So on Friday I finally started moving toward a point and actually looked at how the US has done in the sport of Olympic lifting (at least at the Olympic level) in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 5. Somewhat surprisingly, our total medal count actually isn’t that bad, a solid third place although within shooting distance of 2nd and 4th place (Russia is overwhelmingly dominant in 1st).
The big issue, however was one of timing with roughly 98% of our medals being won in this very narrow time frame between 1948 and 1960 and almost nothing since then (we have a handful of medals literally along with the two women’s medals in 2000). I finish by asking the question of what was going on during that time frame that allowed us to be so dominant along with wondering what in the hell happened.
Today I want to look at what might have been going on during that time period, in terms of the same factors that I’ve looked at in other parts of this series (and hopefully I won’t be too wordy about it) that led to the US’s dominance. Basically to see if anything about that time had similarities or differences to what I’ve babbled about for what seems like the last year and a half.
As I mentioned previously, weight training was an ‘offshoot’ if you will of a developing physical culture movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. This included a focus on overall health, good living and a host of other factors including overall athleticism. It was a time of development, experimentation and there was a distinct lack of specialization among the followers of that concept.
And weightlifting, which was still a relatively recent activity, at least in any formal sense, was part of that. Mind you, it was part and parcel of it but things like gymnastics, hand balancing, muscle control and many other things were done as part of the overall movement.
It’s critical to realize that, especially given the time, this was not much more than a cult movement. This was just after the industrial revolution and folks were mainly excited to not have to work in a coal mine 27 hours per day to try to earn a living; diseases were starting to come to the forefront but the majority of people (just as today) weren’t interested in being what looked like cultish ascetics for health. Bring on the brandy and cigars please.
As well, sports hadn’t embraced weight training on any level as ideas about lifting weights slowing an athlete down or making him too muscle bound to perform still existed. The only folks lifting weights were doing it pretty much exclusively for the sake of lifting weights as part of the overall movement. And the goal was mostly about developing maximum strength and/or muscle size (athleticism was as often as not handled with other activities like gymnastics or tumbling) and the programming reflected that.
But guys such as Bernarr McFadden and Eugene Sandow would establish some of the earliest ideas for both weightlifting and bodybuilding that later folks such as John Grimek and others would build upon. Of course, given the capitalistic nature of the country, such folks tried to make a living and often did it through the publication of training manuals and courses, many of them can be downloaded (for those of a historical bent) at the Golden Age of Iron Men page.
It’s probably worth mentioning that, given the socioeconomic situation in the US, the folks pursuing this were mostly middle- or upper-class whites. Folks still struggling to make a living or what have you didn’t have the resources to worry about health foods or exercise. Some things never change there either (look at who shops for Organic and health foods or pays $20 per workout at a Crossfit box; it’s not poor people).
At some point (I’m not a historian of this by any stretch), the earliest magazines devoted to the topic would start to appear (Strength and Health was around as early as 1932). It’s worth noting that, to a great degree, these magazines were as much about physical culture as they were to provide relatively ‘safe’ homosexual pornography (some magazines today are no different, you won’t find a single picture of a woman in them but you will find buff dudes in a fireman’s outfit straddling a big hose).
The general attitude towards the folks going into this activity, especially bodybuilding was no different. There was sort of an assumption of being a bit ‘light in the loafers’ for anybody pursuing this; at the very least folks pursuing this were seen as self-absorbed narcissists (this would have been especially true in the team-sport oriented US in the early 20th century).
The movements just wasn’t accepted by the mainstream on any level and wouldn’t really start to gain any sort of popularity until the 50’s and 60’s (and even there only in small enclaves such as California where being fit and healthy was part of the lifestyle).
Mind you, the above isn’t a joke and it’s not meant to be derogatory, it’s just a statement of fact and of the times. Women weren’t lifting weights (Marilyn Monroe would be one of the first mainstream women to jog or lift weights but that was decades away) to any great degree at this point in the first place and you sure didn’t see the girly photo layouts that dominate many of the magazines nowadays. It was just buff dudes in their underwear. This is one of many such pictures from Bob Hoffman’s book from the above link. It’s just pages of this.
Mind you, once you got past the beefcake photos, there was occasionally training information to be found all of which was the most profoundly basic stuff. And given the ‘technology’ of the day it was based around basic barbell training. Nothing else existed and, even if it had, nobody would have had access to it.
