Mario Martinez has died at the age of 60 ©Jim Schmitz

Mario Martinez, the last American man to win an Olympic weightlifting medal, who was one of the most popular figures in the sport in the United States throughout the 1980s and 1990s, has died aged 60.

But for a record-breaking clean and jerk of 240 kilograms by the Australian tuna fisherman Dean Lukin, the last lift of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, super-heavyweight Martinez would have won Olympic gold.

No American male has done that since Charles Vinci in 1960, nor has any American man won an Olympic medal of any colour since Martinez, who made all six lifts in Los Angeles. 

"He's our best international weightlifter since 1960, he had an incredible career and he was a fantastic person," said his coach Jim Schmitz from his San Francisco home.

Phil Andrews, chief executive of USA Weightlifting, said: "Mario was a champion who leaves a lasting legacy as the last American man to win an Olympic medal. 

"We will miss him dearly."

When he first started in weightlifting, Martinez lifted at home without any proper equipment, and for his first four years he never even owned a pair of weightlifting shoes.

"At his first competition in the spring of 1973 he didn't know what to do," said Schmitz, the former USA Weightlifting President who coached Martinez throughout his 23-year career. 

Mario Martinez, left, with double Olympic weightlifting champion Tommy Kono ©Jim Schmitz
Mario Martinez, left, with double Olympic weightlifting champion Tommy Kono ©Jim Schmitz

"But I knew he was talented right from the start.

"Mario had a hodgepodge of plates and had to tie on extra weights with shoe strings, and sometimes after a heavy lift he had to straighten out the bar with a hammer."

Martinez, who was twice married and had two daughters, was supported throughout his career by his close-knit family.

His father and uncle fashioned weights from a bar and coffee cans filled with cement, and by working out with the men at the family ranch in California - built from scratch after Martinez's Mexican parents bought the land - the youngster became fascinated with proving his strength.

Martinez tried football, wrestling and athletics in his youth but he became hooked on weightlifting when he watched a competition in San Francisco in 1972 in which three American Olympians took part - Dan Cantore, Russ Knipp and shot putter Al Feuerbach.

He competed from 1973 until 1996, lifted at three Olympic Games, won 10 National Championships, broke several national and Pan American records, won gold, silver and bronze at three Pan American Games, and was four times the US weightlifter of the year.

He first made a 400kg total in 1983, and although his performances tapered off towards the end of his career he always improved for the Olympic Games.

He was second in 1984, fourth in Seoul in 1988, where he would have been on the podium with a better snatch performance, and eighth in Barcelona in 1992 - the best performance by any American at all three Games.

Martinez, who never made any money from his sport, first worked as a prison guard in Soledad, and when he moved to San Francisco to train at Schmitz's gym he joined the service department of Budget car rentals, where he stayed for the rest of his working life.

During a weightlifting career that ran from the age of 16 to his late 30s, Martinez never once needed surgery for any injury. 

He fell victim in recent years to diabetes, losing his lower left leg a few years ago and, on Sunday (January 14), his life.

Schmitz recalled the highlight of Martinez's career, the Los Angeles Olympics, in an article he wrote in 2004.

"The Soviet boycott gave him a great chance, and he trained harder than ever," he said. 

"He made six good lifts for 410kg, a US record total.

Jim Schmitz served as Mario Martinez's coach ©Jim Schmitz
Jim Schmitz served as Mario Martinez's coach ©Jim Schmitz

"We thought we had it won but Dean Lukin pulled out the gold with a personal best clean and jerk of 240kg for a total of 412.5.

"Mario was quite dejected and thought I had called the wrong weights for him. 

"I certainly didn't think so - they were personal records and absolute maximums for that day. 

"If Mario had missed any attempts he could have finished third or lower."

Schmitz also recalled the time, at the 1995 Pan American Games, when Martinez went out on the town with team-mate Tom Gough and returned to the Athletes' Village after curfew.

They wanted to see Mar del Plata, a coastal resort about 30 miles away from the Village "with a lot to see and do", so took a bus.

"They saw and did too much, missed the bus back, had to take a cab but missed curfew and were locked out of the village," said Schmitz.

"The coaching staff wanted to send Tom and Mario home the next day without lifting. 

"Mario told the coaches to go ahead and send him home but not Tom, as it was his fault.

"Good sense prevailed and they were both allowed to lift."

Schmitz added: "Mario was extremely humble, very shy, but approachable. 

"Everybody in the gym liked him.

"He never liked to make a fuss about anything, didn't like to be around a lot of people, but he loved weightlifting, loved being strong. 

"I'm so sorry he is no longer with us."