The home games: 2. David Liti
In May the International Olympic Committee warned that hosting the Games in 2021 would be challenging and that the Tokyo Olympics – already postponed one year – might be cancelled. For athletes who had spent years preparing the disruption was a shock. And as lockdowns saw gyms, pools and sports centres close, new ways to train were needed. Here's part two of our series on sportspeople whose lives – and living rooms – were upended by the pandemic
16th May 2020 (Taken from: #39)
David Liti, weightlifter
Te Kauwhata, New Zealand
It would be a stretch to say that David Liti enjoyed lockdown, but compared to the experiences of some other athletes, his life became simpler. The 24-year-old Commonwealth Games gold medallist lives and trains at his coach’s house an hour’s drive south of Auckland. When New Zealand’s lockdown was announced in March his world shrank. Gone were the regular trips to Auckland for technical work and physiotherapy. Gone were the trips to see his family. But he could still train largely as he did before, getting up at the same time, sticking to his training diet and setting up nearly a tonne of weights on the driveway in the front garden so that he could lift every morning – only now local kids arrived on their skateboards and scooters to shout their encouragement.
The sun shone throughout the initial lockdown and he could almost forget that the Olympics had been postponed. Maybe, he reasoned, it was even a good thing. He had another year to get stronger. And then he was brought back down to Earth. “My phone reminded me. I looked at it and thought: ‘Oh shit. I’d be in Japan today competing,’” he says. “Deep down inside I felt like there was a void. I’d tried so hard to get there.”
Liti’s journey has been tough. Born in New Zealand to Tongan parents, he grew up in Tonga before returning to New Zealand aged ten. “My family was well off in Tonga, but when they came back to New Zealand we kind of struggled for the first ten years,” he says. “We wouldn’t have enough to eat. We’d get home from school and go straight to sleep. We’d call it ‘sleep for dinner’.”
Even though he’d only have one meal a day, Liti had a natural physique for weightlifting (“from my Tongan genes,” he says). His talent was spotted by his current coach, Tina Ball, who was running a community weightlifting programme next to his school. After Liti walked in with a few friends, and Ball saw what he could do, she persuaded him to focus on lifting rather than rugby, and later offered him the chance to move in so that he could concentrate on training every day. “It was a relief for my family because there was one less mouth to feed,” he says.
Liti never thought he’d be an Olympian, but when he set a new Commonwealth record in 2018 by lifting a total of 403kg, Tokyo was the natural next step. He fundraised enough money to compete in qualifying events in Doha and Rome to all but assure his ticket – and then Covid hit. The New Zealand Olympic committee announced that competitors would have to qualify all over again next year. Liti doesn’t hold any anger or regret over the pandemic postponing his Olympic dream, however. “This thing is bigger than me,” he says with a shrug.
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