José Garcia, training in Thailand, is hoping to be the first weightlifter from Timor Leste to participate in the Olympics under the country's flag ©ITG

José Garcia is the only international weightlifter in his country and cannot speak with his coach, but that is not stopping him trying to earn a place at next year's Olympic Games in Paris.

Garcia was given a boost in his lonely quest by Thailand, where he is training under an Olympic medallist and communicating with her via Google Translate.

"Thank you Thailand… train hard, work hard, I want to go to Paris," said Garcia, who speaks a few words of English, no Thai and usually converses in Tetum, the main language in his homeland Timor Leste.

This week he has been at the EGAT Kings Cup in Phang-Nga, Thailand, preparing to represent Timor at the upcoming Southeast Asian Games in Cambodia.

That is the first step on a path that he hopes will end with a tripartite invitation to lift in Paris.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) will award six tripartite places to weightlifters from countries that do not qualify any athletes for Paris.

Seven nations got them in Tokyo: Pakistan, Palestine, Oman, American Samoa, Malta, Nauru and Tonga.

Timor Leste, one of Asia's poorest countries, is receiving Olympic Solidarity funding for five contenders in athletics, swimming, taekwondo, badminton and weightlifting and hopes two of the five will be awarded a place.

Garcia could not train back home, he said, because there are no coaches at international level - and he cannot compete in the Asian Championships in South Korea starting next week because he could not get a visa on time.

José Garcia is being coached by Beijing 2008 Olympic bronze medallist Pensiri Laosirikul ©ITG
José Garcia is being coached by Beijing 2008 Olympic bronze medallist Pensiri Laosirikul ©ITG

Timor Leste's National Olympic Committee wrote to its counterpart in Thailand, and the Thai Amateur Weightlifting Association (TAWA) supported Garcia by housing and feeding him for three months when he arrived last December, and appointing the Beijing 2008 Olympic bronze medallist Pensiri Laosirikul to coach him.

The fees are now covered by Solidarity funding from the IOC.

Pensiri, 39, who coaches 24 athletes in a neighbouring province to Phang-Nga, said via a translator, "José taught himself, trained by himself and had no technique when he arrived from Timor.

"He is strong but we have to work on technique, and because weightlifting is very technical it is important for him to understand the instructions - so he uses Google Translate to communicate.

"He said he was training in a gym for a hobby, and when someone from the federation saw him they thought he could be good.

"What José wants is to be coached. 

"He has been training for four months and has improved a lot - now we have one year for him train more."

Garcia competed at 77kg twice in 2017 and 2018, and when he went down to 73kg for the 2022 Southeast Asian Games a year ago, he failed to make a total.

Nobody else from Timor has competed in international weightlifting since 2018, and the nation has had only 10 weightlifters at International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) events in the past 20 years.

"Coaching is our really big challenge," said Laurentino Guterres, secretary of the Timor Leste Weightlifting Federation and deputy secretary general of its National Olympic Committee.

"We have some young athletes here doing basic training but we need to get to a higher level, we need to improve our coaching skills, knowledge and experience.

"We will contact the IWF for help with development funding specifically for coaching."

Garcia ballooned up to 89kg in the second half of last year before his move to Thailand.

Martinho de Araújo competed under the Olympic flag at Sydney 2000 ©Getty Images
Martinho de Araújo competed under the Olympic flag at Sydney 2000 ©Getty Images

"His best snatch is 95kg and clean and jerk around 120kg so he needs to improve, but he can do it with hard work," said Pensiri. 

"He is strong and can develop."

She said that Garcia had told her, via Google Translate, that people in Timor were "afraid of weightlifting because they are lifting heavy weights without any teaching how to do it safely, there is a risk of injury".

Timor Leste, a former Portuguese colony, was known as East Timor until it became independent under the new name in 2002, after two decades of conflict that followed an invasion by Indonesia in 1975 and three years of a United Nations transitional administration.

It sent four athletes to Sydney 2000 to compete under the Olympic flag, as it was in the transitional period at the time.

One was a weightlifter, Martinho de Araújo, who had all his training equipment stolen or wrecked during troubled times and made his own "barbells" by sticking metal rods into paint cans filled with cement. 

He was the last of 20 finishers at 56 kilograms.

De Araújo is still involved in weightlifting and he sits on the National Olympic Committee's Athletes' Commission.

No weightlifter from Timor has competed under their own flag at the Olympics. 

"If Garcia makes it, it will be inspiring for the youth, it will give us a chance to ask out Government for some support for weightlifting," said Guterres.