A Little Bit of History

Olympic weightlifting in its modern form only came to be in 1972, but the sport has long history dating back to the first modern Olympics held in 1896. The competition held in the 1896 games is a far cry from a standard weightlifting meet today; that competition featured none of the equipment that modern weightlifters are familiar – instead athletes competed in one and two-handed lifts featuring dumbbells and fixed barbells. It wasn’t until the 1928 Olympic games that a standardized format was created for weightlifting – the 1928 games included the snatch and the clean & jerk (the two competition lifts used today) as well as a third lift, the clean & press. The clean & press was similar to the clean & jerk, except to raise the bar from the shoulders to a locked out position overhead, the athlete was not allowed to utilize leg strength in the press. To ensure this, athletes’ feet had to remain planted on the ground during the press. Here, Belgian Serge Redding cleans and presses an impressive 228kg (502lbs).

In 1972, Olympic weightlifting underwent a major change as the clean and press was removed from competition due to difficulties in judging. The press was originally intended to be a test of upper body strength, performed while remaining relatively upright. However, athletes began using techniques that allowed them to better utilize their core muscles in addition to their upper body which enabled them to lift more weight. Contest organizers that this was against the original spirit of the lift, and removed the clean and press completely.

The removal of the clean and press also prompted a change in weight classes – the lightest weight classes became grouped together more and the heavier weight classes were more spread out. Thus started what is often called the “Golden Age” of Olympic weightlifting, a period where incredible performances were put up at nearly every Olympic games and World Championship. There are some records from this time period which still have not been surpassed by modern lifters, mostly due to the incredibly lenient drug testing protocols of the time.

It was during the period from 1973 to 1992 (when the weight classes were changed once again) that many of “the greats” of weightlifting rose to fame. Among them were Naim Süleymanoğlu (considered the greatest lifter of all time and often called the “Pocket Hercules” due to his height of only 4′ 10″), Yurik Vardanyan (whose 405kg total at 82.5kg remains unsurpassed by heavier athletes today), and Leonid Taranenko (who holds the title of heaviest clean and jerk in competition ever at a staggering 266kg).

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Naim Süleymanoğlu, the best pound-for-pound weightlifter ever (image taken from thumbnail of linked video)

 

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your position on PEDs), the IWF decided to change the weight classes again in 1993 due to rampant steroid use among lifters. This shift in classes would essentially wipe out all existing world records, starting off athletes on a clean slate. Combined with this, the IWF also introduced more stringent drug testing measures designed to ensure that the competition was as fair as possible between each lifter. Despite the more stringent tests, this period produced its fair share of weightlifting greats as well including Pyrros Dimas (one of only three weightlifters to win 4 Olympic medals, 3 of them gold) and Halil Mutlu (who until fairly recently held one of the oldest weightlifting records). Naim Süleymanoğlu also continued to dominate during this time period, setting a total world record in the process).

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Pyrros Dimas, one of three lifters to ever win four Olympic medals (three of his were gold)

In 1998, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) finally decided to allow women to compete in weightlifting but set a maximum of 15 weight classes to be shared between male and female athletes. Prior to 1998, men had 10 weight classes all to themselves so more restructuring was in order to make things a bit fairer for the ladies. The IWF eventually decided to have 8 men’s classes and 7 women’s classes, once again wiping the record books clean and establishing the weight classes that are still in use today.

In the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney, women competed in weightlifting for the first time. Of particular interest in China’s performance; the Chinese government saw this new opportunity as another way to showcase international dominance. China sent 4 female lifters to Sydney; all four won gold in their respective weight classes. Sydney was also the last time an American (male or female) medalled in an Olympic games (Tara Nott won gold in the 48kg class and Cheryl Hayworth won bronze in the +75kg class) until 2016, when Sarah Robles took bronze in the +75kg class.

