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Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 7

Having looked in some detail at the former Soviet Sports machine in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 6, I’m going to move somewhat chronologically to talk about the East German sports machine (dominant in about the 80’s) along with Bulgarian Olympic lifting (which actually overlapped with both).  While both share a lot of similarities to what the Soviets had done, there are a few key differences worth noting. Then just to fill some space I’ll briefly talk about Australian swimming.

For the groups I’m going to talk about today, I’m not going to do the subsections I’ve been using. This is to prevent me from being excessively wordy and it is getting repetitive at this point. Mainly I’ll sum up where things were the same and focus on difference and how they impacted on the end result in any given system.

I am, gradually, getting to a point.


East German Sports Dominance

The East Germans dominated a select number of sports in and around the 1980’s and, as I mentioned above, a lot of what they did is structurally similar to what the Soviets had done a decade earlier.  Fine, East Germany (or the GDR, German Democratic Republic) was Socialist as opposed to communist but, for all practical purposes, the end result was the same.

Folks in the culture are raised to believe in the whole over the individual and Germany was just as intent on using international sport for sociopolitical reasons as the Soviets.  This is just as reflected in Harre’s periodization manual as it was in Matveyev’s but I’ll spare you a block quote.

In contrast to the Soviets, however, the GDR was much more focused in terms of the sports that they, err, focused on and dominated in (and you’ll see this as a repeated theme when I talk about China on Monday).  And the reason, as much as anything, had mostly to do with the size of the country and its population.

With a population of only 17 million people, the GDR just didn’t have the bodies to throw at every sport under the sun and hope to succeed; they had to pick and choose their targets more carefully (this will come up again when I discuss China on Monday).  And in the sports they selected, they did dominate.

Furthermore, since they couldn’t do it on sheer numbers/grinder system (they didn’t have quite as many athletes to simply throw away), they did by taking classically German (read: anal retentive) approach to the problem. Even with my addendum to yesterday’s piece, I’d almost argue that whereas the Russians worked on a ‘maximum’ model, the Germans were more about finding an ‘optimum’ training model.  Of course, some of that optimization came through doping as I’ll discuss below.

In the 80’s the East Germans simply dominated track and field and swimming along with doing quite well in a handful of other sports (including but assuredly not limited to track cycling, rowing and they had some Olympic Lifters; Marc Huster’s name springs to mind).  And part of the reason that they choose those sports is the same reason that the UK picked track cycling: there are lots of medals in the each of those sports because of the large number of different events.

Consider track and field with its sprints, relays, middle distances, hurdles, jumps and throws (and the pentathlon and decathlon).  That one ‘sport’ alone has dozens of medals.  The same is true of swimming with its dozens of events, and track cycling.  Perhaps less so in rowing (not a sport I have enough information about to comment on).  Of course, Germany had their share of OL’ers as well (the Soviets and Bulgarians were really the ones dominating during this time).  Those sports were picked (and I’m basing this on an audio interview I heard with an ex-GDR coach that I cannot for the life of me find to source) since they had the greatest chance of yielding the most medals for the effort invested.

Contrast that to focusing on something like soccer or hockey where there is one potential medal and matches are often won or lost for things out of your control (East Germany and ‘lack of control’ are not two concepts that go together).  They wanted sports with no only a big medal potential but that were also relatively more controllable without things like tactics and team dynamics to muck things up.

Sports where the results mostly come down to excellent technique and physiological development without the other stuff to get in the way.  I saw these recently referred to as kg/cm/sec sports but I can’t find the paper that did so right now.  Basically those that are determined by how much you lift, how far you go or how fast you do it in.  And nothing else.  The time in the marathon or road bike race is irrelevant, it’s about who crosses first.  The Germans focused on sports that were more objective: who goes furthest, fastest, heaviest.

And just as in the former Soviet Union, other options weren’t available to folks being thrown into the sports machine.  If the testing said you swam, you swam.  If it said you were a thrower, you threw.  You do what you’re told and don’t ask questions, end of story.  Which means that the potential talent (and like Russia, Germany is a pretty white country which also tended to impact on the sports they may have chosen) goes where it can potentially do the most good.  Again, other options weren’t allowed at the time (this would change with the reunification of Germany and the fall of the Berlin wall and Germany is far from the superpower it once was).  And what population Germany had was fed into the specific sports that were targeted.

