selection for those Olympic Games during a public announcement while she was clearing up rubbish.

Since then she has twice become a mother, survived a life-threatening bout of tuberculosis (TB) that led to her being kept in isolation in hospital, gone back on a decision to retire from the sport, and won an unsurpassable 12 continental titles.

She trains at the Oceania Weightlifting Institute in New Caledonia, 2,500 kilometres away from her children back home in Papua New Guinea.

Dika would surely have made it 13 titles in the Oceania Championships in Nauru next month, had they not been postponed because of the virus.

Regardless of the new date, or new qualifying requirements that may be adopted this week, Dika is well enough placed to qualify for Tokyo, where she would become the first woman in weightlifting history to compete at five Olympic Games. Three men have done it, but never a woman.

None of those men - Imre Földi of Hungary, and the Germans Ingo Steinhöfel and Ronny Weller - competed in the Olympics 20 years after their debut, though the four-time Olympian Walter Legel, of Austria, did in 1980.

Dika would be the first five-timer to do it, having competed at four straight Games before missing Rio 2016 when she spent more time with her children.

Celebrating a gold medal at Glasgow 2014 ©Oceania Weightlifting Institute
Celebrating a gold medal at Glasgow 2014 ©Oceania Weightlifting Institute

So Dika is all set to go down in Olympic history as the first woman ever to make a lift, the first woman to compete five times, and the first woman to take part in Olympic Games 20 years apart. Hopefully, in Tokyo, she will gain the recognition she deserves.

“Dika Toua’s longevity, given the challenges that she has faced, is unprecedented and astounding,” said Marcus Stephen, President of the Oceania Weightlifting Federation.

Stephen, a former President of Nauru and now Speaker of Parliament, said Dika was “a role model for all female athletes, who personifies the phrase ‘never give up’.

“Her dedication, loyalty and sacrifices are unmatched. I am very proud of her achievements. Dika is a legend in our region.”

She is a national hero in Papua New Guinea, “a household name” according to Sir John Dawanincura, President of PNG’s National Olympic Committee and of its Weightlifting Federation.

“There have been times, because of all the challenges she has faced, when my heart has gone out to her. She has made so many sacrifices.

“She’s a sporting icon and role model here.”

Dika’s local fame means she spends a lot of time in the house when she is back in Hanuabada, a coastal village near the capital, Port Moresby.

“I hardly go anywhere - because everywhere I go I get mobbed, by kids and even by adults,” Dika said.

“In a good way, of course - I think everybody loves me!”

Geography is probably the main reason why so few people in other parts of the world are aware of her remarkable achievements.

Papua New Guinea has never won an Olympic medal in any sport, and Dika competes mostly in Oceania and Commonwealth competitions that attract little attention in major weightlifting nations such as China, Russia, Iran, and the United States.

DIka Toua trains at the Oceania Weightlifting Institute in New Caledonia ©Getty Images
DIka Toua trains at the Oceania Weightlifting Institute in New Caledonia ©Getty Images

The women’s lightest bodyweight categories have never had top billing, except perhaps in doping stories involving Thailand.

Papua New Guinea has never had a doping positive.

Nor, until Dika’s aunt took up the sport, had it had a female weightlifter. That prompted Dika’s interest; she would go and watch weightlifters at a backyard gym near her home.

“I started weightlifting at the age of 10,” said Dika, whose younger sisters Thelma, 28, and Konio, 21, are also international weightlifters.

“When I took it up I just did it for fun, playing around with the weights. But I loved it, I seemed to have a special talent and when I was 13 I was allowed to compete internationally.”

Dika had been a keen runner and netball player as a young girl, and was inspired by Cathy Freeman, the Australian sprinter but “never once did I think about becoming an Olympian”.

It happened only six years after she first lifted weights and she learned she was going to Sydney in unusual circumstances.

“It was a Sunday morning and we were working as volunteers at a fun run to raise money for PNG’s Olympic team,” Dika said.

Two runners and two swimmers had been selected - little did she know that there was a fifth member of the team.

The IOC had sent a tripartite invitation - offered to nations who are not well represented at the Olympic Games - to Papua New Guinea.

“I was actually collecting rubbish at the time, empty water bottles and a lot of bits of paper lying around at the stadium at the end of the fun run,” she said.

“There were thousands of people there and they made a public announcement that I had been selected to represent PNG at Sydney. It was a big shock to me, I knew nothing about it.”

When it came to the big day in Sydney, 16-year-old Dika was first up in the old 48 kilograms class.

“I remember very clearly that I was really, really nervous because I was the first one up on stage. I went up and missed my first lift, but then I went back and made the second.”

She finished 10th that time, and four years later in Athens she had a career-high finish of sixth and another case of nerves, this time at the Opening Ceremony.

“I was our flag-bearer in Athens, and I was so excited with all those people watching but also very nervous,” Dika said.

Seeing some of the sights in AThens in 2004 ©Oceania Weightlifting Institute
Seeing some of the sights in AThens in 2004 ©Oceania Weightlifting Institute

“And I never imagined how heavy the flag was. But I swung it around and enjoyed myself - Athens was probably my favourite event looking back over my career.”

Dika was seventh at Beijing 2008 and 12th at London 2012.

She won Commonwealth Games silver in 2006 in Melbourne and two years ago in Gold Coast, and gold at Glasgow 2014 after the disqualification of Chika Amalaha of Nigeria, for doping.

The Indian who finished ahead of her in Gold Coast, Sanjita Chanu, was also involved in a doping controversy, having tested positive in both her A and B samples at the 2017 IWF World Championships, only to be cleared about a year later because of an “administrative error”.

