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Why Does the US Suck at Olympic Lifting?

Ok, as promised, this is the mega-series that I’ve been working and reworking.  I almost delayed it another day but I’m going to save that little post for recovery after this.  Be forewarned, this is a monster.  I had originally planned to do it in 6 parts across 3 weeks but it made some of them monsters so I’ll be subdividing some of them (like today’s) even further and running every other day until it’s done.

As with previous mega-series, I’m going to turn off comments until after the last piece simply because it will save pointless arguments or questions about stuff that I will almost invariably end up covering before all is said and done.  And then I expect comments and debate and argument in the last section to go totally batshit. It’s the nature of this issue.  And with that introduction out of the way, away we go.


Fairly recently, I read a fairly humorous thread on a training forum examining the issue of why the United States continues to suck at Olympic Lifting at the world stage; it was the utter stupidity expressed in that thread that spurred me to bother with this.  Realize that this is not a new topic: I’ve seen it being bitched about and debated nearly as long as I’ve been in the field and it was assuredly going on before that.  It’s an issue that most have some sort of opinion on and many have offered fairly simple singular answers to the problem/question of why the United States suck at Olympic lifting.

Now, in the case of this particular thread, the forum moderator, a simple man with about one tool in his toolbox, gave a very simple answer: American OL’ers need more strength.   That’s it.  We fail to medal and have done so for the past 30 years because our lifters simply aren’t strong enough.

Nevermind that OL’ing at one point did recruit a guy (Shane Hamman, a 1000 lb squatter) with more strength coming out of one leg than most have in their entire body and he still couldn’t medal.  Make no mistake, he held his own at the highest levels but being strong as all hell didn’t put him on the podium.

Because regardless of what many think, maximal strength is only relevant to OL performance up to a certain point; beyond that point it doesn’t help (and may even hurt).  Many OL’ers found this out the hard way in years past, they’d push their squats up to insane levels and their competition lifts didn’t move an iota.  Despite this, this gentleman’s answer was that our lifters needed more strength.  And certainly things would be much easier if it were only that simple.  Just make ’em strong and watch the medals roll in.

Others have provided equally simplistic answers, usually based on what little they know or think they know about the sport (and what they think the US is doing) or because they simply project their own preferences, ignorance or biases onto the issue.

Some folks think our lifters need more technique work, some think that the drug testing issue is holding us back (it’s certainly not helping that US lifters are tested so often given the rampant drug use in the sport).  Back in the mid 90’s, Louie Simmons argued in the pages of Milo that our guys should go back to training like the Russians did in the 70’s with the conjugate system and endless special exercises with only light work on the competition lifts (nevermind that literally no top OL’ers train like that anymore).  One entertaining book I just read gave a case study of an Olympic lifter who didn’t start progressing until he added 2 months per year of steady state aerobic work.  Maybe that’s what our lifters need: 2 months of aerobic work every year.  Maybe not.

Like I said, everyone has their opinion and usually it reflects whatever simplistic answer that their own simplistic analysis yielded.  As often as not it simply reflects their personal bias and the singular tool they have in their toolbox.   I on the other hand, like to think a bit more comprehensively which is why this series is going to take so damn long to address it all.

Because rather than launching into an examination of Olympic lifting simply to demonstrate my own preferences, ignorance and biases, I’m going to take a different approach to trying to find a solution (if there is one); at the very least I hope to define the problem in totality to answer the original question: Why the US sucks at Olympic Lifting?


Success Leaves Clues

Because although I have made some joking comments about how Success Leaves Clues and how people tend to cherry pick commonalities to push an agenda, there is some truth to the idea: when a particular end result keeps coming up over and over and over again in different groups with seemingly no relationship to one another, looking for commonalities can be instructive.

And I’m going to approach the issue of US Ol’ing lifting success (or the lack thereof) by looking at countries or groups who have generated consistent success (or outright dominance) in various sports to see if there are any commonalities between them.  Please note that I’m talking about consistent success: a country that generates that one lone exceptional athlete doesn’t really tell us much though I will look at an odd exception towards the end of this nonsense. Rather, when some group is consistently producing folks at the highest levels (or outright dominating a single sport), it’s worth looking at them to see what they are doing.

More importantly, it can be educational to see what disparate groups are doing that is the same or different.  Because if they are all doing the same basic stuff, that gives us an idea of how you produce success. By extension, those not doing those common things aren’t going to have much success (though here I’ll also look at an odd exception).  I’ll be jumping around quite a bit looking at a bunch of different sports as well as countries, the ones that either are currently or in the recent past generated consistent success or outright dominance in sport at the highest levels. Just to see if there are any commonalities (or glaring differences) in how they did it.

Some of these sports/countries will be the ones I imagine most are familiar with; some probably won’t be.  At the end I’ll tie this back into the US OL’ing issue and see if there is anything to be gleaned by looking at it in this fashion.   And that’s why it’s going to take so long to cover it all; that and the wordy bastard aspect of my writing.

Today I’m going to define some terms and then spend the bulk of my time talking about a group that literally came out of nowhere to dominate the entirety of one sport in a relatively short period of time: Kenyan distance runners.


Defining My Terms

Now the end result I’m going to look at here is at groups (and here I’ll be defining ‘group’ in terms of countries) that consistently put out top performers in a given sport and/or dominate a given activity at the highest levels of sport.  That’s my end metric and again I’m focusing on consistent success or outright dominance, not just the occasional freak exception athlete which comes along every so often (with one exception).

