|Trần Lê Quốc Toàn and his most important medal, an Olympic bronze, which he received at the 2012 London Games. Photo kenh14.vn|
Trần Lê Quốc Toàn has a special place in his gym to hang the medals that he has collected over many years. Among them, the most precious is not gold but a bronze he earned 10 years ago, though it only arrived last month.
Toàn was Việt Nam's main medal hope at the 2012 London Olympics. The weightlifter was an Asian championship silver medallist, and his result of 279kg made him a favourite in the men's 56kg class.
In London, he made 284kg but could only finish fourth below Om Yun-chol of North Korea, Wu Jingbiao from China, and Valentin Hristov of Azerbaijan.
Hristov's result shocked Toàn because the Azerbaijani's performance was way beyond what he did previously.
"I had several weeks practising with him before the Olympics, and I was surprised in London as he could lift 20kg more after just a few months," Toàn said.
Eight years later, Toàn was suddenly bumped up to third place after Hristov tested positive for illegal drugs.
|The Olympic bronze medal in the men's 56kg weightlifting event needed nearly a decade to find its owner. Photo webthethao,vn|
When Toàn officially took his bronze, he was happy but also hurt because his life would have been very different if he had been honoured in 2012.
"It is a happiness for me. It is an Olympic medal. It came to me late but is still a valuable award," Toàn told Việt Nam News when he received an additional bonus for his medal in late September in Hà Nội.
"It is an honour for me, my coaches, family and Việt Nam sport. It is the most important medal of my career. In late 2020, I was informed. I was happy and sad at the same time. Happy because I made a global achievement, but sad because I was unlucky.
"If I received my bronze at the Olympics, it would have been a strong push to overcome all my challenges and make my name in the world. My life and career would have had better chapters," said the 33-year-old, who is now past his prime.
As an Olympian in the top three, he would have garnered a special training regime, and his income would have been much higher.
Trần Đức Phấn, deputy director of the Việt Nam Sports Administration, agreed that if Toàn had been recognised as an Olympic medallist earlier, he would have received more support and investment as a world-class athlete.
|Trần Lê Quốc Toàn performs in London Olympics in 2012. Photo toquoc.vn|
Toàn was the only Vietnamese athlete to bag a medal at the London Games. His bronze was the second in Việt Nam's weightlifting in history after a silver by Hoàng Anh Tuấn in Beijing in 2008. It was the fifth medal of the country in any Olympics.
After the London Games, Toàn secured a berth at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016. However, things were never quite the same, and he finished fifth with a 275kg result.
In 2017, Toàn won one gold and two bronzes in the Asian championship before one silver and two bronzes in the world championship.
Since then, Toàn has aged and suffered injuries, which saw him not even make the national team.
Đà Nẵng-born Toàn eventually got married and moved to live in Hà Nội for nearly 10 years. He opened a weightlifting gym in Đông Anh District to make a living.
Apart from practising himself, Toàn also works as a coach for Đà Nẵng, taking charge of the junior team.
"I have joined the coaching board. Under my reign, several youngsters have grabbed good results at the national championship for juniors. But I still need to learn more to do my job better," said Toàn who was ranked No 3 in the world in 2011.
"When the national championship is organised, I practise intensively to participate. It will bring a good result for Đà Nẵng and a bonus for my family and me."
Hope after bronze
Toàn will be one of the oldest athletes to compete at the National Sports Games later this year, but the hunger is still there.
|Trần Lê Quốc Toàn (left) receives his Olympic bronze and flowers from Deputy Prime Minister Phạm Bình Minh in 2021. VNS Photo Quý Lượng|
He has confirmed participation in the 55kg category in Thanh Hóa Province. More than that, he wants a better result than four years ago when he took silver in Hà Nội.
"I will compete in the National Games. I am preparing my best fitness and technique," he said.
Toàn is the athlete with the best background but knows his rivals are tough. Among them, Lại Gia Thành is the most difficult as he won gold and set a record at the 31st SEA Games in May.
"Thành is one of the best athletes in my category. He has good technique and a solid mentality. It will be difficult to beat him," Toàn said of his far younger rival. "But I have my own plans. Hopefully, I will complete my task and show my best." VNS