Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Ol’ing Part 9

Picking up directly from where I left off yesterday in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 8, I want to start by looking at another place OL’ing this country has a huge problem in terms of getting people (especially our large underclass of potentially amazing power athletes) into it.  Again, I’ll point out exceptions and look at proposed solutions and I’m still leaving out two specific names and one specific group as recent developments in the sport that at least have the potential to change things going forwards.  Back into the fray and today and tomorrow will likely be overlong as I try to wrap up once and for all.

A Lack Of Incentives

It’s hard to say what problem to Ol’ing is THE biggest problem but certainly this is one of the biggies, especially given the nature of sport in America, the nature of who enters our sports and the nature of their drives to do so.  Simply, the total lack of incentives to pursue OL’ing is almost all that it takes to kill the sport completely. Because without incentives on some level, it’s rare (but not unheard of) to see success in sport.

Even with all of the other factors that may have contributed to our success in the 50’s, at least when Hoffman was running things, there were some incentives; athletes were being supported and there were at least some incentives (like magazine coverage or what have you). Athletes weren’t making scads of money but there was some benefit to being involved in the sport (if nothing else they got to travel).

Now there is nothing. No money to be had, no scholarships to be earned and only the top lifters travel (usually on their own dime) overseas to get destroyed by guys with unpronounceable names who warm-up with weights heavier than our guys lift (in an old Ironmind training tape, Strossen points out that Dimas is power snatching a weight heavier than the best US lifter in his class does in competition). And they only get to do that after the pursue the sport on their own for years to reach that level. There is simply no reason to pursue the sport outside of a deeply seated internal drive to do it.

Mind you, other sports have gotten past this, I mentioned three in swimming, cycling and speed skating, all sports pursued almost exclusively out of some psychotic individual drive (swimming had the collegiate benefits but most didn’t pursue it for that since they could go to college already).

But those sports all had some idiosyncrasies that I mentioned yesterday in terms of the age thing that allowed those self-motivated athletes to succeed in a way that Ol’ers have not.  Probably just the age thing (for skating and swimming) and the low-technical/high-physiological demands of cycling where a guy starting at 18 can sometimes get there.

In OL’ing, certainly masters lifters have the internal drive but it doesn’t matter when you’re years past your peak of strength and power. And the kids entering the weight room may have just as much focus and drive but it’s not going into Ol’ing. For a lack of exposure, for a lack of interest, for a lack of incentives.

Simply, what’s the incentive for a young potential to pursue OL’ing in this country? In Communist countries it’s getting to eat and travel as per the story I related oh so long ago, or to be completely supported, to be a national hero, to get seriously paid for medalling. This is motivation on an epic scale and I’d mention again the statistic that it’s exclusively non-affluent countries winning medals in the sport. In this country there is no money, no scholarship nothing except, well….nothing.

What are you going to tell a promising athlete: “Hey, guy, you can spend the next 15 years of your life living in poverty to pursue a sport nobody cares about or has even heard of and if we do everything right you might come in 14th to a bunch of guys whose names you can’t pronounce from a country you couldn’t find on a map. Or you can be a 4th string football player and still make a ton of money and get chicks. Or just bodybuild and get buffed without the hassle of this insane sport.” For 99% of kids, it’s not even a choice.

Proposed Solution: Offer Incentives
Again, a big duh solution. But while this is obvious in premise, it’s a bit harder to put into practice. That is, what would you offer? Outside of the big three (money, fame) and track and field (college) what do the other niche sports I talked about potentially offer?

For speedskaters, the only incentive is the potential of a gold medal since it’s not a professional sport; a handful of athletes have gotten sponsorships and made some money but they are the exception to the rule. And it was only after they won gold in the Olympics. And even that sport is dying due to the loss of the midwest enclave; now the incentives in the sport are for top rollerskaters to switch to ice to get to the Olympics (an option not available in their sport) and time will tell if it’s enough to keep the sport alive.