But beyond that, the East Germans did things pretty similarly to the Communist countries because Socialist ideology is similar enough that you get similar things happening.  Athletes were put through selection (the Germans have statistics on EVERYTHING in this regard) and placed into the sport they were best suited for and no other choices were available.

Compared to Russia, certainly the system was far more centralized in terms of how it was structured.  Again that’s simply a consequence of the size of the country and the fact that it was a single country (as opposed to Russia’s sprawling inclusion of numerous countries).  Athletes were fully supported and received massive incentives for success just as in the former Soviet Union.  Top athletes had had an entire entourage of helpers: physios, coaches, timers, you name it and the athlete was taken care of.  All they had to do was win.  And in certain sports, during their heyday, win they did.

Athletes were funneled up a pyramidal structure as they improved and coaching seems to have been far more standardized and structured (again reflecting the more centralized nature of the system) with coaches being highly trained to make their athletes the best.

And, then of course, there were drugs.  As would come out a decade or so later as classified documents were unearthed, the GDR had put in place perhaps the most systematic and scientifically approached drug program yet to exist.  Eveything was studied, tested and determined: how much drug, when to give it, what results it should generate (in the throws for example, if you were put on steroids and didn’t improve by a certain amount, that told the coach that you had been using drugs already and you were kicked out).  It was systematically structured and it worked shockingly well (of course it also did damage to many of the athletes, the details can be found in Faust’s Gold below)

This brings me to a quick tangent, a gender issue that will come up again but that I want to introduce.  Perhaps even moreso than the men, the German women were simply overwhelmingly dominant in sports like track and field.  This was just at the start of drug testing, of course (and the Germans were just as good about not getting caught as the Soviets had been) but their female athletes started showing up in certain sports simply transformed.  And records fell by the dozen as German females simply rewrote the record books.

In fact, at least one German world record (the women’s 400m on the track by Marita Koch) set in 1985 stands to this day and that’s simply anomalous as hell; what near 30 year old world record still holds up? But no woman has been able to touch it; realistically the reason is that the German ‘women’ running at the time effectively had the hormones and physiology of men due to the doping program.

In fact, some German women were outperforming some men from other countries.   There is a story in Charlie Francis’s excellent Speed Trap about an American shotputter warming up when a German female came out, picked up his (heavier men’s shot) and, without warm-up, threw it further than he ever had.  He packed his lunch and went home.  Yes, drugs are in fact, awesome.

There’s actually a reason for this believe it or not, as I’ll talk about again when I discuss China, there is the simple fact that women respond MORE potently to steroids than men do.  It’s a function of having much lower levels, higher receptor sensitivity and the fact that the same dose of steroid will raise a female’s testosterone levels proportionally much more than it does in a man’s.  The only real point I want to make here is when you see a country or a coach that only seems to produce dominant women (and they will usually have some lame excuse about why the men can’t produce in their system) it usually points to drugs.  Because females get more out of them.

In any case, that’s the former GDR, a sports machine that was truly dominant (albeit in a smaller selection of sports than the Soviet Union during it’s heyday).  There were differences primarily due to the smaller size of the country and what implications that had for the structure of the sporting system and how many people they had to throw into the grinder.

But beyond that it’s the same story told yet again: a tremendous number of athletes, put into specific sports (based on testing) where they could perform, fully supported meticulous training, rest, recovery and support. And of course, doping.  Again, the biggest difference being that the incentives here were based more on the Socialistist nature of the country (though medal winning athletes got major bonuses if I recall correctly) and representing for mother Germany that out of anything else.

Faust’s Gold : Inside The East German Doping Machine by Steven Ungerleider.  While not the best written book, this gives a good account of what went on inside the East German sports machine during it’s heyday.
Hormonal doping and androgenization of athletes: a secret program of the German Democratic Republic government by Franke WW, Berendonk B. A review paper about what was going on in Germany in the doping program.  Free PDF available here.


Bulgarian Olympic Lifting

And now let’s take a detour to Bulgaria because, in a lot of ways it’s both insanely instructive and kind of an oddity in the world of sport.  And the situation here was different enough to make it worth discussing.   If for no other reason than there is an absurd amount of misinformation floating around about what went on during the heyday of Bulgarian Olympic lifting or what a certain individual actually did (I’m lucky enough to have an inside source).