Tara Nott

Tara Nott, the last American to win a gold medal in weightlifting

From its infancy with outmoded equipment to its place in the Olympics as a modern, high tech sport, weightlifting has evolved (and continues to evolve) to keep up with the times. Just this year, the IWF announced a new women’s weight class, finally increasing the female classes to match in number with the male classes at 8 each. I (along with weightlifting fans everywhere) am incredibly excited to see what the future holds for this sport.

 

China’s Dominance

“Why is China so good at weightlifting?”

This is a question that was raised in the comment section of my last post, and a question that is continuously asked within the weightlifting community.

Before we examine why China consistently produces the best weightlifters I think it’s important to understand the level of dominance that Chinese weightlifters have, particularly in the lighter weight classes. Take 2015, for example: for 56kg men, 9 out of the 10 best lifters in the world were Chinese. For 62kg men, 5 out of the top 10 lifters in the world were Chinese. For 69kg men, 6 out of the top 10 were Chinese, and you need to go down to 6th place before you encounter a non-Chinese lifter. In some ways, China’s dominance in women’s weightlifting is even more staggering. Take the women’s 53kg weight class, for instance; the top 8 lifters in 2015 were all Chinese. The top five +75kg lifters were also all Chinese, as well as the top three 63kg lifters and the top four 48kg lifters.

Perhaps another metric that might be useful in conveying China’s dominance is world records; out of a possible 135 records (snatch, clean and jerk, and total records for 15 different weight classes over 3 different age divisions), China holds an astounding 48. The next closest country is Russia, a country whose weightlifting heritage goes back to the beginning of the Cold War, with 24 world records. In fact, China holds more world records than the 3 next closest countries combined.

Way back in the early days of Olympic weightlifting, the US and Soviet Union where seen as the dominant powers. Throughout the 20th century, Olympic weightlifting, along with many other things, was seen as a way for the two countries to indirectly fight the Cold War. Whoever could produce the better athletes would be seen as the superior country.

However, as the Cold War died down and the Cultural Revolution ended, China saw a new opportunity for itself on the international stage – sports. Today, China completely overshadows the rest of the world in certain sports: diving, table tennis, badminton, certain shooting events, and weightlifting. The Chinese government has poured funding into developing systems for each of these sports – systems that include every possible aspect needed to produce successful athletes, from scouting to world class coaching to designer drugs (yes, drugs. Like steroids. More on this in a later post). Chinese weightlifters are given yearly stipends and are provided room and board for free provided they continue to train and compete for the national team. In the United States, the best athletes go to where the money is – the NFL, NBA, and other sports where contracts regularly run in the tens of millions of dollars. In contrast, USA Weightlifting (USAW), weightlifting’s governing body in the US, provides stipends which rarely exceed $10,000 only a select few athletes receive.

In China, athletes are often selected to attend sport schools as young as 8 years old. Someone who has been training consistently in good conditions since they were 8 is going to have a massive advantage over an athlete who only started when they were 16 – the former athlete’s body will be much more conditioned to handle intense training and his neuro-muscular system will already have learned the proper motor patterns necessary in weightlifting – not to mention the 8 or 9 years of training that the athlete will already have gone through.

The weightlifter shown above doubtless already has almost a decade of training under his belt. Elite US lifters usually would only have been training for 3 years at this point, if not less. To squat 200kg (440lbs) once at age 17 is an incredible achievement, to say nothing of doing it 13 times when already fatigued from a workout.

China is not unique in having a system to develop athletes for weightlifting and other sports starting at a young age – many former Soviet Bloc countries including Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan have similar systems to train athletes. What sets China apart?

