For those of us who compete in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, there are legions of greats, unknown to the mainstream, who inspires us and we aspire to emulate. This cohort usually exhibit similarly characteristics: they are top level competitors who have exhibited incredible feats of strength, showcased technical prowess, or displayed formidable tenacity. Oftentimes, they also inspire because they have demonstrated resilience in the face of adversity, both in their personal and athletic lives, that invoke feelings of awe and admiration.
For instance, Óscar Figueroa’s incredible journey to finally becoming Olympic champion at the 2016 Rio Olympics comes to mind; Lu Xiaojun overcoming his back injury mid-competition during the 2019 World Championships to set new world records at the age of 36 is another good example. Many of us also have a hard time forgetting Matthias Steiner’s spine-tingling victory at the 2008 Beijing Olympics after promising his late wife that he would bring her home a gold medal. All of these individuals are pioneers of the sport in their own right. However, there is one name that has been left out of the history books of Olympic Weightlifting, yet whose deeds and character, at least in my humble opinion, puts him at the apex of the heroes of Olympic Weightlifting and Olympic history: Israeli Olympian, Yossef Romano.
Born in Benghazi, Libya on April 15th, 1940 to a Jewish family, he was one of 10 children. When Yossef was six years old, the Romano family migrated to then-Mandatory Palestine. An interior decorator by trade, he discovered his love for Olympic Weightlifting at the age of eighteen and dreamed of representing the newly founded nation of Israel on the world stage at the Olympic Games. Competing in the lightweight (67.5kg) and middleweight (75kg) categories, Yossef held the Israeli national champion title for ten years. So dedicated he was to his craft, he often missed work for training, and was even fired from several jobs as a result. Not only that, Yossef also gave his time in service to the sport, simultaneously coaching and managing his association of Hapoel Tel Aviv. In 1971, his hard work finally paid off and his lifelong dream was realized when he was selected to represent Israel at the XX Olympiad in Munich, West Germany in the 75kg category. But Yossef was also a dedicated husband and loving father of three daughters, so he made a promise to his wife Ilana, that after he competes at the Olympic Games, he will retire from competition.
The competition itself however, was not the dream-come-true that Yossef, or any competitor, would have wanted. On the day of his competition on August 31, 1972, Yossef ruptured a tendon in his knee mid-competition and was forced to pull out with a DNF result. Yossef decided to stay for the remainder of the Games in support of his team, and was scheduled to fly back to Israel on September 6th for surgery.
On the evening of September 5th, just a few hours before his scheduled flight, a militant group known as the Black September Organization stormed their way into the Olympic Village in Munich where the Israeli athletes were staying and took hostage 11 members of the Israeli team including both coaches and athletes. Many scholars and journalists, more articulate and well-read than I, have recounted this event in great detail, so I won’t delve into the specific chronology of events here. Instead, I want to focus on the acts of heroism displayed by Yossef.
A veteran of the Israeli military who have seen action in the 1967 Six Day War, Yossef sprang into action when the intruders came to their apartment block with the other hostages in an attempt to round up the remaining Israeli team. As they were being led out, Yossef attacked one of the gunmen and tried to disarm him so that he could give his teammates the opportunity to escape. He was able to injure the gunman and take his weapon away, but not before being overwhelmed by the rest of the assailants. Yossef was reportedly shot and tortured to death in front of his teammates, with his body left at their feet as a warning to others who dare to try. Tragically, a massacre ensued after a botched rescue attempt by the West German police, and none of the 11 Israeli hostages taken that night survived. Other victims from the Olympic Weightlifting community include coach and judge Yakov Springer (1921 – 1972), a Holocaust survivor and member of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, flyweight (52kg) Ze’ev Friedman (1944 – 1972), who finished 12th at Munich which was the highest rank achieved by any Israeli athlete at the time, and lightheavyweight (82.5kg) David Mark Berger (1944 – 1972), who was the Asian weightlifting silver medalist in 1971. Yossef Romano is survived by his wife Ilana, and his three daughters, Oshrat, Rachel, and Schlomit.
Yossef’s story resonates with me on so many levels. For one, he and I competed in the same weight class, he at 67.5kg, and I at 67kg. Second, and most importantly, we are both military veterans. So each time I read about Yossef’s story, I ask myself, would I have had the courage, the selflessness, and the gumption to do what he did so that my team can have a fighting chance, however slim? We all want to think of ourselves as the heroes of our stories, and we all want to believe that when the chips are down, we too would also act without hesitation to do the heroic, and right thing. But is this really a reasonable expectation to hold for ourselves? I argue, in these circumstances of extreme duress, it’s not reasonable for us to expect that we will spring into action the way Yossef did, simply because most of us won’t have the training and preparation to overcome our fear and instincts of self-preservation in the moment. And we should not feel any guilt and shame for it. In the military, they train and drill us for years upon years to overcome this basic survival drive, so that we are able and willing to put ourselves in harm’s way, but that takes a lot of conditioning and training that is neither reasonable, desirable, nor practical for most people to undergo. This is precisely why I believe Yossef deserves to be placed on the pedestal of heroes for our sport. He really is extraordinary in every sense. Even as I write these words, I have goosebumps running down my back, and my eyes well up thinking about the character of this man.
Legendary weightlifting coach Greg Everett once wrote that he doesn’t care about his athletes’ physical potential so much as he cares whether or not they have good character. So the question that Yossef’s story makes me ask myself is, who am I outside of weightlifting? Not what am I, but who am I? This is a lesson I strive to impress on my athletes: before you try to be a good weightlifter, be a good person first, and the rest will follow. In the words of Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, “I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head.”
Thank you Yossef, for helping us understand what it means to be, and to feel strong. On this month, the 48th anniversary of your tragic passing, we remember you. May you rest in power.