The same is basically in place for swimming (again, college is one outcome but most come from a socioeconomic background that this is secondary), the only real incentive is the Olympics. For cyclists, there’s now money and collegiate scholarships to be had but the athletes pursued it long before that; it also had that big European professional draw where you might go overseas and turn pro.

One suggestion made to me (by a friend, a coach and lifter) was to establish a high-school and/or collegiate branch of the sport. Kids love competing (amusingly, powerlifting is massive at the high school level in some states, Texas is one of them) and some kids don’t like team sports.  Setting up a high-school Olympic lifting program might be one way to do it.  Most schools already have a weight room and if the football, etc. teams are already doing the OL’,s bumpers and stuff are there.  You’d have to get some decent coaching and generate interest but the potential might be there.

And that might lead logically into a collegiate division. If there were at least some carrot on the end of the stick for wannabe Olympic lifters, a reason for kids with the talent or potential to pursue it (i.e. if they aren’t drawn to one of the big three or track for some reason), that might be enough to draw folks into the sport.

Especially that same specific underclass that has already shown quite the propensity for speed, power and explosion and who one might expect to do extremely well at the sport if they only had a reason (and resources) to pursue it in the first place (and education is clearly enough of a draw for some sports). But this would also entail a huge number of factors to change including facilities (like high schools, most colleges have equipment for the OL’s as part of the sports program), providing coaching, creating a competition circuit that folks cared about, etc.

Of course, you’d have to make it worthwhile for the colleges to give a damn and that ties in with the next factor. In a capitalist country, people do not do things out of the good of their own hearts. They do it because they are going to get something in return. And that something is usually exactly one thing: money.

Which brings me to the next factor, one which has often been thrown out as another ‘simple’ solution to the woes of OL’ing.

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A Lack of Money

Like most amateur sports there is no money in Olympic lifting. None.  That means no resources to get new equipment, not to build new facilities, not to train coaches, or put in grassroots development, not to do much of anything. Generally speaking, the athletes are broke, the coaches are certainly broke (you don’t become an OL coach to become rich, that’s for damn sure; figure skating on the other hand), and if other niche sports federations are any indication, I imagine the federation is broke.

Because the federations of small non-producing sports are being funded through the USOC which has to decide what moneys it has go where and in what amounts.  And that generally means funding sports that are producing.  And yes I realizes that chicken and egg/cyclical nature of this; underfunded sports don’t generally produce and their lack of production means less money which means.

Though mind you sports such as cycling did produce, as did speedskating despite being perpetually underfunded and incompetently run. Clearly the lack of money in OL’ing is part of the problem but it can’t be all of it or it would impact on every sport equally.  Speedskaters and cyclists certainly often come from at least a middle class white background but there’s still no real money in the sport and they still produce.

Mind you, in most ways this is no different than most amateur sports in this country where it’s broke-ass athletes pursuing their sport out of pure dedication in hopes that they can get to where they want to go (generally the Olympics). I don’t honestly see OL’ing as being too different from a lot of marginalized sports but again this is somewhat of a change from our heyday.

Because for at least a short period of time, Hoffman was supporting athletes and putting money into the sport during that brief period; of course he had his own financial gains to be realized from it (through the sales of his magazines, products). We might compare this to bodybuilding of today, it’s a sport where only a select few make money.

But magazines are happy to sponsor athletes who can pimp their product or equipment which is then sold to the thousands of wannabes who think that the pill or the gloves or the Otomix ™ shoes are what made their heroes jacked. That’s the basic model of a lot of sports: give the pros money to endorse product to sell to the masses of wannabes.

It’s capitalism pure and simple and it was effective when OL’ing was popular enough to have at least some ‘masses’ to sell too. And even then it was tied in strongly with the strength training and bodybuilding of the day as much as it was pure OL’ing; again there simply wasn’t quite the clear distinction then that exists today in the weight room.

