This article was written by guest contributor David Boffa. An avid traveler, David has traversed the globe in search of good eats, fine art, and the greatest weightlifting spectacles the world has to offer. Read more about his adventures in weightlifting on his blog.
After nearly ten days, the 2011 World Weightlifting Championships— ostensibly in Paris but more accurately in EuroDisney, about an hour outside the city— came to a close on November 13th. It was an exciting competition, as could be expected for an event that helps determine the number of spots countries get for their lifting teams at the 2012 London Olympic Games, and I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the spectacle. And really, that’s what it is: a legitimate spectacle. All the Internet videos and TV footage in the world can’t prepare you for how fast these people move and how powerful they are. There’s a real sense they must be nothing more than a bundle of nerves and fast-twitch muscle fibers, and if you look away— even for an instant— there’s a good chance you’re going to miss something.
The competition features seven female weight categories— 48 kilos to 75 and over— and eight men’s categories— 56 kilos to 105 and over. Competitors have three attempts each in the snatch and the clean and jerk, and although medals are given out for individual lifts, only the total weight— the combination of the best snatch and clean and jerk— counts toward final placement and standing. Something like 93 countries were represented, with over 200 women and 300 men competing. The fact that this was a pre-Olympic year meant that there were some very big lifts throughout the week. One of the highlights came in the superheavy (105 kilograms and over) category, when Iran’s Behdad Salimikordasiabi snatched a new current world record of 214— one kilo more than the record set by his own coach, Hossein Rezazadeh.[i] From the women’s standpoint, the record-breaking was even more impressive. Eight world records were broken, including a couple by girls who were young enough— and strong enough— to simultaneously break the junior (under-20 years old) and senior (over 20 years old) world records.
The Americans, unfortunately, did not fare so well. Our women managed to secure two spots for the London 2012 Games, which is what we had hoped for and anticipated. But apart from their team standings there were no breakout performances, and none of our athletes got into the top ten for placement. The men did even worse, and as it currently stands we have precisely zero men’s slots for the 2012 Games. At this point, America's only chance for a male competitor in London is if they earn one spot at the 2012 Pan American Championships (there is an additional last-last chance option for the top seven lifters from the countries who failed to earn spots at Worlds and Continental championships, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that). By almost any objective measure, things are not exactly looking good for Olympic weightlifting in America.
Yet the competition is only one element of this spectacle, and what happens in the hotels, cafeteria, and training hall is often just as interesting. The place is a like a little U.N., with coaches, athletes, officials, and fans from all over the world represented. In general the countries spend most of their time together, but international mingling among different groups is certainly not the exception. In particular, some of the old Cold War loyalties seem to emerge in this setting, and you can often find the guys from Russia chumming about with companions from places like Belarus and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Of course, all this multiculturalism means things don’t always run quite as smoothly as you might otherwise expect in a country as bureaucratic as France. Trying to get my press credentials squared away was like spending an afternoon in the DMV, and it took the better part of two hours. But I suppose that’s the best you can expect when some heavy-lidded gangster from the old Soviet Bloc is registering his team using nothing more than a thick wad of cash and a handwritten list of athletes…
Inevitably, these international competitions provoke a bit of soul-searching among those of us who still care about weightlifting in the U.S. Admittedly, that’s a minority of people, composed primarily of current or former weightlifters and coaches. But that’s not at all how it should be, since it only takes a few minutes of watching high level weightlifting to realize these men and women are the most powerful athletes on the planet. The venue in France was often packed to capacity, especially for sessions with French lifters. If a country like France can get some of its population behind this sport and can produce athletes like Benjamin Hennequin, who took silver in the 85 kilo class, there’s no reason the same can’t happen in the States. But as anyone who really follows or knows this sport can tell you, despite the myriad problems currently facing us on the international stage— not the least of which is the ever-present specter of doping— our core issues are pretty straightforward. Really, it boils down to technique, talent, and lifestyle.