And what I’ll attempt to do is look and see if there are any common factors between seemingly disparate groups (i.e. groups that mostly have nothing in common with one another) to see if they can give us any direction in what might be wrong with Olympic lifting in the United States which I’ll look at at the end.

Where appropriate I’ll provide resources for people who want to delve into those sports or what I’m talking about in more detail.  And, no, they won’t all be Olympic lifting related; that’d be too easy.  And I’m not going to take the easy way out and just say ‘genetics’ or ‘drugs’ are the reason.

Those of you who read the Talent vs. Work series, should realize that we’re looking at an interaction of a lot of different things here.  Genetics are one, training is another, you can’t deny the drug issue.  But in this piece I’m going to look at some other variables including culture, sociology and other factors that all play a role here.  And I’ll start out by describing in detail (across today and Wednesday) one of the most recent sports ‘success’ stories, a place where a group came out of literally nowhere to completely dominate a single sport.


Kenyan Distance Runners

If there is a single area (perhaps outside of Jamacian born West African Blacks dominating track sprinting) where a singular ethnic group has truly dominated a given sport, it’s that of Kenyan/East African distance runners.  Starting in the mid 1960’s or so, the Kenyans have simply moved to a situation where they absolutely dominate pretty much every distance from about the 800m up to the marathon and beyond.

They hold most of the world records and the number of Kenyans running top times simply dwarfs what any other country is doing.  Let me put this in perspective, in 1999 the number of sub 2:20 marathons run were 34 by American Runners, 7 by UK runners and 222 by Kenyan runners.   In 1999, the Marathon world record was 2:05 so 2:20 is nearly 90% of that record.  And 222 Kenyan runners were capable of it (sub 2:20 just means that they cracked that time, not by how much they cracked it).

Those aren’t typos, Kenya produced 8 times as many sub 2:20 marathons as the US and 30 times more than the UK.   And it’s not as if there aren’t tons of runners in the US or the UK. They simply aren’t producing at anywhere near the level that Kenyan marathoners are. Other countries have the numbers, Kenya has the winners.

As well, almost exponentially, Kenyan dominance has simply increased over the years.  For example, in 1982, two of the top 10 runners (as determined by Runner’s World) were Kenyan; in 1992, 9 out of 10 were. The same pattern is seen in nearly every event from the middle distance on up including steeplechase and cross country.

Kenyan runners simply dominate the sport of running like no other group (again short of Jamaiacan/West African dominance in the short sprints).  But the numbers are even more amazing then this because it’s not just Kenyans doing the domination; it’s actually a sub-tribe within Kenya.  Quoting from my second source:

The Kalenjin tribe has three million people, that is about 10 percent of Kenya’s population.  But this group has earned about seventy-five percent of Kenya’s distance running honor and has won close to forty percent of all the top international honors available in men’s distance running disciplines; cross country, road racing, and track.  The Nandi, a Kalenjin sub-tribe, with roughly five hundred thousand people, account for 1/12,000 of the world’s population.  They account for twenty percent of the top international distance medals.

Let those numbers sink in for a second.  Running is a sport practiced by just about everyone; it’s about the simplest sport around and all countries compete in it to one degree or another which is why looking at comparative results can be illuminating.   It requires literally no equipment as the no-shoe crowd will happily prattle on about.  Everybody runs, everybody can run and there is evidence that humans evolved as distance runners.  If there is a sport unfettered by things like facilities, tradition and all of the other crap that makes these types of comparison problematic, it’s running.

And this small group of people, this tiny single tribe is simply overwhelmingly dominant at it.  Against countries with massive resources, all kinds of sports sciences, all the training, coaching, therapy and drugs that money can buy.  This tiny country, and this sub-tribe within that country, a tiny percentage of the world population and they are absolutely overwhelmingly dominant.

In fact, an article in New Studies in Athletics was titled “Do Caucasian athletes need to resign themselves to African domination in middle and long distance running?”  And while the author bent over backwards to try and say that non-Africans could be competitive (he used an example or two from women’s distance running which is problematic for reasons I’ll address later in the series), I’d have to say the answer is no.   This isn’t a case of a single amazing athlete coming out of nowhere to take over a sport; it’s one where the 10th fastest East African is still faster than the fastest non-Kenyan (in the men’s events).

And since someone invariably brings up an argument akin to “If the Kenyans are so great, why were the great runners of the 1920’s white and Irish and…” the answer is simple: The Kenyans weren’t running yet.  They were doing things like trying to survive and didn’t have time for sports.  Even if they had been running they wouldn’t have been allowed in even if they had (it’s the same reason there were no great black baseball players in the 20’s, they weren’t allowed to play in the white leagues).  The first Kenyan showed up in the late 60’s and since then it’d been an exponential march to total dominance.

To put this in perspective, early on researcher Bengt Saltin once took the cream of the crop of his country’s athletes (we’re talking Olympian level here) to Kenya to run them against the Kenyans.  They were destroyed….by school kids.  The best athletes with the best technology and sport science in existence and they got owned by teenagers.  What’s going on?

And that’s actually where I’m going to stop today.  Yes, I’m a tease.  But the next bit is long and I spent too much time on introductions so deal with it. I’ll pick up on Wednesday to examine some/all of the reasons that the Kenyans appear to be so overwhelmingly dominant in the sport of distance running.

Read Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 2.

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