Brian Oliver

Piet van de Kruk, ninth in the heavyweights at Mexico City in 1968, is the answer to a question that has been posed plenty of times in the weightlifting world over the past two weeks.

Who was the last Dutchman to lift at the Olympic Games?

The question has come about because of Enzo Kuworge’s remarkable achievement in earning his place in the men’s super-heavyweights at the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

That delay, the extra year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, was a factor in Kuworge becoming his nation’s first Olympic weightlifter in more than half a century.

So was his strength, mental as well as physical, his determination, his coach - and his mother’s cooking.

Kuworge, who will be a teenager until the last day of August, has grown enormously in size and stature.

He weighed less than 120 kilograms when he first competed internationally at the European Junior Championships in Eilat, Israel in 2016.

Now, thousands of home-cooked meals later, he weighs in at 160kg.

Kuworge has improved his best total by 125kg since Eilat.

He left the best till last in qualifying, making a career-best 411kg at his final competition in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

It made him the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) junior world champion and it would put him on the plane to Tokyo, as he finished high enough in the rankings to take a reallocated place just before the entries deadline.

At the time of that first venture into international weightlifting The Netherlands barely had a functioning weightlifting federation and the sport was completely overlooked by its National Olympic Committee (NOC).

Nobody had ever heard of this young man from Nijmegen - though news of his exploits and potential did reach Ghana, the homeland of Enzo’s father, Bright.

Kuworge and his coach Pierre have been a team for 12 years ©Ilona Koster
Kuworge and his coach Pierre have been a team for 12 years ©Ilona Koster

Ben Nunoo Mensah, now President of the Ghana Olympic Committee as well as its weightlifting federation, has tried to persuade Enzo to compete for the west African nation.

Mensah is still in touch with Bright, but Enzo is aware that most of his super-heavyweight rivals are European, so he and his coach Pierre Verkroost are happy with the way things are.

Despite the interest from Ghana, the Netherlands NOC remained unaware of Enzo’s talent when it named its team for the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires in 2018.

They simply had no idea how good he was - until intervention from Attila Adamfi, who was then director general of the IWF.

Once Adamfi had informed the Olympic Committee what a prospect they had, Kuworge became his country’s flag bearer.

He came home with a bronze medal, appeared on Dutch national TV chat shows as his profile rose, and secured low-level funding to cover the costs of competing.

His junior world title and qualification for Tokyo have already had an effect.

"Lots of young kids want to try weightlifting now, all over the country," Kuworge said before flying to Japan.

The first time he spoke to insidethegames nearly five years ago, a then 15-year-old Enzo had glowing praise for his mum’s spaghetti bolognese.

He still does, but his tastes have widened as his appetite has grown.

Ilona, his hard-working, supportive and unbelievably proud mother, serves his meals in one of those huge fruit bowls that is usually used for display, not for eating from.

"He still likes spaghetti, but beefburgers and Surinam brown bean stew are also favourites now," Ilona said.

"He eats at least four hot meals a day.

Enzo pictured with his mum Ilona ©Ilona Koster
Enzo pictured with his mum Ilona ©Ilona Koster

"Eggs, bacon and buns in the morning, beef or chicken with buns or rice, soup, stew or hotpot with meat and vegetables, then leftovers or an extra warm meal in the evening, not to mention protein shakes and so on.

"I have to buy at least 30 eggs a week.

"Sometimes I forget how ‘normal’ people eat when I have guests for dinner

"I put food on a plate for my guest and they tell me it is enough for three meals."

Kuworge - who was relieved to discover that the food is good, and plentiful, in the Athletes Village in Tokyo - will gain state funding now that he has qualified for the Olympic Games and that will make life easier for Ilona and Bright.

Ilona happily took on two jobs to pay for Enzo’s food.

"Proud of Enzo does not even come close to the enormous admiration I feel when I look at him," she said.

She cannot travel to Tokyo because there are no spectators at the Olympic Games, so as usual she and Bright, with Enzo’s sister and Verkroost’s wife, will follow the action on television.

"I am in wonder, how this big, always so kind, funny and friendly young man can also have so much willpower, focus and determination," she said.

"The skill of weightlifting is something he and his coach have been working on, almost every day, for the last 10 years, but there is more to it.

"Enzo's mind power is his biggest strength.

"At a very young age he said ‘I am going to the Olympics.’

"Nobody, besides his coach, supported his belief, as weightlifting is not (yet) a big sport in The Netherlands.

"At the Junior World Championships all the circumstances were perfect.

"For the first time in his career his physiotherapist went with him and Pierre.

Enzo Kuworge lifted 33 kilograms at the age of just eight years old ©Ilona Koster
Enzo Kuworge lifted 33 kilograms at the age of just eight years old ©Ilona Koster

"Everything came together that day, and Enzo’s determination was the engine for the performance.

"He even said it himself: 'My body has a limit, but I could go beyond that, when I stood on the platform'.

"In training he came close, but never lifted these weights before."

Kuworge acknowledges that the extra year of preparation helped.

"That 411 total at the World Juniors, maybe it would have been 400 to 404 a year ago.

"Before the European Championships in Moscow (in April) I went 175-220 but not on the same day, that was maximum."

Moscow was Kuworge’s first, and so far only, appearance in an A Group at a major senior competition.

"The cameras stayed around me a long time - it took a lot of getting used to."

His 398 total there was below expectations, leaving him in 11th place.

He improved his snatch by 4kg and his clean and jerk by 9kg in Tashkent.

"I always thought I had a chance of qualifying for Tokyo but then competitions got cancelled and I thought it was all over," he said.

"I did it with support from my mum and dad and we survived.

"My mother is so excited - she doesn’t stop talking about it."

Enzo Kuworge is aiming to become the first Dutch weightlifter at an Olympics since Piet van de Kruk in 1968 ©Ilona Koster
Enzo Kuworge is aiming to become the first Dutch weightlifter at an Olympics since Piet van de Kruk in 1968 ©Ilona Koster

After Tokyo, Kuworge - who has no elite training partners in The Netherlands - is planning to visit Britain to train at the Atlas Gym in Derbyshire with Emily Campbell, another huge improver who has made it to Tokyo.

Campbell is among Kuworge’s favourite lifters, along with Lasha Talakhadze, Meso Hassona and the Belgian Nina Sterckx.

Coach Verkroost rates Kuworge as "the best weightlifting talent ever from the Netherlands."

Van der Kruk, who died last year, was also a shot put national champion and did not win major titles in weightlifting.

"I first met Enzo when he was eight years old, when he was playing around at boxing and ice hockey, and when I said he should try some squats he liked it," said Verkroost.

"He went all in for weightlifting when he was 12 or 13 and he has always been very ‘sport intelligent’.

"When he was 16 he decided ‘Europe is where it’s at’ rather than compete for Ghana.

"The COVID delay was a blessing in disguise - I don’t think Enzo would have made 411 a year ago.

"We all really hope Enzo is going to have a positive effect on weightlifting in the Netherlands."

At the age of 19, Kuworge has a lot of lifting and eating ahead of him.

Tokyo may not be his only appearance at the Olympic Games.