A trip down to the training hall— something I did often during my time in Paris this year and last year in Turkey— can be very illustrative and informative. After just a few minutes observing you become aware of the fact that the best lifters in the world have a mastery over the barbell that makes it look more like an additional limb than a piece of equipment. The way a guy from Russia or China or Korea moves with and around the bar is a different thing entirely from the way most Americans or other second and third tier lifters do. This is something that has nothing do with the amount of weight being lifted, but is rather about making the lifts look nearly identical across weights. It doesn’t matter whether it’s 50 kilos on the bar or 150; the general paths and positioning of the barbell and the lifter’s body remain the same, and only the speed and power output change.
Of course, starting young is only one part of the equation. Another critical component is the question of talent. To be among the best in the world means, by definition, you are in a group of men and women who are far above and beyond the average. The myriad distractions and the lack of a state program that can shuttle children into sport-specific programs means that much of our talent pool is lost before they even become aware of weightlifting. And unfortunately those who do have legitimate talent— and many of our top lifters today are quite gifted in this respect— often come to the sport too late, which then leads to the issue just raised.Such world class technique is like the difference between someone who learned a language when they were still a child verses someone who learned in their teens or later; there is a certain fluency that is impossible to attain if one starts too late, and you get the sense that the same is true for weightlifting. I remember a high-level US coach telling me about a seminar he attended, given by the German weightlifting team. At some point there was a question about weightlifters starting later in life— late teens, early twenties— and the response was basically that it is too late. This is not to say someone can’t be an excellent weightlifter at any age. Rather, it’s simply an admission that to be among the best in the world, you need to have started when you were at the critical age of brain and motor-skill development.[ii]
The other factor is one of lifestyle. The overwhelming commitment of the best teams and lifters becomes very clear in the training hall, especially as the competition wears on. In the early days, every lifter, every country, is represented in the training hall. They need to compete, after all, and so pre-contest prep is essential. But the best athletes, the ones who are on the medal stands and in the top of their class, are the ones still hanging around the training hall after they’ve competed. Two days after she won gold in her class, Russia’s 63 kilo lifter Svetlana Tsarukaeva was back at it, under the close eye of her coach. And on the final day of the competition, you could still find top lifters from Russia and Poland and elsewhere squeezing a workout in.
The result of the above factors— early learning, talent, and lifestyle— are clear. China and Russia, two countries who finished on top, are the experts in these areas, and it shows in the way their athletes conduct themselves on and off the platform. On the night before the 105 class competition I ran into Russia’s Dmitry Klokov— quite literally, since I was chasing after him like an enamored schoolgirl— and after snapping a picture with him he shouted one word: “Tomorrow!” It’s one of four English words that I’ve now heard Klokov say (the other three being “Russian people everywhere” at a previous meet, when Russian athletes did quite well), and it quite clearly conveyed his confidence in his abilities. The next day he made all his lifts and took the silver medal. Unlike much of the bravado found among lifters in the States, this was confidence backed by substance.
Well, nothing to do now but sit back and hope for the best in the coming months. London 2012 will likely prove to be a fierce competition, and there’s always 2016 to look forward to. America's task now is to do like the Chinese and Russians, and start scouring this vast country for preteens ready and willing to put a barbell overhead...
[i] This is also only a couple kilos below the all-time record of 216, set by Bulgaria’s Antonio Krastev way back in the 1987. This record was reset when the weight classes were restructed in the 1990s (twice), but Krastev’s snatch remains the heaviest ever done in an international competition.
[ii] The erroneous belief that children can’t or shouldn’t lift weights refuses to die in this country, and people still look at me in shock when I say that ten or eleven (or younger) is the right age to start. Many of these people are parents who have no problem letting their children engage in a range of other potentially damaging activities— football, soccer, eating junk/fast food, watching Fox News— but to whom the idea of learning proper technique with a barbell is anathema.
Photos by Jozsef Szaka/IWF.com