But in the current climate of this country, that’s no longer the case.  Olympic lifting, bodybuilding and powerlifting are all separate distinct sports (though bodybuilding and powerlifting have some crossover) and OL’ing is the odd man out. First and foremost we don’t have champions to endorse; more importantly there are no masses of up and coming Olympic lifters to buy products if there were. What are you going to sell? Shoes? Singlets? Knee wraps?  Right.

Which isn’t to say that a lack of money is the problem, but I don’t see that it’s all of the problem.

Proposed Solution: Throw Money at the Sport
This is probably one of the most often/simple suggested solutions to the sport. Certainly, some degree of financial support would allow the athletes that we do have to not have to scrape and scrounge to make a living while they attempt to train (I would note the existence of the OTC program which I’ll talk about later).

Would that be enough to let them reach the topmost levels of the sport? I’m really in no position to really comment here.  My gut says no, it hasn’t held back other sports or athletes and I suspect that other issues are still at work here.  But let’s assume it would solve the problem, or at least help, just for a second. But here’s the important question: assuming it would fix things, where’s the money going to come from?

I don’t know much about the USA Weightlifting federation (though what little I’ve heard is not positive), I imagine that like the federation of many US sports, it’s fairly broke and doens’t have cash to put into anything (not that it would matter).  Again, not something I know about. I can comment here on speedskating again, who’s federation was perpetually broke as hell.  I could tell tons of stories but won’t to save space.  Bottom line: the federation is out.

What about government money, or maybe lottery money like in the UK? Good luck with that given the financial situation in this country along with what folks would see as far more worthy endeavors (assuming you could get it to use in the first place). Cycling is huge in the UK, the interest in the sport was there (and the talent in a relatively non-technical sport was also there, in an event that they thought they could win without dealing with the drug issue, and I’ll come back to that tomorrow) and it made sense to apply the Lottery money to track cycling (other big sports in the country were already well funded). That doesn’t apply to US Ol’ing, not with just as many other sports begging for the same cash. Assuming it was available, OL’ing would have to prove that it was more worthy than a dozen other underfunded amateur sports. Next.

What about finding private sponsors? They do exist, for example, in something I left out of the cycling articles (because I hadn’t read Team 7-Eleven: How an Unsung Band of American Cyclists Took on the World – and Won by Geoff Young and Jim Ochowicz yet), one of the earliest US Pro Teams got a huge financial windfall from 7-11 prior to the 1984 games.  7-11 was expanding and wanted to support the US Olympic effort, pouring money into the track velodrome and sponsoring a team to help not only advertise their business but try to change folk’s attitudes about the crap they sold. But that was a situation of a huge company looking to expand with the Olympic on the roster as a springboard. And the economy was way different in the 80’s and everybody was making bad choices fueled by cocaine and hookers.

It’s not unheard of for rich altruists to throw money at a pet sport, it certainly happens overseas with cycling crazy businessmen from time to time. Maybe USA WL’ing needs to find themselves an OL’ing obsessed sugardaddy. Let Donald Trump train with the team, something like that.  I’d suggest a wealthy Arab oil magnate but they will be supporting the Iranian and other teams (or in the US mind, Al Queda).

Of course, it’s optimistic as hell to think that what happened in US cycling recently could happen in OL’ing, didn’t money come into that sport?   Well, yeah but folks seem to have cause and effect confused. Certainly Lance through his force of will (and having shown he could produce) got money to sponsor US Postal but he also produced almost immediately (and there was the history of the 7-11 team).  But it was his victory that brought money into the sport, not the money that let him win.

And that brings me to what I personally think may be the biggest thing holding OL’ing back.

The Lack of Interest

At the end of the day, everything I’ve discussed is part of what’s going on.  Because just as success in sport is predicated on a vast interconnected web of things to go right, there’s a lot going wrong in the sport of Ol’ing.  No facilities, no competent coaching, lifters getting pulled into other sports, no kids getting into the sport, it’s all relevant (and I’ll talk about our current lifters tomorrow when I wrap up). But I see that all as a symptom of the bigger, more deeply seated issue. which is this: nobody but the people involved in the activity already give the first flying fuck about Olympic lifting.