Any gyms that would have existed would have been the same, based around the most basic of implements because that’s all that there was at the time. What ‘machines’ were in existence at the time were rudimentary at best. I mean, consider that this is how you did a leg pressing motion during this time. If you lifted weights on any level, you did barbell training (or used club bells or whatever old timey thing is currently making a retro comeback).
In any case, in that Olympic lifting had become an Olympic sport and seeing who could lift the most was at least some part of the movement. And with the emphasis on overall athleticism along with whatever innate drive makes men want to put shit over their head, there was certainly an interest in the quick lifts (as the Olympic lifts are often called).
And when you couple that with a lack of other competitive options (except perhaps the odd lifts which are still contested by the Odd Lifts Strength Association) you can see how men of the day might be drawn towards ‘weightlifting’ as a competitive activity.
But the simple fact that was, in this small subculture, anyone interested in getting into it was going to be exposed to a fairly limited number of things in terms of weight lifting. And that was basic barbell training including, most likely, the overhead/Olympic lifts. So even though the total number of folks interested in this was never that large (and certainly OL’ing in the US, even during this time was never more than a very niche activity) they were getting channeled into this one very limited set of activities when they did pursue it.
Of course that still requires people entering the sport. So were the people getting into this other than obsessed older folks who were worried about their health? Well, it’s the same group that has pursued the activity perennially.
Mom, Dad, I Wanna Get Jacked
There are few consistencies in the world but one of them is that young dudes coming up, for whatever reason, want to get big and strong. Maybe it’s because they were picked on as kids, or were sickly and wanted to be healthier, maybe they thought it would get them girls (it’s usually this). But it’s part of puberty for a lot of males. Maybe they couldn’t or didn’t want to play team sports, whatever. The motivation is ultimately sort of irrelevant, the end result is what matters.
For younger males with a desire to get big or strong and who had neither the talent nor inclination for the team sports, getting into the physical culture movement of the day was about the only outlet available. This might mean joining one of the handful of gyms that existed (invariably dungeon like affairs where large many men did large manly things with barbells).
Alternately, a kid who wanted to get big, strong or whatever could pick up on of the handful of magazines that were in existence at the time. As is true today, they acted as a combination of information (and often mis-information) dissemination devices; mostly they existed to sell product, supplements and equipment and used articles and pictures of buff folks to do it. Nothing ever changes.
Strength and Health
As I mentioned above, Strength and Health magazine was started in 1932 and ran for decades, it was one of the earliest magazines decided to anything related to the physical culture movement. In it kids could see images of men who were larger than life, who were strong and who, more importantly looked the way that they wanted to look. Here’s a random cover.
America has always had a bit of a ‘form over function’ fascination and despite some romanticizing of a lost era, it’s not much different here. Americans are often more interested in how they look than how they perform. It’s simply that, in the early and middle part of the 20th century, there wasn’t much of a distinction between the two. If working on basic barbell training and the overhead lifts is what got you jacked, that’s what you did.
And as it turned out the sport of Olympic lifting at this time was geared more towards muscularity and maximum strength due both to the inclusion of the press and a peculiarity of the rules at the time (that I missed in an earlier section and will address tomorrow). It was common as hell for Olympic lifters during the US’s heyday to compete in bodybuilding competitions and the overall jackedness (especially in the arms and delts) of the day’s Ol’ers was certain to pull young wannabes into the sport. As Glenn Pendlay put it to me in email:
So he [Hoffman] had to promote guys who looked like what your average pimple faced teenager wanted to look like. And this was the big pressers. Many guys have won world or Olympic medals in OL in the last 20 years without a physique that would “wow” the average teenager. On the other hand, if you press 400lbs you’re gonna have big guns.
Strength and Health was also part of the rapidly growing supplement industry and the US, as an industrialized and economically stable environment had pretty good nutrition available to most people. Of course, interest wasn’t enough, kids still needed a way to actually pursue this activity.
And it’s not as if commercial gyms really existed to the degree that they do this time. When they did, they were typically dungeon like affairs with manly men doing manly things with a barbell. If nothing else this provided small enclaves of support, coaching, etc. where newbies could get instruction on how to do the lifts. Inasmuch as technique was understood at this point (it was still being developed), newbies to the activity could get instruction.
But these were only in small enclaves and hard to find, not everybody would have had access. So how would an up and coming teen have gotten into barbell training?
Hoffman and York Barbell
I didn’t pick Bob Hoffman out of the blue above when I posted the beefcake picture. A lifter himself, he probably played as much of a role in the development of US Olympic lifting as anybody else (both in a good and bad way). As part of the growing physical culture movement and seeing a great capitalist opportunity, Hoffman would form York Barbell Company in 1932 to sell a variety of things, not the least of which was the basic barbell set.