To answer this completely we need to look at what makes a good weightlifter. The ideal weightlifter has short femurs and a long torso to allow for a more upright squat position which translates to more efficient lifts. He has short arms to reduce the distance he needs to propel the bar during the jerk and the snatch. His skeletal morphology allows him to hit optimal positions when lifting – open hip and shoulder joints to allow for increased mobility are ideal. He has a high proportion of fast-twitch to slow-twitch muscle fibers. (Fast-twitch fibers are responsible for power production whereas slow-twitch fibers are recruited heavily during endurance focused activities like running). In addition to these physical qualities, a good weightlifter must have great mental fortitude and be resilient, driven, and hardworking (the extent to which one’s upbringing affects mental qualities is still a topic of much debate). The best weightlifters are created when an athlete with these qualities is entered into a weightlifting system from a young age.

For a scout to encounter a child with all these ideal qualities and recommend them to enter the weightlifting system is a rare event. Part of the reason for China’s dominance falls to simple statistics: because of its enormous population when compared with other weightlifting-heavy countries, it simply becomes more likely that a child with all the necessary qualities to become a great lifter will be born in China and discovered by a scout.

So there you have it – China is pretty damn good at weightlifting. It has a well established system in place to develop athletes and the largest population in the world to draw from. This is the reason why earning 5 weightlifting gold medals in Rio was considered an “off year” for the Chinese team, why China regularly places first at world championships, and why in recent years China has claimed about 10% of all available weightlifting medals at world championships, higher than the 70 other competing countries.

In recent years, only one American athlete, CJ Cummings, has proven himself capable of lifting competitively on the international stage. He recently became the first American weightlifter to hold a world record at any age level in over a decade and the first American male world champion at any age level since 2000.

Some point to CJ’s incredible performance as a sign that weightlifting in the US is on the rise again; with the proliferation of CrossFit and the increased public exposure to Olympic weightlifting as a result, such claims are not so far-fetched. However, it still remains to be seen if CJ’s record-setting lifts were a fluke due to simply to an incredible individual performance or a sign of better things to come from weightlifting in the US.

 

The Structure of a Meet

Olympic weightlifting consists of two lifts: the snatch, and the clean and jerk. In the snatch, the bar is lifted from the ground to overhead in one smooth motion. This is Lu Xiaojun, world record holder in the 77kg weight class for the snatch and the total (we’ll get to that in a second), snatching 175kg.

In the clean and jerk,  the bar is lifted from the ground to the shoulders, then from the shoulders to overhead in two distinct movements. This is Ilya Ilyin, former Olympic gold medalist and cleand and jerk world record holder in the 105kg weight class, clean and jerking 246kg

During meets, each athlete has 3 attempts for each lift. Meets are run on a rising bar system, which means that the weight on the bar can only stay the same or go up – never down. Athletes and their coaches will enter the 3 weights they want to attempt – they can change the requested weight up to 2 times, but can never request a weight lower than the weight currently loaded onto the bar. The rising bar system means that the lifters with the lightest attempts will lift first, with the heaviest attempts coming near the end. The structure of a meet is fairly basic and consistent: all snatch attempts are completed first, then the clean and jerk attempts are made after a 10 minute break.

In a weightlifting competition (or “meet”), athletes compete to lift the highest total – their heaviest successful snatch is added to their heaviest successful clean and jerk to compute their total weight lifted. Failing to register a total (successfully complete at least one snatch and one clean and jerk) is referred to as “bombing out.” While there are many reasons for an athlete to bomb out (fatigue, poor coaching, requesting weights that are too heavy), one of the more interesting reasons for an athlete to bomb out involves competition strategy, which may seem counterintuitive. What kind of strategy can you have in a sport where all you have to do is pick up a barbell? Strategy in a weightlifting meet involves adjusting your attempt weights, either to give yourself more time to lift or to affect your opponent. If you adjust your weight to higher than another athletes next attempt, they will have to lift sooner than anticipated, which can throw off their warmup attempts. This strategy was used to great effect at the 2015 World Championships where Lu Xiaojun, reigning world champion and world record holder, bombed out due to not having enough time to finish his warmup lifts.

Hopefully you can see that Olympic weightlifting consists of more than just lifting heaving things (though that is a major component of it). It’s a fantastic sport with that offers many different angles for exploration and discussion.