Like Germany, Bulgaria was not a country with a massive population which makes it’s success at the world level so interesting (like the Kenyan runners).  This is true to an even greater degree when you consider that such a tiny country took on the Soviet sports machine (with it’s massive population) in Olympic lifting (where the Soviets had 450,000 lifters) and, for quite some time, came out on top.

Like Germany with it’s smaller population, Bulgarian didn’t really have much potential to dominate a lot of different sports and inasmuch as I know anything about what went on they don’t seem to have done much in the grand majority of sports.  But somewhere in the 70’s and 80’s, they started producing champion after champion in Olympic lifting.  Not only with their tiny single-country population but against the might of the Soviet Union and their sports machine.

But even that is not really the interesting bit.  Because whereas Russia had it’s monstrous decentralized system (existing primarily under the countrie’s flag) that succeeded through sheer numbers and East Germany had its centralized sports school system (with a monstrous number of highly trained coaches and meticulous training and doping program), Bulgarian success in Olympic lifting can be traced to a single man: Ivan Abadjaev (note: you will find this spelled many different ways).

Abadjaev had been a lifter of some note himself, taking silver at the World Championships before being put in a pencil pushing role.  During most of his career, most folks outside of the US trained like the Soviets did.  Abadjaev did not: he started lifting twice per day in 1953 when such things simply weren’t done.

And as the story goes, someone in the OL’ing federation heard about this man complaining about Bulgaria’s lack of medals at the 1968 Olympics and how dumb and poor the training and coaching was.  So they decided to show him by telling him to put up or shut up and putting him in charge of the team.   In 1972, a mere 4 years later,  his lifters would win three golds and three silvers in the Munich Olympics.

And he did it by taking a completely different approach to the sport than had been used before (amusingly, Americans had used a similar system years earlier but I’ll come back to this when I talk about the US later on).  Basically he thought that the Russian approach with it’s endless variety and multi-faceted training was pointless. “You don’t become a pianist by practicing the flute” is a quote supposedly attributed to him but may have been made by someone else.

The Russian approach was to use dozens if not hundreds of specialized exercises which Abadjaev started getting rid of  them little by little.  By the end of his coaching career, his lifters did a total of maybe 6 exercises: full clean and jerk, full snatch, power clean and jerk, power snatch, front and back squats. Maybe a pull here and there as necessary.  Pretty much nothing else.

Those core exercises would be done in short blocks (each lift being trained for 30 minutes before a 30 minute break) and lifters would literally be in the gym all day (it’s worth mentioning that some feel this was mainly a way to control his lifters by keeping them too tired to go out carousing at night).  Note that this was the elite team, the developmental process of Bulgarian lifters was far different; this training was for the guys who had spent the 10 years reaching the topmost levels already (what little information there is can be found in Dreschler’s book sourced in Part 6).

He moved away from percentages and classical periodization feeling that there was little point in detraining between peaks.  He believed that the body could adapt if you just gave it time and, as someone recently put it ‘pushed through the dark times’.  Admittedly some of his ‘scientific rationale’ was fairly bogus.  So what, it worked.

He didn’t buy into the idea of working sub-maximally most of the time and then hoping to hit a big number on competition day.  He instituted an intensive, highly competitive system based around the competition lifts and squats with lifters going to what he called a daily max (the most they could lift on that given day even if that meant that they were 20kg off their best at any given time) on a near daily basis.   This is probably the most misunderstood aspect of the system but this isn’t the place for me to talk about it.

Singles with the occasional double were done and weights 5-20kg lighter might be taken depending on the situation.  Assistance work simply wasn’t done for the most part.  Rather than trying to peak for a few competitions per year, Bulgarian lifters competed regularly since competition invariably takes folks to a new level of performance.  It was pure specificity taken to its logical end extreme.

Everyone said he was nuts, everyone said it couldn’t work (certainly there is some mention of of injury and boredom but the last time I looked training wasn’t meant to keep you entertained; it’s meant to work). Athletes needed general preparation and fewer competitions and transition periods and variety and all of that, right?  Then his athletes started kicking everybody’s ass up and down, setting record after record and folks started paying attention.