And that is a function of a lot of things, not the least of which is America as a whole which is why I spent so long on the sociological and economic and other aspects of this country.  And the following is not meant to be sarcastic, humorous or derogatory. I’m just stating facts (as I see them) in a factual way.

We are a form over function society, things have to look a certain way to engage us and we are all about appearance over anything else. We are a convenience culture. If something can’t be done or accomplished easily and quickly, we’re not interested.  We are a quick fix society, if something isn’t taken care of immediately (or faster) we are not interested. You see this in sports all the time, a failing team brings in a new coach or strength and conditioning guy and gives them one year to turn it around. If he doesn’t, he’s fired.  We are a capitalist society, if something doesn’t produce (and that means earning money), we don’t give a damn about it. What earns money is good, what does not earn money is not. QED.

Basically, the entire structure of our country, the sports we will and won’t watch, the athletes we will and won’t get behind, the sport we do and do not get, all comes out of our brief history, our overarching ‘culture’ (inasmuch as there is one) and all of that sociological bullshit I spent so many days on contribute to the overarching problem with the sport of Olympic lifting.

All of that adds up to a niche sport populated primarily with lifters too old to accomplish anything, a handful of junior lifters and even smaller group of elites who are struggling to survive against a world throwing absurd resources and people at this sport.   And while other sports have seemed to deal with the numbers issue somehow (due to the oddities of those sports), I think that’s a big part of what’s holding OL’ing back.

We have too many other sports pulling the truly potential greats into the sport (a problem that cycling, swimming and speed skating didn’t have; those guys didn’t want to pursue anything else), the guys pursuing lifting for the sake of lifting pick easier stuff.  That leaves the ‘leftovers’ to pursue OL’ing.

And solving that problem means changing the overall climate of OL’ing in this country.  Basically, you have to make people care about the sport again.  Because there’s no point in even trying to solve the other problems, building facilities, training coaches, any of it until you have bodies to throw at the sport and have someone to coach.

You have to either get the American sport fan to care about the sport or, more usefully, get the average gym rat to care about these odd looking lifts. Because until you convince the average gym lifter that the OL’s will get him big guns, get him lean, get him the ladies or something else that targets the male insecurities he’s trying to compensate for, it’s not going to take. Remember, most people who lift don’t give a shit about athleticism.

To get any sort of money or incentives in the sport means getting the general American public to care. Otherwise you can’t get endorsements, TV coverage, collegiate coverage (the big sports in colleges are the ones that earn revenue for the university through merchandise and ticket sales).

Fundamentally, to solve the global problem in OL’ing you have to make people care. And therein lies the problem for reasons I will now explicate.

Proposed Solution: Make People Care About the Sport
Again, a big duhh solution but the issue here is not in the premise of the solution but how one might go about it in practice. Because of who I am I’m mainly going to look at what I see as the hurdles that the sport would have to overcome to make people care (and I’ll wrap up to day by talking about one of the recent developments in the sport that may have the potential to change things).

Because clearly up until this point nobody has been able to make the US lifters or sporting public aware of the sport.  I don’t know what the federation is doing but whatever it is, it isn’t working.  Because while other sports like swimming and speed skating live in obscurity most of the time, Americans do watch them when the Olympics are on.  And cycling is now televised because people care about the sport.

I would point out that, even during the heydey of American OL’ing, the majority didn’t care about it.  It was just that niche group of folks in certain areas that were interested, the general public would not have been aware of it nor cared.  TV coverage wasn’t what it was today and nobody would have given a damn anyhow.  And nothing has really changed since then.  Even during the Olympics, about the only way to get coverage of the Ol’s is through specialty websites.