“That leaves a very bad taste,” said Paul Coffa, Dika’s coach since 2002 who runs the Oceania Institute with his wife Lily.

“Administrative error? The Indian girl should never even have been competing in Gold Coast."

"It’s horrible winning by disqualification, it’s not fair as I don’t get to experience the medal ceremony on the podium,” said Dika, who was awarded her Glasgow 2014 gold medal in a special ceremony at the Athletes’ Village.

“It just isn’t the same if you don’t have everyone there in the arena watching you on top of the dais.”

The controversial presence of Chanu in 2018 also cost Dika money, as she was awarded AUD100,000 (£50,000/$58,000/€54,000) by the Government for her 2014 gold medal, and AUD50,000 (£25,000/$29,000/€22,000) for second place in Gold Coast.

Dika teamed up with Coffa in 2002, after impressing him at that year’s Oceania Championships in Fiji. She has been with him ever since, one of a multi-national group of athletes from the Pacific Islands, Papua New Guinea and, more recently, New Zealand who “live together, train together, dine together, do everything together - like a family,” said Dika.

There was a gap in her run of Commonwealth Games appearances, in 2010, when she became a mother for the second time.

Her 13-year-old son, Paul, was named after her coach, and her daughter Geua is nine.

Her husband Willie Mavara Tamasi, PNG’s national coach and manager, also spends a lot of time at the Institute, which is the best part of a day away, in flying time, from the children in Hanuabada.

“It’s hard being a mum and a weightlifter at the same time, and I have to leave the kids at home so much while I’m training,” said Dika.

“But I have a goal and I working towards it for the future of my children. I’m so grateful to my parents, who have done so much to help in raising my kids.

"I named Paul after Paul Coffa, yes - he has played such a big part in my career. To be honest I wouldn’t have come this far if it wasn’t for him.

"Every time I am back home in PNG I don’t perform the same as I do when I’m here. It seems like I’ve been with him almost my whole life.”

Dika describes Paul and Lily as “like parents” to her in New Caledonia.

“Lily is such a help to all of us, she plays a mother’s role in so many ways, she’s a doctor, a nurse, a physio, she does all our paperwork - you name it.”

Never was the support of the Coffas, and her fellow athletes at the Institute, more needed than in 2013, when Dika fell ill.

She had just made a total of 191kg, then a career best, in winning the Oceania Championships in Brisbane.

“As soon as I got back to Noumea I wasn’t felling well - I thought it was a common cold,” she said.

“Then one night I was really bad, I was admitted to hospital and I found out I had tuberculosis.”

Papua New Guinea has one of the highest TB rates in the world, with about 30,000 cases a year - and it is deadly. A report only two weeks ago stated that a person dies of TB in PNG every two hours, with more than 100 cases reported every day.

Dika was kept in isolation and says she was lucky to be in Noumea.

Cathy Freeman was a big inspiration for Dika Toua ©Getty Images
Cathy Freeman was a big inspiration for Dika Toua ©Getty Images

“They were able to diagnose the disease and they happened to have the right medicine, which had just been introduced at that time.”

She reached a low point during those two weeks in isolation.

“I never told anyone this, but when I was in hospital I sort of gave up on weightlifting. I guess that was the worst time for me. I said to myself when I get back to the Institute I might as well pack up and go back home.

“But when I walked in and Paul hugged me, and told me that everything was gonna be okay, that I needed to train the next day, that changed my mind.”

She was back in the gym the next morning but it was very hard work.

“I couldn’t bend my knees, I couldn’t even squat 50kg, that’s how hard it was during that period. But I fought my way back and I went to the Commonwealth Championships in Malaysia.”

That was five months later, during which time Dika had lost a lot of strength.

Her total in Malaysia was down by 28kg on her Brisbane performance - but within a year she had recovered well enough to win Commonwealth Games gold.

Papua New Guinea did not qualify any women for Rio 2016, where Dika’s Oceania Institute colleague Morea Baru was the country’s only weightlifter.

Dika dropped down from 53kg to 49kg when the bodyweight classes changed in 2018, and won Pacific Games and Oceania titles last year.

Other women have been in the headlines, such as the American Kate Nye, world weightlifter of the year, and Dika's Oceania Institute team-mate Cikamatana for her record-breaking performances.

Now, perhaps, it is Dika’s turn.

Dika Toua, left, on the Gold Coast 2018 podium ©Getty Images
Dika Toua, left, on the Gold Coast 2018 podium ©Getty Images

Papandrea, the acting President of the IWF and who chairs its Women's Commission, said: "How one overcomes obstacles is one of the defining factors of one's character.

"The determination, fortitude, and resilience demonstrated by Dika, in a sport that is incredibly arduous on the body and mind truly places her among the heroes and heroines of international sport.

"It is not just the success and longevity in weightlifting, but the sincere humility that makes her such an icon for others to emulate."

Tokyo may not be the end of her competitive career, even though she will be 36 in June. Dika gained a coaching diploma way back in 2014 and is keen to “give something back to the sport” when she retires, either in coaching or administration.

“Paul says I’m getting better as I’m getting older. I won’t make any promises and will take it one step at a time but I am still training well and I think I can go on.”

That would make her next big target the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

What about Paris 2024? She laughs.

“I don’t know when I will stop,” she said.

“Weightlifting is in my blood. I don’t know if they can get rid of me.”

Coffa said: “She’s so fit for her age, it’s incredible.”

The swimmer Ryan Pini, who reached the 100 metres butterfly final at Beijing 2008, is the only PNG athlete to have been flag-bearer twice at the Olympic Games.

He surely will not be the only one after the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games.