Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 5

So having finished a look at the sport in general and some of the determining factors in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 4, I want to look at the next issues on the docket. I’ll warn you up front that today may be a bit all over the place (even relative to the rest of this series) as I try to make my point.

Location/Equipment

From an equipment point of view, Olympic lifting is actually a relatively ‘easy’ sport compared to many. You need a proper bar (and OL’ing bars are different than bars for general use or powerlifting in terms of how they flex and spin), bumper plates (special plates that are meant to be dropped and bounce), squat stands and, strictly speaking, little else. In the early days of the sport, the plates weren’t even bumpers; many old school coaches still teach lowering the bar under muscular control for this reason; when they were coming up you couldn’t drop bars or you’d ruin the plates, lifting surface or both.

A platform (a lifting area made to absorb the impact of bars being dropped) is nice but many lift without one. And while things like jerk stands/blocks or pulling blocks are nice (they allow the bar to be started in different positions to work on weak points or work different ‘parts’ of the lifts) they are far from required. Many get by with a bar, plates and squat stands. Most Olympic lifters also wear special heeled shoes with a very hard bottom as well. The bottom is necessary to ensure that the force of the lifter goes into the platform (rather than being lost to squishy shoes) and the heel facilitates the necessary squatting positions.

So strictly speaking, anywhere you can lift weights you can do the Olympic lifts. Which isn’t to say that facilities are necessarily easy to find. The equipment is specialized (and you tend ruin bars and bumpers if you use them for more traditional movements) and are not necessarily super inexpensive (note that bars and bumpers can range from basic training sets to elite competition sets milled to the utmost in terms of precision and bearing quality and such).

But at a fundamental level, the sport can be done anywhere you can lift weights.

Genetics and Physiology

In the last two parts of this never-ending series, I talked about some of the requirements for success in Olympic lifting and that leads logically into the genetics and physiology issue. Once again Ol’ing is a sport which has a fairly mixed set of requirements in that it relies on some amount of both maximum and explosive strength, movement speed (especially the ability to turn on or turn off muscles rapidly during different phases of the movement), rate of force development and others including generally ‘optimal’ proportions of body lengths (not that there aren’t exceptions).

Of course there are other factors such as technique, fearlessness and the rest but those have more to do with training and exposure than anything physiological or genetic. Even the muscle mass issue can be addressed with long term training and the existence of a number of different weight classes doesn’t set any real ‘weight’ or ‘muscle mass’ requirements as you might see in something like American football (where a guy who is too small will simply get decimated).

And frankly, looking at that set of physiological requirements, you would expect the sport and its requirements to point to a fairly idealized single ethnic group, one which happens to be fairly underrepresented in the sport. And it’s the same group that tends to dominate other explosive sports such as the short sprints in track and field along with basketball and some other related activities (where success is predicated on explosiveness, etc.) And that group is blacks of West African descent.

Which for primarily sociocultural reasons have not been highly represented in the sport. Once again this is primarily a function of the countries that have traditionally been dominant, at least in the modern era (and this is where today’s piece is going to go south as I try to make my point without giving away the punchline) which are mostly Eastern European countries like the Soviet Union and all of the countries that it comprised, Bulgaria, etc.

Certainly the Cuban lifters are on the brown end of things but for the most part, outside of a few American lifters, there have not been many blacks in the sport. Even if you would predict that they would be exceedingly successful. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. One last tangent.

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Another One for the Ladies

First an apology, like 14 weeks ago I promised my female readers (both of them) that I’d be devoting an entire day to the issue of gender in sports. But then this horridly unplanned series got out of my control and that meant something had to be cut. And that included my drastically oversimplified look at the issue of women’s sports that was meant to be given an entire day but will only get a single section instead. Maybe I’ll publish my rambling separately and link to it or do it later or something, we’ll see. Just chalk up my shorting of women’s issues to my being part of the oppressive white male hegemony (OWMH).

Because the simple fact is that, for the history of sports, women’s sports have lived in the shadow of men’s sports in most ways. I’ve touched on some of them already and will only briefly repeat them here. A big one I made earlier is that , for mostly cultural/traditional reasons women have not been allowed to or really pursued sport to the same degree as men. I also made the point that this often leads to a more mixed bag in terms of success at the top levels; countries that are dominating the men’s events often don’t dominate the women’s events simply because their women aren’t going into the sport.