Because one of the sillier arguments I’ve seen regarding OL’ing and how to get both lifters and sportsfans interested in the sport is to put it on TV, said argument I will come back to at the end of the day.   But this assumes that people would watch if it were on.  Because while Americans will watch a lot of stupid stuff on sports (see: The ESPN Crossfit games which were shown yesterday on ESPN2), there is stuff that we just won’t watch in large numbers.  So let’s look at how the average American is going to perceive OL’ing.

The Sport: Part 1
First let me be a bit silly but the names of the lifts are not helping.  When a newscaster says “Oh, will you look at that beautiful snatch” Americans giggle (or get offended due to our Puritanical attitudes towards sex).  Hell, I giggle and you’re giggling too.  The clean and jerk sounds like something you do in the privacy of your own shower, not something you do for competition (outside of some weird German or Japanese porn).  But this isn’t changing and I only bring it up for completeness.

If you’re not an afficionado, the sport is intractably boring to watch for more than about 5 minutes.  Because after you’ve seen one snatch, you’ve seen them all (see, you’re giggling).  Nothing changes, it’s the same thing with guys lifting progressively heavier weights over and over again, sometimes they make the lift, sometimes they don’t.  Next.   Powerlifting is the same, mind you and Americans don’t watch that either unless they are involved in the sport.  I always tell people to take a book with them because after you’ve seen the first three squats, it’s the same boring shit for the next 4 hours.  Contrast that to something like strongman (which we will watch) with 5-10 different events that are all different.

The Metric Issue
Coupled with this is the metric issue  and here I’m half joking and half not joking. Not only does the US have an issue with metric in general, there is the simple fact that we don’t get it and the numbers don’t seem that impressive (I’ve joked that lifting is easier in metric because it’s easier to add 10 of something than 22 of something, that is 10kg vs. 22lbs).

Watching dudes jump weight by 2.5 kg is also problem for us because a) what’s a kilogram b) 2.5 isn’t very much is it?  Most gym rats slap on 25’s or 45’s.  2.5’s are for pussies as any powerlifter will tell you.  Even knowing it’s 5.5 lbs doesn’t help, it’s still a pitiful weight to add to the bar.

And the numbers just don’t sound impressive to us.  Not only do we not know what 180kg is but 180 isn’t a big number, my sister weighs more than that.  Hell, even 220kg isn’t a big number.  Sure, it’s 480 pounds but it will still always sound lighter than a 400 pound bench press, even if it’s not.  Because 400 is bigger than 220 and Americans are not a nuanced people.

By the time lifters start hearing about 800-1000 pound squats and deadlifts (hell, there is a 1000 lb bench press), the weights used in OL’ing sound like warm-up weights.  Yes, I know it’s ignorant as hell.   It’s also true.  Putting the weights in pounds might help but that’s never going to happen outside of high school weight rooms.

Hell, look at strongman again, the weights make sense and sound amazing.  Watch them describe the stone weights.  150 lbs, 200 lbs, 300 lbs, this rock has never been lifted by a human being EVER but this big dude is going to try.  The weights make big jumps and the numbers sound amazing. OLin’g can’t compete with that in a conceptual sense because the numbers sound too small and the jumps between weights are too small (He just set a new world record by 0.5 kg.  0.5?  Are you kidding me?)

The Competitions
The sport is intractably confusing, the rules don’t make sense to anybody but afficionados and even folks who know what’s going on can’t tell why one lift is passed and another isn’t.  Like many sports (including PL’ing) OL’ing is contested one at a time with this weird structure of lifting where lifters sometimes follow themselves, you can’t tell who’s ahead and you don’t find out who wins until the end (even PL’ing with it’s flights has a slight advantage here since the guy lifting at the end of the flight is clearly lifting more).  Again, contrast that to strongman where at least some of the events are head to head and you know who’s winning and who’s losing.

It doesn’t help that nobody ever gets ruined in OL’ing, injuries in competition are fairly rare and minor.   A pulled hamstring, the occasional dislocation, sometimes someone drops a bar on themselves or passes out.  But it’s pretty rare.  Guys tear biceps in strongman, get the hell torn out of their arms with the stones.  Americans do love destruction.

