Weightlifting coach Kazem Panjavi in Odisha to raise the bar

The inspiring story of Kazem Panjavi, the weightlifting coach at Odisha's High-Performance Centre, who has delivered three medals at the National Senior Championships.

A proud moment for Kazem Panjavi (Left) as his ward Kanhu Sahu won bronze at the National Senior Championships in 2019.   -  special arrangement

He has dodged snipers, worked as a pizza delivery agent, represented Iran at the Olympics, mentored his Olympian brother and coached his son to a Commonwealth Youth championship medal. Meet Kazem Panjavi, the Iranian weightlifting mogul, who's current goal is to create India's next weightlifting sensation. The 55-year-old has been roped in by the Odisha government and TENVIC Sports as chief coach of the KJS Ahluwalia Group sponsored High-Performance Centre here.

Kazem's tale has a twist too many. “My first sport was gymnastics. When I was 13, the revolution began in Iran and the sports centre in our area was converted into a military base. I had no place to train,” he says. He tried his hand at Kung-Fu and also played volleyball in school, but his friends told him that he was very skinny and weak.

On their advice, he went to the weightlifting centre. And the route to the gym was quite the bumpy one. “My city, Mahabad, was surrounded by the Army. People were getting shot in the streets. They used to fire bullets from the mountain top and they targeted five junctions. I had to go through three of them on my way to the gym on my motorbike. You had to be very fast to escape the snipers,” he says, with a quiver in his voice.

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But the journey was worth it. “The first day I went I just sat and saw them do the snatch, then the next day I saw them clean and jerk and the third day I asked the coach if I could join. The coach asked me if I had lifted before and I said hadn't. I did a 40kg snatch and a 50kg clean and jerk and my body weight was only 48kg. The coach was shocked! I went on to make the national junior team in two years,” he says.

A series of strong results, including a bronze medal at the Asian Championships, saw him transform into one of Iran's top weightlifters. And he went on to make it to the Olympics. But all of his hard work was undone by one haste decision.

Kazem (second from left) with the Iranian weightlifting team at a training camp in Tatabanya, Hungary, ahead of the 1992 Olympics.   -  special arrangement

 

The regret is writ large on his face as he talks about it, “It was sad. I got some bad advice the night before. I couldn't sleep and my room-mate told me to take a sleeping tablet. I listened to him but my body, but the tablet made my body very loose the next morning. I dislocated my shoulder and couldn't complete a single lift.”

“But I trained hard and made a new national record the next year. I lifted 140kg in snatch and 175kg in clean and jerk. I weighed 70 kg and became one of the few Iranian lifters to lift more than twice my body weight. I also won the silver medal at the 1993 Asian Championships” he adds. 

He then tried his luck in an administrative role as head of sports in the city of Piranshahr, in the West Azarbaijan province, but internal politics saw him lose interest. Seeking greener pastures, he migrated to the United Kingdom in 1995.

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But it wasn't a bed of roses there either. “I had a very hard time there. I had the highest level of sports/weightlifting coaching certificate in Iran but they didn't accept it in the UK and I had to start from zero. I knew no English so I had to learn the language and had to work odd jobs. My friend had a pizza shop and I helped him with delivery. After two years I opened a gym – in Ealing in West London,” he says.


Among his many laurels, Kazem (Centre) was adjudged the best lifter at the 1999 London Open Championships.   -  special arrangement


 

“Meanwhile, I invited my brother Kamran, who was my student, to England and coached him. He qualified for the 2004 Athens Olympics and was the only male weightlifter from the UK that year.”

However, Kamran Panjavi, just like his brother, did not complete a single lift. He snapped his back and had to be stretchered off the lifting platform. Kazem was backstage, as his brother's unofficial coach, left to rue fate's cruel twist.

He then went on to work with the junior teams and his stature in the British weightlifting fraternity grew. He coached his son to the silver medal at the Commonwealth Youth Games, while his daughter became a two-time Biritish senior weightlifting champion. But Kazem wanted a new challenge.

It has been a year since Panjavi has joined the High-Performance Centre in Odisha and he has delivered results.   -  special arrangement

 

And February 2019 presented that. The Iranian-Brit took up the offer in Bhubaneswar and has been working with 35 students at the KIIT campus. Kazem has been given a free hand here and is keen on making the chance count. “The government gives me what exactly I need. They give me the power to do what I want and that is the dream,” he says.

He's confident of making champions here, but at a realistic pace. “Things will be slow but we will get there. We are starting from scratch. In the first year I have to correct the lifters' techniques, work on their strength and get to know them better. I have maintained that we can win silver and bronze medals in the first two years. I have also promised that I will give the State a Commonwealth Youth champion and a junior champion in the third year.”

It's been a year since his arrival and and three of his lifters have climbed the podium. Kanhu Sahu (73kg) and Suresh (96kg) won bronze medals at the National Senior Championships, while Kumbeshwar Mallik (55kg) also won bronze at the Khelo Games here. Kazem delivered on his first promise, making it clear that he's here to make a difference.