Kids wanting to get into the activity would buy Hoffman’s set and, along with anything else, would get a sheet showing basic barbell exercises. There’s not a hell of a lot more you can do at home anyhow and many lifters of the day tell stories of how they got their start in the iron game with a York set. Hoffman had brought barbell training to the ‘masses’ (well, the masses of young wannabes) as a function of living in an industrialized capitalist country.
Mind you, Hoffman’s involvement in the sport went much further than this. He put on competitions and provided support and incentives for the athletes, sending them overseas, giving them jobs so that they would be able to train, etc. His involvement in the sport and any success the US had simply cannot be overstated (though he might end up doing as much harm when all was said and done as I’ll talk about tomorrow and Charniga talks about in detail in the sources below).
A Mid-Article Summary
So already you can see some similarities to this brief period of US history in Olympic lifting and other parts of this series, it was part of why I wanted to discuss the situation in speedskating since I see a number of parallels between the two. Certainly the physical culture movement as a whole was not massive during this period, it was never more than a cult movement (even now it’s not more than a cult movement even as far more people are ‘aware’ of the benefits of weight training and activity). And it’s not as if the sport of Olympic lifting was ever going to be well known in the US; it certainly wouldn’t have been during this time.
But to the people involved in the subculture, the folks already involved along with the kids coming into it, OL’ers were what was promoted through outlets such as Strength and Health. OL’ers were big, strong men, more importantly the nature of the sport and the athletes meant that they looked the part. Kids had heroes to look up to, giants of men who were able to lift more than they could conceive of and made them want to pursue the sport.
Which combined with the limited options available in the sport. It was basically Olympic lifting or bodybuilding and most guys did both (Tommy Kono, one of our greatest Olympic Lifters routinely won physique competitions and early AAU bodybuilding shows had a clean and jerk as part of the overall score).
And Hoffman was providing at least some support for the athletes along with his commercial products that allowed them to get into the activity; gyms that existed would have provided at least some support and coaching and it’s not as if they were filled with fancy machines. If you trained at them you did barbell training. That’s all there was.
So we had at least some numbers, all of whom were more or less pursuing this one activity, who had support, coaching, at least sufficient access (and most likely in certain areas of the country such as California where everyone wanted to look good for the beach, or the East Coast where all you could do in the winter was train in your basement or garage), you get the idea.
But you may have noticed that there is something else that I haven’t really talked about.
Where in the Hell Were the Europeans and Everyone Else?
There was another big factor at play here which is this: all of the communist and socialist countries that would later come to dominate the sport of Olympic lifting weren’t really on the playfield yet. The Soviet Union only entered the Olympic games in the 1950’s and many of the other countries were a little too busy rebuilding from the destruction of the war to worry about sports.
Or were too poor (as in the case of Poland who simply didn’t have equipment until the Soviets gave it to them) to pursue sport on any level. OL’ing may have been relatively inexpensive as a sport but a country that is poor is a poor country; to have equipment for the numbers that want to do it still takes resources. Resources that nobody else had but that the US had in spades.
Tangentially, this reminds me of a situation that often existed in the US in the early 20th century where it wasn’t uncommon for rich schools to just destroy poor schools in sports like football. My own high school has scorebooks going back to that time and scores of like 127-0 are not unheard of. In football. I’m fairly sure it’s because my school could afford equipment and the other schools couldn’t. Pursuing sport at the world level requires resources and most of the countries that would come to power starting in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s didn’t have it when the US was dominating.
So, again while not taking anything away from the US Ol’ers, they weren’t yet competing against the best.
And there’s a final issue here and then I’ll wrap up. An issue that not only helped the US dominate the sport during its heyday but would also harm it when things started to change.
Keep in mind the sport of Olympic lifting of the time, this was pre-1972 when the press was still being contested. That meant the total in the sport was determined by the snatch (a technical/speed lift with less weight), the clean and jerk (more of a strength lift) and the clean and press (a pure strength lift). With the latter two movements making up a far greater percentage of the total because of the weights involved.
Note: there was also a technical rule in place that made even the snatch and clean and jerk of the day more maximum strength and upper body related and thanks to Josh for reminding me of it via email. I’ll describe this tomorrow.
