To understand his emotion, you need to know his story, and how a gold medal brought the whole thing full circle.
When Zane Weir stood atop the podium at the European Athletics Indoor Championships in Istanbul, listening to the Italian anthem, the feeling rushing through him was not just a product of his own life, but that of his family’s, and his coach’s.
Weir was born and raised in South Africa, and if you listen to the 27-year-old speaking English, that’s where you might think his allegiance starts and ends – his accent missing the melodic musicality synonymous with Italians.
But as he stood in the mixed zone at the Atakoy Arena, answering questions from Italian journalists after his victory in the men’s shot put final, he switched smoothly to their native tongue. Sure, his Italian isn’t perfect yet – “I’m trying,” he said – but his desire to improve it, to perfect it, shows the nuance of who he is, and where he comes from.
“I’m not trying to be Italian,” he said. “I’m trying to be Zane Weir, who is also Italian.”
Weir's bond with grandfather instils love of all sports
Weir grew up in Amanzimtoti, a coastal town in South Africa, and his childhood was spent largely outdoors, playing everything from rugby to soccer, cricket to hockey, baseball to water polo. His grandfather, Mario, was Italian, and at the age of 25, Mario moved to South Africa. He was the ignition switch for Zane’s love of sport.
“He used to look after us when my parents were at work, and I remember he’d have sport on TV 24/7,” said Weir. “It could be 6:30 in the morning, and he’d be sitting there, eating his porridge, watching whatever sport’s highlights he could find.”
By the age of 16, Weir had chiselled his sporting spectrum down to just rugby and athletics, and when he enrolled at the University of Cape Town, he went all-in on the shot put. The transition to the senior implement proved a tough one, but he stuck at it, believing he had huge potential. After college, his parents funded him to move to Johannesburg to chase his shot put dream.
He started training there with coach Pierre Blignaut, but after a couple of months Blignaut was diagnosed with cancer and had to step away from coaching. Weir stuck at it, training twice a day, hoping to eventually see a big breakthrough. Finally it arrived, with Weir jumping from a PB of 16.91m to 19.09m in 2019.
How did he come to represent Italy? That goes back to a chat with Orazio Cremona, a South African shot putter with Italian roots, who recommended Paolo Dal Soglio as a coach. That was how Weir first reached out to the Italians.
His first meeting with Dal Soglio happened at the start of 2020, when a group of Italian athletes held a training camp in South Africa. Weir was invited to come along by Dal Soglio, who’d been the European indoor shot put champion back in 1996, also finishing fourth at the Atlanta Olympics that same year.
“He told me I had a lot of potential, that he’d like to work with me full-time,” said Weir. “That’s when I decided to move to Italy.”
Dal Soglio's selfless act
Weir couldn’t have foreseen what happened next. He arrived in Italy just eight days before their national lockdown to halt the spread of Covid-19, and few could have predicted just how long that would last. With all training facilities shut, Dal Soglio and his wife invited Weir to stay at their home, where he’d have everything he needed to continue his training. Three years later, he’s still based there.
“Paolo was so generous, doing that for someone he barely knew,” said Weir.
The decision to represent Italy was partially down to the increased support and opportunities available there, but it was also something more: a way to honour his granddad. After the lockdown lifted and competitions resumed, Weir got the chance to compete in Trieste later that year, and before the meeting he paid his first visit to his grandad’s home, tracking down the apartment in which he was raised.
“That whole experience was very moving for me,” said Weir. “These little chunks of meaning, that was fantastic to experience.”
A year later, his grandfather passed away. It happened in June 2021, just three days before the Italian Championships, and Weir went back to South Africa for the funeral, spending a week with his grieving family before flying to Tokyo for the Olympics.
With his granddad foremost in his thoughts, he finished fifth in the Olympic final, throwing a PB of 21.41m. in 2022, he got better again, throwing a PB of 21.99m at the European Throwing Cup in Leiria, Portugal, last March. But at the Golden Spike meeting in Ostrava last May, his season came to an abrupt end.
Weir got one of his throws wrong and it led to him breaking the second metatarsal in his hand, which ruled him out for the rest of the year. He was unable to throw for five months. “It’s a very unusual injury but that ball is heavy and I think I’m one of the lightest people to ever throw the ball that far,” he said. “You really test the joints, everything, and there’s not too much to absorb the load if you mess it up.”
The rebuilding process was a slow one, and Weir only returned to competitive action in early February, throwing 21.32m and 21.45m respectively at meetings in Germany before improving to 21.46m to finish second at the Italian Indoor Championships. That ranked him fifth heading to Istanbul, but Weir knew things were starting to click in training. He knew what was coming.
He seized command of the shot put final with a 21.89m throw in the second round, but then Czech Republic’s Tomas Stanek snatched the lead with 21.90m. Weir composed himself, his thought process was the same as it had been all evening.
“Patience, poise and perfection,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been drumming into myself.”
No lightweight in the shot put circle
For Weir, throwing the shot has far more meaning than meets the eye.
“The rotational technique is something that takes constant work, it’s a lifelong learning exercise and it becomes something of a spiritual thing,” he said. “To do the same thing over and over again can be a bit monotonous, but it works on you internally, and that’s what I love about the sport.”
He drew on more than a decade of deliberate practice in the next round, throwing a PB of 22.06m, which no one else could match.
Did he think he had a throw like that in him?
“Yeah, but I’m a bit disappointed, I was going for the European record (of 22.55m),” he said. “My training shape is incredible, but with a little more competition experience, we can see what happens.”
The win meant he emulated the feat of his coach, 27 years earlier, and Dal Soglio was in his thoughts afterwards. “Without Paolo, there’s absolutely no way I’d be here,” he said. “It just means so much. He deserves it. He’s one of the best coaches in the world, without a doubt.”
It also proved to many that Weir can produce his best when it matters most. “I’ve been overlooked for a long time, it feels good to finally be where I am,” he said.
What would it mean to stand proud, in that blue kit, and hear the Italian anthem for the first time in his career at a major championship? As he stood in the mixed zone in the Atakoy Arena on Friday, Weir paused for a moment, choking up slightly with emotion, as he reflected on it.
“A lot,” he said. “I lost my grandfather just before the Olympics, so this is not just (about) sport for me. Sport is too monotonous to take it at face value. There’s a lot of personal growth, spiritual growth, and to tie that in with family means so much. To stand up there tonight, I’ll try to remain somewhat composed, but there’s going to be a lot of emotion.”
That there was, and as he looks to the future, Weir says his focus will stay the same.
“Incremental improvements, lifelong learning; I hope to experience more moments that are meaningful, and this is one of them,” he said. “It’s meaning – that’s what I’m after.”
It’s something that’s been there on every step of his journey, something he’ll continue to carry with him now that he’s arrived.
Cathal Dennehy for European Athletics