BEIJING - The part of Olympic weightlifting they show on television usually consists of beefy athletes with broad shoulders lifting bar-bending amounts of weight. To the uninitiated, the sport appears to be equal parts strenuous and simple, devoid of any strategy beyond bend, lift, grunt, grimace.
But inside a room behind the stage, coaches huddle in small groups, speak in hushed tones and position lifters like giant pieces on a chessboard.
Dozens of factors play into their decisions, and those factors change constantly based on opposing coach's responses or attacks. Rules, timing and good fortune are critical. Mistakes here cost athletes four years' worth of work.
"It's sort of like playing chicken," said Cheryl Haworth, a bronze medalist for the United States at the 2000 Olympic Games. "Sometimes, it comes down to who can fake the other person out sooner. Or who buckles under pressure.
"Or who bluffs, and who can call it."
The basic rules work like this: lifters get three attempts in each of the two categories - the snatch and the clean-and-jerk - and their best lifts in each category are combined for their competition total.
The athlete who pledges to lift the lowest weight goes first, and all attempts at that weight are made before moving on.
This can turn weightlifting competitions that ultimately come down to who can lift the most weight into contests that more closely resemble the timeless schoolyard refrain of I-triple-double-dog-dare-you.
Athletes become lobbyists. Coaches get conservative, or greedy.
Sometimes, strategy sessions turn into screaming matches, filling the back room with foul language in multiple native tongues.
"There are certainly situations where coaches send athletes out for the wrong weight," said Frank Eksten, USA Weightlifting's team leader who is in charge of logistics for the Olympics. "Could cost them money, could cost them a medal, could cost them a place on the team."
Weightlifters are rarely asked about the strategy behind their lifts.
Most people, even members of their own family, assume their sport is as simple as it gets.
Dennis Snethen, USA Weightlifting's executive director, claims the opposite. He does some of his best work in that room behind the stage, where coaches engage in strategy no one ever sees and only they discuss.
"It's really a challenge for the coaches," Snethen said. "To be honest, I'm really, really addicted to it."
To someone who never competed in Olympic-style weightlifting, those discussions might as well be gibberish. Haworth sometimes watches the coaches scurrying around. She compares their endless combination debates to white noise; their demeanor to a "bunch of busy little worker bees."
But she also draws strength - or concern - from their energy. If the coaches are too calm, she worries why that is. If they are too frantic, she begins to lose it, too.
"The key is for everyone to, um, weigh their options," said Melanie Roach, who finished sixth in the 53-kilogram (117-pound) weight class. "No pun intended."
Someone who bluffs, by listing an insanely heavy first attempt, may not lift anything until all the other athletes have finished their three attempts below it. Of course, then that athlete will have to lift exactly what they listed.
That counts as one example where strategy comes into play. Because athletes can say one thing, but are also allowed two changes over the course of the competition.
While all this gamesmanship is going on, lifters are warming up backstage. They must also time that perfectly, aiming for warm but not worn out.
The possibilities are mind boggling, the strategy intense, the consequences as heavy as the weights. The lifters can use strategy for intimidation, or to set personal records, or American records - which are worth money - or to maximize their placing.
For instance, Roach knew by the clean-and-jerk that she would not medal here. Her coaches decided to go for the American record in her weight class. Her first attempt was at 105 kilograms (231.5 pounds). They planned her second for 110 (242.5 pounds), but because a competitor lifted 108 (238.1 pounds), they had her lift the same amount to ensure she would finish sixth. On her third lift, she hoisted 110 kilograms over her head to safely set the record.
"You need to maximize position," Snethen said. "I never give up anything, not even the weight of one potato chip."
Coaches generally set a basic plan a day or two before competition, then adjust it. At that point, Roach leaves all decisions up to them.
She used to pay attention to the chess game, at least until the world championships in 1998.
That year, Roach had set a world standard with a clean-and-jerk of 117.5 kilograms (259 pounds). She opened at worlds with 107.5 (237 pounds), a high number for an opener but well below what she did before.
She missed once. She got nervous. She missed twice. She got more nervous, sitting in the back room thinking, "I'm going to bomb out."
Then she missed the third.
"It happens every competition," Roach said. "Someone makes a mistake, either too high, or too low."
Different countries vary their approach, and oddly, those approaches often mirror politics. The Americans, for instance, allow their athletes more input, democracy at its finest. The Russians are at the mercy of their coaches.
After all the positioning, it still comes down to power. The strategy on the stage becomes simple again: bend, lift, grunt, grimace.
"You can talk all about the games, all about the strategy," Eksten said. "But in the end, whoever lifts the most weight wins."