At the time, most other systems took the athletes maybe to 90-95% during peaking and then hoped that the lifter could figure out a PR weight on the platform.  But technique and timing and a lot of stuff can change in the OL’s as you move from 75-85% to 95%.   In contrast, Abadjaev’s athletes were routinely handling world records in training (admittedly often at a heavier bodyweight than they’d reduce to in competition); this meant that doing it in competition was pretty rote.    When you’ve done 210 in training, only having to make 195 in competition is no big deal.

Of course, as a fairly poor country without a lot of options for most people living there, Bulgarian lifters were highly motivated to succeed and they did receive massive financial support for their training (as discussed in this thread on Goheavy by an individual who actually grew up in the system) with bonuses for medals and world records.   I’d imagine that once Bulgaria started producing success, that provided the incentive for up and coming kids to pursue the sport, so the numbers started to develop.  The tradition, once started, fed into itself just as with many of the other systems.  That’s on top of the financial and other incentives.

So again, different country, more or less the same story as before.  You have a large enough talent pool being exposed to systematic training, support, doping, etc. under the eyes of a master coach (in this case a single master coach who rewrote the rules of elite Olympic lifting training).  And, for a time, the results completely and utterly spoke for themselves.

I’d note that Bulgaria is no longer producing the champions it once did but this appears to be as much for political and financial reasons as anything else.  Apparently there are three different federations politicking each other to death over the future of Bulgarian OL’ing.  Many of it’s lifters were sold to other countries many of which adopted Abadjaeve’s once ‘insane’ training theories (I’ll talk about training a bit more when I finally get to the US).  Bulgaria didn’t even compete in Beijing after a failed drug test got them sanctioned and, unlike the Greek team (who also got popped), they couldn’t pay the fine to send a ‘B’ team.

Abadjaev himself is currently in California trying to recreate the magic with American lifters.  I personally doubt he can as the rest of the system, the financial support, the number of lifters to grind through the system, the motivation to succeed just aren’t there.  But only time will tell.   The Bulgarian system which produced champions for Bulgaria has more or less collapsed.  But that doesn’t change what the system was or what it did in its heydey.

An article/interview on Abadjaev at LiftUp. This is Abadjaev’s story in his own words.  Go read it if you’re at all interested in what Bulgaria, this tiny little country, did at the world stage during their prime years.
A private conversation with a buddy of mine who is currently training with Abadjaev, his permission was given to share what I shared but he prefers to remain nameless and there are more interesting details about what really goes on that he didn’t give me permission to share. So I won’t.


Australian Swimming

And finally (and somewhat randomly), I want to talk about a group that is only tangentially related to either group I talked about above, East Germany or Bulgaria.  The reason I’m including it is that Australia, like East Germany and Bulgaria, is a country with a relatively small population (at least as countries go).  Yet despite this it has produced success in a number of sports (including track cycling).

But where it has probably shined the most is in swimming.  With their first championship win starting in the late 19th century, Australia established a tradition of great swimmers in the early 20th century, typically flip-flopping (and forming a massive rivalry) with US Swimming over who was kicking the most ass.  The US would win one Olympics or World Championships and Australia would come back at the next one all fired up and win and this has gone on for the better part of a century.

And without going into the same repetitive detail, it’s for the same basic reasons.  Swimming is HUGE in Australia; according to the wiki, Swimming Australia has 90,000 swimmers and it’s clear that kids grow up in Australia wanting to pursue swimming as there is a cultural and historical tradition in the sport with plenty of heroes to emulate.  Facilities are abundant, coaching is available and excellent (the Australian Institute of Sport or AIS is at the cutting edge of training and sports science).  Having to outrun crocs swimming in open water is great sprint work (ok, that’s me being silly).  

For athletes pursuing the sport, there is likely to be a combination of personal glory, national pride and potential financial benefits (via sponsorship and endorsement deals that are available in non-Communist countries) for success.  So within the specific parameters of the country, it’s just the same story told yet again.  Tons of athletes, coaching, facilities, support, incentive, history, tradition, etc, etc.  Are you getting the point yet?  Are you finally ready for me to talk about the US?

Gold in the Water: The True Story of Ordinary Men and Their Extraordinary Dream of Olympic Glory by PH Mullen
.  One of my favorite books, among other thing it details the history of Australian and US Swimming along with the rivalry that exists between the two countries.

And next time I’ll finally wrap up my world tour of sports dominance and talk about the most recent addition to the truly dominant sports machines: Communist China.  Then, finally I can turn my eye to the US and move towards a point.

Read Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 8.

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