This not only allows for more variety at the top level (i.e. you will still see non-Kenyan women on the podium in runing races where the last American man to win Olympic gold in the Marathon was in 1974) but at a fundamental level makes it ‘easier’ for women to reach the top level (a point I made when I talked about cycling at the collegiate level). The degree of competition just isn’t there since there are fewer women competing. Please don’t misread this paragraph the wrong way, I’m not saying it’s ‘easy’ to get to the highest levels. Just that relative to men, it is proportionally ‘easier’ due to a lack of numbers.

It’s only been recently that women have even been allowed to compete in sport in the first place. As recently as the early part of 20th century, it was thought that women were too fragile to do many sports, experts of the day felt that a marathon might do permanent damage or make them unable to make babies. This is of course, patently ridiculous. Anyone who has watched women’s field hockey or rugby realizes that both sports are both unimaginably brutal (and hot) at the same time. Women are not fragile in this way. At least not the women who pursue these types of sports.

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Women's Field Hockey
This makes me feel funny in my pants.
Women's rugby
Kissing is part of rugby, right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many of these ideas maintain to this day, just out of the inertia of ignorance. I worked at a wellness center in the mid 1990’s where a physician told a female that the Stairmaster would make her ovaries swell; women who lift weights often deal with their parents telling them that lifting heavy weights will make them infertile or just make them so bulky that no man will want them. Women often live in perpetual fear that so much as looking at a weight heavier than 5 pounds will make them huge. If only it were that easy.

Even when women are allowed to compete, they often aren’t taken seriously, guys think it’s cute (so long as the girls are too) but the real athletes are the men. Regarding ice speedskating, my friend Eva was once told “Who cares about the women, they’ll never go as fast as the men.” I have no idea how prevalent this is but given that folks watch sports to see the ‘best’ (fastest, strongest, etc.), the realities of physiological differences do put women at a disadvantage.

In most sports, women are a solid 8-10% behind men’s results for reasons I’m not going into here. There are a couple of odd exceptions (i.e. long distance open water swimming) where women outperform men but in most sports, women are always slower, weaker, etc. at the elite level. Folks who want to see the ‘best’ don’t get it in women’s sports. And I’m not saying this to be mean, it’s just a statement of physiological fact. And don’t misread it, I know that the best elite woman can beat the average man, I’m only comparing the elite man to the elite woman; and the woman will always be about 10% behind.

In some sports, women have traditionally been disallowed from competition; there have often been clear distinctions between ‘mens’ sports and ‘womens’ sports. In the US at least, with the passing of Title IX, this has changed somewhat (and caused great controversy) and I even pointed out an oddity where a women’s ‘version’ of a specific sport (in this case, fast pitch softball) is actually scarier and harder than the men’s version.

But often women are only allowed to do things (at least in the US) that make men horny. Foxy boxing, Lingerie Baseball, shit like that. Women are supposed to giggle and make cookies for their boyfriend athletes, not pull 3 wheels sumo. It goes even deeper where women who pursue ‘real’ sports are often de facto assumed to be lesbians. Which is only acceptable to men in the US if they are the ‘right kind’ of lesbians (i.e. the kind men can jerk off to in porn before the plumber shows up).

This is maintained in the fact that, in some sports, women are held to a different set of rules or standards than men. For example, in speed skating, women don’t compete in the 10,000m, their longest race is the 5,000m. Just a leftover of 100 year old ignorance and tradition (simply: if you can complete a 5k, you can complete a 10k). And men don’t officially compete the 3k, that’s a ‘womens’ distance. Other sports have this too, the women’s events are shorter, easier, or whatever than the men’s.

Moving to OL’ing, you see some similarly silly ideas, especially in the weight classes. Because whereas the men’s superheavy weight class is 105kg+ (231 lbs), the women’s limit is 75kg+ (165 lbs). So a 76 kg (167 lbs) woman and a 120 kg (244 lb) woman are considered identical. It’s as if no ‘normal’ woman could weigh more than 75kg without being a monster. And men wonder why women think that 60kg (132 lbs) is an ‘appropriate’ women’s weight.

And the only real point of the above is to make the major point that, for traditional, historical, sociocultural and physiological reasons, women’s competition in sport has never been as high as in the men’s. This is changing as more women are interested in and being allowed to enter sports. But that’s a fairly recent development.