By the criteria I laid out earlier, Ol’ing is not a sport that we ‘get’ in this country. As I noted above, I would note that powerlifting is also in this category and nobody in this country except lifters gives a damn about it. And it’s not shown on TV either (because nobody would watch). In contrast, strongman is shown on TV because the competitions make sense to us.  Most events are head to head, the guys are big manly man doing big manly things with rocks and trucks and shit. And they look like they are working their balls off the whole time. C’mon, look at this nonsense, this is an American sport.

The Lifts
While the names of the lifts don’t help in getting us to appreciate the sport beyond infantile giggling, there is another issue that I think contributes to this which is the go/no go nature of the lifts.  Because it makes the effort just not look that difficult to the average viewer.    Look, before the OL’ers freak out, you and I both know that they are impossibly hard. But they don’t look it.

There’s no struggle, no suffering, even in the Dimas snatch video from last week, he’s just shaking a bit to hold the bar overhead but other than a brief shout the lift didn’t look that hard to the causal viewer. I mean, hell, here’s superheavyweight Hossein Rezazadeh setting a world record.

He doesn’t make an ounce of noise, he takes a few breaths and no aspect of that lift looks even remotely difficult to the average viewer.   Again, folks who know the lifts know the difference; the average person does not understand what went into that. Contrast that to guys falling down in exhaustion after a track running event, marathoners crawling across the line, even cyclists with signs of pain on their face as they crest the hill, even shotputtters grunt like hell.  Ol’ing has none of that.

Americans come from psycho Puritan stock, remember; if you’re not working hard, you’re immoral. And the OL’s lack this for the most part since most of the real work happens in training.  The competitions look too easy because the lifts either go (and don’t look that hard) or don’t.  You don’t even get to see a lifter trying to save a lift most of the time; if it’s gone it’s gone. And Americans lose their erection because sports is supposed to be about pain and suffering and working hard.  And the OL’s don’t look that way to us.

The Lifters
This is not facilitated by the look of the lifters.  Remember, this was the issue in the 60’s and it’s just as much of an issue now when Americans couldn’t understand why a bunch of unmuscled guys were beating them.  OL’ers often move amazing weights without looking particularly muscular (only the recent Chinese have changed this).  Or at the very least they don’t have muscles in the places we care about (delts and arms).  Or they look downright chubby like Rezazadeh up there.  If Americans want to see fat people huffing and puffing and lifting stuff, we can just go to Walmart the day after Thanksgiving.

Ol’ers get perpetually frustrated by the idea that “Olympic lifters are all fat”.  But since we only like to see the biggest weights lifted (remember, bigger is better than smaller), we tend to only see the big fat boys in the super heavy weight class (and at the risk of being really shitty, Cheryl Hayworth did NOTHING to help the women’s end of the sport; this just a statement of fact).

As well, Americans have some really strong beliefs about what someone who ‘lifts weights’ should look like and Ol’ers have not fit the bill since the sport changed.  Compare and contrast Arnold, Matt Croc, Mariusz Pudzianowski and Pyrros Dimas (who was relatively jacked for his day).

 

Collage
One of these things is not like the other

I think the average viewer finds it hard to take Ol’ers seriously when that dude down at the gym is way more jacked or at least has bigger guns. And he just does curls 5 days per week and takes creatine. Remember why American lifters were drawn to the sport in the heyday of the press: pressers had jacked delts and arms.  It’s only recently that the Chinese OL’er have made getting jacked a national pasttime but even they achieve that through general bodybuilding work because the Ol’s are not the best way to achieve this goal.  It might have an impact down the road.  Well, if anybody saw it.

Summary
So the entire sport is simply screwed from an American standpoint.  It’s too nuanced, a bunch of unmuscled guys doing ballet with a barbell (and the weights are too small to take seriously) in this oddly structured competition where nothing interesting happens, nobody can get the rules and you don’t find out who wins until the end.

