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Apr 24, 2012, 02.32 PM IST
OLYMPICS-WEIGHTLIFTING-ILIN:Kazakh weightlifter hungry for gold
By Robin Paxton
ALMATY (Reuters) - Heads turn when Ilya Ilyin strides into a billiards hall in Kazakhstan's largest city. The three-times world weightlifting champion grins and wraps his muscular arms around doormen in the club as they take pictures on their mobile phones.
Ilyin, still only 23, has just finished training in an Almaty sports hall named in his honour. Nationwide expectation that he can bring home his second Olympic gold sits easily on his broad shoulders.
"It's not a burden. It's a plus," he said. "I like to make people happy. When you compete, when you feel the energy of the people, it spurs you on."
Ilyin is among Kazakhstan's best hopes for gold at the 2012 London Olympics. The reigning world champion in the 94kg middle heavyweight category, he says nothing quite compares to the Olympic gold he won four years ago in Beijing.
"The Olympics have their own unique atmosphere and energy," he said, his dark, spiky hair still glistening after training. "People might say it's just the same as any other competition, but don't kid yourself. There's a hunger for victory."
Ilyin said there were about 10 competitors in the 94kg category able to lift approximately the same weight in London. He expects strong competition from other ex-Soviet athletes, including his compatriot and 2009 world champion Vladimir Sedov.
"The victory margin will only be one or two kilogrammes," he said. "Whoever wins, I will offer my hand and embrace him like a brother. I'm a simple person, always ready to befriend people.
"But in competition, I'm a warrior."
Ilyin plays billiards to relax. His mobile phone rings constantly. He wears ripped jeans and a black Nike T-shirt and describes himself as "a music lover"; Russian rock songs are a particular favourite during karaoke sessions with friends.
From dieticians to trainers, Ilyin has "an entire army" behind his effort to win gold. He spares a special word of gratitude for Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled the Central Asian state since before independence in 1991.
"It's no secret that I'm going for gold. Everything possible is being done for me," he said. "You will achieve a lot of support if you display the results. You must do your part, and then you'll receive it back."
Ilyin showed his potential early. He was only six-years-old when his brother started taking him along to a sports hall in Kyzylorda, the remote city on the steppe of southern Kazakhstan where his parents still live today.
"I'd finished kindergarten and there was nobody to look after me at home during the day," he said. "I started going to the sports hall, running, jumping."
Then he started lifting, only the bar at first. Coaches quickly saw his potential. "By nature I was a little guy with big legs - a stocky lad," he said.
Ilyin was eight when he won his first local competition.
A year later, competing against children four years his senior, he was crowned national youth champion of Kazakhstan. He was breaking Asian records in his mid-teens.
At 17, Ilyin travelled to the International Weightlifting Federation's World Championships in Qatar in 2005 and returned as champion in the 85kg category. He repeated the feat a year later, this time in the 94kg category.
After a minor injury, he decided to take a break from sport.
"It was better to recover properly than to give everything straight away," he said. A fully fit Ilyin travelled to Beijing in 2008 and won Olympic gold. Last year, in Paris, he became world champion for the third time.
Ilyin has already visited London on several occasions. After competing on August 4, his thoughts will turn quickly to returning to friends and family, not least his two-year-old daughter.
Home is Kazakhstan, a vast country of 17 million people, but he cannot pinpoint a specific city. He divides his time between Almaty, Kyzylorda and the capital Astana, where his partner - a member of the national handball team - plays for the local club.
"I move around," he says, "like a true Kazakh nomad."
In the billiards hall, he racks up the balls for another game and sips a cup of coffee, his favourite drink. He thinks occasionally about a career after sport.
"I've started spending more of my time studying, trying to improve my IQ by reading and writing," he says. "I've missed out on a lot in life. I don't regret this, of course. Nevertheless I need to make up for lost time."
For now, though, his focus is London.
"My desire is strong and I have every opportunity," he says. "I have the hunger."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)
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