Mind you, some countries took distinct advantage of the above, especially given a rather lax attitude towards doping. Given how women respond to steroids compared to men (women get a more pronounced response), coupled with overall lower levels of involvement and, hence, competition, countries like the GDR and China have been able to dominate the women’s events.

So why am I discussing all of this seemingly irrelevant crap here? Because there is an odd blip in the data of what I am about to discuss that is often brought up in regards to the issue of the US and Olympic lifting, a data point that makes people argue “See, see, the US can get it done.” And it’s a data point that while interesting, I don’t think means very much. And I didn’t just want to dismiss it out of hand without explaining why I don’t think it means much.

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There’s Nothing Like a Woman’s Snatch

Because, for the roughly 4 people still reading this nonsense, I have a few questions starting with this one: Do you remember when I made that big point about how most of the big Eastern European/Communist/Socialist countries were using the Olympics and international sports success as a springboard to prove their political ideology? I hope so.

But, given that, have you ever wondered why we don’t really hear anything about great female Russian Olympic lifters? Or Bulgarians? Or any of those other countries that regularly produce great OL’ers, why don’t we hear about the women (inasmuch as we hear about Olympic lifters at all)?

Or why, besides his obvious hardon for the men, do Randall Strossen’s training hall tapes never show more than maybe one woman (before he rapidly rushes to show video of a guy squatting while gushing about it being ‘No-No-No’)? In contrast, why did the Chinese women dominate the sport in 2008 in a way that those other traditionally countries didn’t?

Well here’s why: women’s Olympic lifting has only had a world championship since 1987 and was only added to the summer Olympics roster in the year 2000. This is in a sport with nearly a 100 year history and women have only competed at a global level for the last 30 years, only in the Olympics for 3 Olympiads.

And with the exception of China (who dominated female OL’ing at Beijing as I previously described), most of the countries I talked about, the former Soviet Union, the GDR, Bulgaria really had their heyday in the 70’s and 80’s, before any of that developed. They didn’t bother to develop many female Olympic lifters for the simple fact that the women didn’t have competitions that mattered (especially without the Olympics). Women’s competition only got serious when those countries were a bit past their real heyday so they didn’t bother (Russia is a possible exception as the medal charts show but their women lifters still can’t hold a candle to the Chinese). So they just never really gave a damn.

But as soon as weightlifting was added to the summer games, China gave a supreme damn and their efforts in the sport showed immediately. In 2000, they took 4 of the 7 available women’s golds. In 2004 they took 3 of the 7 available golds and one silver. I already described how they did in 2008. Mind you, as the graphs in those links show, Russia and Belarus did win a medal here and there but it was nothing like their success in the men’s events.

But there is another oddity, the real point of all this babbling and that is this: in the year 2000, due I suspect to the above (the novelty of the event, the realities of the dominating countries in the sport, etc.) something interesting happened in Olympic lifting. Which is that the US actually did win two medals: one bronze medal (Cheryl Hayworth at 75kg+) and one GOLD medal (Tara Nott at 48kg). And while I’m not going to Google them up, I believe American women had similar successful showings in the earlier World Championships.

And we won exactly zippo in 2004 and 2008 with the women performing at about the same level as the men’s team (in 2008, the women had two 6th place finishes, a 12th and a 14th, the men in contrast had one 8th and one bomb out). So in the 8 years from when women’s OL’ing was made an Olympic sport, the women went from the medal stand to the exact place that the American men have been. So while it’s interesting, I don’t think it really proves anything. Nor is it relevant to my overall topic for reasons you’ll soon see.

Please do not misread this, I’m not trying to take anything away from our two female medalists. They sacrificed their lives to pursue a niche sport and performed at the highest levels and that’s impressive regardless of the circumstances. But I don’t think their medals prove anything. Because in 2000, they weren’t going against countries devoting much energy to the sport (except China really and it wouldn’t surprise me if they just didn’t have a lifter in the 48kg class or they’d have won that too). And now that other countries are, the US women are in the same place as the US men.

Which is just a very long way of saying that for the rest of this series, I’ll be focusing exclusively on the men and their performance or lack thereof. But first one last question.

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Why Does This Matter Anyhow?

Before finally addressing success in the sport or the lack thereof, I want to pose a question that may seem obvious: Why does this matter? That is, why do Olympic lifters (or all 12 non-lifters who follow the sport) in the United States give such a damn about this topic, about our inability to succeed at the global stage in this particular sport in the modern era?