The sport doesn’t even lend itself to highlight reels like cycling (where you can show the climbs, the finishes and the crashes) because all the lifts look the same, and they don’t even look that hard and nobody is suffering.  The guy who won doesn’t seem to have done anything that the other guys didn’t do, he just did it with 1kg more on the bar.

Which is why the argument that putting it on TV is flawed completely.  You could put it on and folks might watch out of interest for a few minutes before changing the channel.  The sport is simply all wrong for the non-nuanced American mind (and all of the above means that lifters will never care about the sport either) and they wouldn’t watch it anymore than they would watch French art films or eat gourmet food if it were made available.      Which is why it’s not shown in a capitalist country, if nobody watches (because they don’t care), TV stations wont show it because they aren’t in the business to lose money by showing stuff nobody will watch.

The Prefontaine Counterargument
Now, my friend, bless his naive optimism, counterargues all of the above with the argument that “Americans didn’t care about running until they put Prefontaine on”.    But his argument still misses a lot of points, again why I spent so much time on seemingly irrelevant crap.  Because he is working from the operating assumption that Americans became fascinated in running simply because it was put on TV and I think that’s incorrect because the situations aren’t comparable.

First off, running is a sport Americans get.  It’s a bunch of guys racing head to head, everybody knows what running is, it’s an activity everyone has done at some point; hell, it’s part of our evolutionary past.  The guys suffer, the structure of the racing makes sense.  It’s a sport that we get conceptually and will watch at least for limited periods of time.

When Pre started to come to dominance, the running boom/fad in this country was just starting as folks were starting to become aware of and be concerned with things like cardiovascular and heart health and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and running fed into their desire for a quick fix.  Here I have trouble separating chicken and egg. Did Pre help kick off the running boom or did the running boom help people care about Pre?  I don’t know and I’m not researching it.  I’ll just say they complimented one another and move on.

But far more important than that was Pre himself.  Like Arnold and bodybuilding and Lance in the future, Pre was another guy who was the right kind of hero for American to get behind.  A kid from a broken home, ran on sheer guts, called the Europeans chickenshits for not front running.  As well, his fame first developed in Oregon under Bowerman and by the time he was making national news, the groundswell had already taken hold.

And America loves fads and following what everyone else tells them is good; it’s how our best sellers work and it’s called social proof (the masses want to like what everyone else likes).  When folks started showing up with Pre t-shirts at races, that helped feed the interest.

Pre just happened to be a runner, happened to be in a sport we got and happened to have the right backstory at the right time to grab America by the balls and make it care about running (we also had Shorter winning Olympic gold in 1972 which didn’t hurt).  If he’d done some sport we didn’t get, I bet he wouldn’t have made an ounce of difference.

That is, it wasn’t just because running was put on TV.  That wouldn’t have accomplished anything without it being the right kind of sport and having the right kind of hero to make people care.   But there is another issue, one that will sound like me being shitty but again this is just me making a statement of fact.

We Still Need a Hero
Pre won.   Actually, he more than won, in the US he was absolutely dominant even if he didn’t have quite the success overseas (but he gave it his all even to come 4th and was happy to slag his competitors as chickenshits).  He was the right guy in the right sport at the right time and that was  big part of it.

But most importantly he was destroying his opponents (like Arnold, like Lance).  Because Americans don’t give a shit about second place.  Or fourth place.  Or 10th place.  Which is where US lifters have been for decades.  The US hasn’t had heroes in OL’ing for 4 decades and that alone is a problem because it gives nobody for up and coming lifters to look up to.  They existed during our short heyday, now we have nobody.  Case in point: Americans went batshit when Phil Fister won World’s Strongest Man because finally an American was at the top of the sport.  We don’t have that in Ol’ing and if history is any indication, aren’t going to any time soon.