A guy could more or less suck at the snatch and just make it up by being strong as hell in the clean/jerk or clean/press (not unlike a weak bencher making it up in the deadlift in powerlifting). Which fit what US lifters wanted to focus on anyhow which was getting big and strong, especially in their upper body. You could give up a bunch of kilos in the snatch to a lifter who focused on it and then destroy them with the other two lifts because you could make up so much ground.
And US programming had come out of a very maximum strength/muscle size kind of approach since that’s what the early physical culturists were all about. And that type of training was at least workable given the nature of the sport and the level of the competition. It may not have been optimal given the nature of the OL’s but it worked sufficiently at the time.
And it’s a type of training that we are still obsessed with to this day. Why? Well, because bigger numbers are better than smaller numbers primarily. And because there is this underlying assumption or logic that if you just push the numbers up in the basic strength lifts, everything else will come along with it.
You still see this in sports, strength coaches are just obsessed with driving up gym numbers even if it’s not really helping performance on the field or whatever. Other countries have moved past this long ago, in the US folks still obsess about big numbers (with silly shit like claiming that football players all need an elite total or MMA guys need a triple bodyweight deadlift).
And basically, US Olympic lifters, coming out of that type of simple background, focused on maximum strength and muscle size, using that to overcome any limitations in their technique along with making up anything they lost in the clean and jerk and clean and press.
Without getting deeply into this issue, I also have it on good authority that lifters of the day were using anabolics (keep in mind that the first steroid was synthesized in the 40’s and it would be naive to think that athletes weren’t using them pretty damn early) although I can’t provide my source for what should be obvious reasons. But all of that was able to let the US ‘get by’ in a climate of relatively little outside competition.
And that’s what was going on, it was just this odd confluence of factors that all came together in just the right way and allowed the US to dominate the sport of Oling for a 12 year span. The physical culture movement (based around strength and muscle size), the nature of the lifts of the day (with the total being weighted towards the more strength oriented lifts, along with the technique and rules of the day), the growing supplement and nutrition industry and the fact that most in the US had access to things like vegetables, and food.
There was our economic structure (allowing folks like Hoffman to disseminate ideas and images of Ol’ers along with equipment), the fact that pimply faced teens have always wanted to be big and strong to get chicks, the fact that the only type of weight training available was basic barbell training.
Again, I think the situation was somewhat akin to that of US Speedskating which was one reason I wanted to discuss it. Because although the numbers were never massive, the numbers that were present were being channeled to this one activity, one that had at least decent access, some sort of informational and coaching structure, etc. It wasn’t a big group of folks but it may have been big enough.
It didn’t hurt that almost none of the countries that would later come to dominate the sport weren’t really on the playfield yet since they were a bit too busy trying to rebuild their cities. Here the situation diverges from that of speedskating as the US has regularly held it’s own against the best in the world (though interestingly the US was better in the sprints while other countries did better in the distances so our best weren’t really competing against the best from Norway or Sweden to some degree) at least up until recently.
So for this brief period, everything sort of came together even if some (such as Charniga, sourced below) feel that it was more an issue of the Americans getting by on raw strength, poor technique (and possibly anabolic use) against a relative lack of competition than a true golden age. US Olympic lifters during their ‘Golden Age’ may not have had the same level of competition to contend with. Which in no way detracts from their success, but it does paint a bit of a different picture.
And if nothing else, the brief time that the US spent at the top would have a number of consequences going forwards, not the least of which was that, since it had worked before, the American lifting community would have a problem adjusting to the changing nature of the sport. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.
In any case, US dominance wouldn’t last; in fact it would come to an end rather abruptly as I described last Friday. And that makes it interesting to look at what happened and why it changed seemingly overnight.
There Is No System Parts 1-6 by Bud Charniga. Glenn Pendlay pointed me to this series and you won’t believe it but I had actually written most of the above before reading it (I did pick up some details from his writings). In it Bud (who did the early English translations of Russian OL’ing information and has written tons about it on his horribly formatted site) discusses the history of OL’ing in the US along with what changed in the 60’s. You’ll see reference to much of what he said in tomorrow’s piece when I look at what happend to US Ol’ing. I’d note that Part 2 has some interesting data on Medal counts and percentages and how they shifted over the decades. Part 3 also talks about the supposed myth of the American Golden age.
Milo magazine. Milo is an excellent periodical published by Ironmind and I’ll be citing it again in this series. But you can find a lot of stories about Hoffman and the old York days in the back issues if you are so inclined.
- Greg Everetts Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Notes to the Nitpickers
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 4
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 3
- Why Does the US Suck at Olympic Lifting?