I mean, there are a ton of marginalized Olympic sports in this country, sports that nobody cares about, nobody knows about and that we don’t really produce results in. And either I just don’t see it being bitched about (because I’m not on, I don’t know, ping pong forums) or it’s just not something that folks in these other sports care about. So why is this issue so damn important to Olympic lifters in this country? Finally, I can get to the damn point.

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Who’s The Best?

Because despite the title of this series and despite what I may have sort of been implying, when you look at overall US performance in men’s Olympic lifting (remember, a sport contested since 1904), we actually stack up pretty well. Here are the top 4 medal earning countries in the sport (I added Bulgaria for what will hopefully be obvious reasons). Once you move past #4, everybody drops off massively with France at 15 total medals and everyone else with less.

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Medals in OL’ing
Country G S B Total
Soviet Union + Russia 42 29 31 83
China 24 11 8 43
USA #3 16 16 11 43
Bulgaria 12 16 8 36

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So actually not too bad in terms of overall standing. The Soviet Union and Russia (and you’d really need to add in all of the other countries like Belarus that came out of the old USSR) is overwhelmingly dominant and the next 3 aren’t too far off from one another. Mind you’d you’d need to remove the single gold and bronze for the women but it doesn’t really impact on the numbers. I’d also mention again that in 1904, American men swept one of the events because they were the only three competitors. Even if you subtract those, nothing really changes.

So what’s the big deal, we’re #3 in the rankings overall, why is this even an issue? The reason is one of timing, an issue I haven’t delved into in any other parts of the series but which is critical here. Because once you take out the weird 1904 results and a couple of random medals in the 70’s and 80’s, you find that almost the entirety of America’s total medal haul occurs between 1948 and 1960 (this is different than in other sports where we continue to medal to this day). In 1956 for example we dominated the sport the way China did in 2008 with a medal in every category including 4 golds, 2 silvers and a bronze.

I mean we just dominated the sport for that brief period as shown in the USA Weightlifting Overall Results. And then it all fell off with a sporadic medal here and there over the next 20 years, no golds in that time period and not a single medal in the sport since 1984 except for the two women’s medals in 2000. So that’s 51 years without a gold medal and 36 years without a men’s medal of any kind with a handful of top 10 finishes at best. In a sport that we just utterly owned for 12 straight years.

And it’s not like the marathon example I trotted out (ho ho) where an American man hasn’t taken gold since 1972 (it was Frank Shorter as I recall). The Kenyans were coming up about that point and nobody can hold a candle to them.  OL’ing is a sport dominated by pasty white Europeans and the fact is that America has the folks who should be the real talent in the sport based on physiological considerations: blacks of West African descent. Notably some of our highest finishes in recent years have been by black lifters, Wes Barnett (6th in 1996) and Kendrick Farris (8th in 2008) for example.  And we’re still getting ass-kicked by pasty white Europeans.

The Soviet Union/Former USSR, Bulgaria, Cuba, Greece, Qatar, the top superheavy weight is Iranian; sometimes it’s hard to say since athletes float around or get bought or sold and change their names. Who they are competing for may not be where they are from.  These are the countries that are and have been dominating the sport of Olympic lifting for the past 50 years.

Of some interest, someone on my support forum threw out that of the 90 medals won in the last two Olympic games, only one was won by an athlete from an affluent Western country with zero medals won by athletes from affluent countries.  Maybe the solution to US OL’ing is money but not in the way most think: maybe when the US economy collapses completely, we’ll get back on top of the sport.  Because apparently affluence is negatively correlated with success in the sport.  Yes, I’m joking.

Which is why this topic is an issue to Olympic lifters. Because we went from complete and utter dominance of the sport to nearly zero results and it seems to have just happened overnight (in 1956 we medalled in every category, in 1960, we medalled in 6 of 9 categories, in 1964 we won two total medals).

That’s what separates it from the other marginal niche sports in this country; the fact that we did produce in it at one point and now utterly fail to do the same (our results have gotten so bad that we can barely earn slots at the Olympics; those slots being earned by World Cup performances). And that issue is at the heart of this series, raising two important quetsions:

  1. What was going on during that time period that let us just dominate the sport to a nearly unprecedented degree?
  2. What in the hell happened?

And hopefully in addressing those questions you’ll see why I spent 22 freaking parts looking at all of the other stuff in the series. Maybe. See you Monday.

Read Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 6.

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