Which is why just ‘Putting Olympic lifting on TV’ wouldn’t do much.  Not only is the sport all wrong for the American mind, there are two other intractable issues for Ol’ing to overcome.  First is that it has to produce a winner (and that leads into my final discussion of our current lifters tomorrow).  And even if someone won, I’d argue that the lifter would have to have the right personality and backstory to get America to notice.  And I’m not sure Ol’ing lends itself to that.  I’m still not sure it would matter because even with the right guy, the right champion the sport is still just all wrong for our viewership.

But to have any chance of getting numbers into the sport would require making this country, both lifters and sportspeople alike care about the sport.  I see that as the fundamental problem with OL’ing, the reason that we ‘suck’.  Everything else contributes but they are more symptoms than causes.  We simply don’t care about the sport and that leads to all of the other problems, the numbers and everything associated with a sport nobody cares about.  And had I been writing this two years ago, I would have said that we’re never going to.

But something has changed, this is the first topic I’ve been explicitly avoiding for the last two days, it’s one that almost hurts me to write about but I will try to retain objectivity and keep my opinions to myself.  Because in the last couple of years, much of what I wrote above has started to change.  People have started to care about Olympic lifting, or at least some people, a groundswell has been building with vastly increased (at least relatively) numbers of facilities and equipment and coaching and interest.  That brings me to the final topic for today.

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Will Crossfit Save Olympic Lifting?

Yes, I did just write those words.  Because while USA Weightlifting has traditionally had about 2000 total lifters for most of it’s history, that number has apparently swelled to about 7000 in the last couple of years.  Suddenly there are all these new registered lifters and, factually, they are coming from the cult of Crossfit.

Because through their ‘programming’, Crossfit has managed to convince a bunch of upper middle class white 20 somethings that the Ol’s can help them reach their goals of ‘increasing work capacity across broad and modal time domains’ or whatever silly shit is on the website.  Facilities are springing up all over the place and they are getting bars and bumpers and squat stands.   I routinely tell people to find their local Crossfit compound if they want to find a place to Ol.

And suddenly the OL’s are the in thing to do even if folks are doing them for sets of 20 before sprinting and shotputting their child or whatever Rhonda is.  The coaching is even improving to some degree as Crossfit has had the sense to bring in people who know what they are doing like Greg Everett, Mike Burgener, even a local Austin ex-world class female lifter (Ursula who’s last name I do not know) to teach the certifications.

Certainly more is wrong with the Crossfit approach to the Ol’s than is right.  Their programming sucks, the lifts shouldn’t be done to the point of failure or rahbdoymolysis, a lot of what they do is flatly wrong from the standpoint of the lifts.  But that’s kind of secondary and can be fixed.

Because in the same way that Hoffman brought basic barbell training to the masses, Crossfit has managed to do something that USA Weightlifting failed to do for 40 years: bring Olympic lifting to the masses.  Or at least more masses than it had before.  Love Crossfit or hate it, it has accomplished something the federation and lifters never could.

Already, there has been some impact, as I mentioned the number of registered lifters has gone up and I imagine there are more folks showing up at competitions because of this.  The interest is increasing and I know several OL’ing coaches who have picked up new athletes out of Crossfit.   It’s usually guys who realize that they are doing something wrong or want proper coaching or to compete in a real sport (NOT the Crossfit games) and know that they need an actual coach.  Of course, given the age issue, you’re not finding the next US OL’ing champion from a bunch of bored 20 and 30 somethings who get drawn into Crossfit.   They are too old for this crap.

But what may happen is that the adults now doing Crossfit will get their kids involved.  There is a Crossfit kids movement and the reality is that this might be sufficient to get more folks coming into the sport and starting young enough to maybe have a chance of producing down the road.  Adults who are interested in the OL’s may get their kids interested.  That’s how you grow a sport.

But that is a solid decade in the future as the folks doing Crossfit now indoctrinate their kids and we see if it has an impact when they get older.  It’s progress, it’s something, it’ll be interesting to see what develops.  But currently all we have is our resident elites.  Which is what I’ll look at tomorrow in the FINAL part of this stupidity.

Read Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 10.

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