This post was written by guest contributor David Boffa. The views expressed herein are his. For more from David about his travels and experiences in weightlifting, visit his blog.

A little over a month ago, the fabulous city of Mobile, Alabama, played host to not one but two sporting events in the same weekend: USA Weightlifting’s 2011 American Open and the CrossFit Firebreather Challenge, which despite its name did not actually feature anyone breathing fire. I had been to Mobile once before— for the 2009 American Open— and the city is not a bad place to find yourself. The food, for one, is surprisingly good, and I would be remiss if I didn’t throw out a shameless (but deserved) plug for NOJA, especially since they were kind enough to provide us with dessert one night long after they had stopped serving food.

But I digress. As anyone who actually attended the American Open can attest to, all was not well in Mobile. There were some big hits, to be certain, including the city, the venue size, the hotel, and some strong performances by a few American lifters. But as is often the case in American weightlifting it was in the critical details that the event came up short: a non-functioning sauna in the hotel, no medical staff for days, and preparations so last-minute it looked like college freshmen were running the show. Were it not for a titanic effort on the part of a few dedicated individuals the opening of the competition on Friday morning would have taken place without a platform.

And then, of course, there was the CrossFit spectacle going on across the way from the lifting area. CrossFit and USA Weightlifting seem to have an uneasy alliance, and this year’s American Open proved the relationship is still in its early, awkward high school phase. For one thing, nobody seemed to be aware of the fact that spectator entrance to the competition was a staggering 30 dollars. The supposed logic was that you were paying for entrance to two competitions— CrossFit and Olympic Weightlifting— over an entire weekend. That sort of reasoning might be okay if you’re actually interested in spending the weekend visiting both events, but asking someone to pony up 30 bucks just to watch one session of weightlifting is obscene.[i]

As most people in the sport are willing to attest, CrossFit has brought increased awareness to Olympic weightlifting. For most of the time I’ve been involved in weightlifting, friends outside of the sport thought I was a wrestler— similar outfits for competition were confusing— but now, thanks in large part to CrossFit, an increasing number of people not only know the difference, but can actually describe or perform the lifts (admittedly, with varying degrees of competence). For this exposure alone USAW has reason to be grateful for the CrossFit phenomenon, and despite the fitness movement’s detractors— some of whom have serious criticisms— we do need to admit that making more people aware of weightlifting is not a bad thing, per se. It has put money in the USAW coffers, for one thing, as more CrossFitters looking to add some credibility to their resumes take the USAW coaching courses, and it has provided many coaches with new athletes. These are tangible benefits that can be measured and quantified almost as clearly and objectively as one can quantify a barbell’s weight. And in a less tangible sense, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an uptick in people who watch some amount of weightlifting during this year’s Olympic Games in London.

Yet as the American Open demonstrated, we do need to be careful how we align ourselves with CrossFit. For USAW to benefit from CrossFit— and, in my view, for CrossFit to benefit from USAW and avoid going the way of other fitness trends— we in the sport of weightlifting need to assume greater control over and involvement in the CrossFit movement. Right now it’s clear that they are the ones in control; they have the money, they have the numbers, and they have the marketing and PR juggernaut. It only takes one look at the Firebreather Competition logo to understand that: It’s got a dragon on it, and its breathing fire! That must be exciting, and it’s certainly more appealing to the American psyche than the silhouetted figures that were featured on the American Open logo. Neither of those lifters is breathing fire, I’d point out (they don’t even have mouths, apparently, so even if they could breath fire it wouldn’t end well).

And all of that CrossFit hype and marketing, is fine— they’re a business, and it’s hard to make money through understatement (although USAW certainly seems to be trying). But no Olympic champion is going to come from CrossFit, as I’m sure they’ll readily admit. They’re not in the business of making Olympians; they’re in the business of getting people in shape and making money, which are perfectly fine and admirable goals. USAW, by contrast, is in the business— or endeavor— of making Olympians, at least in theory. To that end, we need to grab the reins of the most critical activities— namely, the finding and cultivation of talented athletes. This means, in a practical sense, getting not just the youngest CrossFitters out there, but getting CrossFitters to get their children involved.

It also means ensuring as high a level of technical proficiency as possible, something we’ve been terrible at— at all levels—for far too long now. The widespread promotion of our sport via people with varying interest in it— i.e., coaches and business owners more concerned with profit than quality— can have the damaging effect of diluting our already weak technical abilities even further. It is therefore essential that we take a greater role in identifying the quality CrossFit coaches out there— and they are out there— and further improving their skill sets, all the while distancing ourselves from the hacks who are in it just to rake in $30 in entrance fees. It’s also worth noting that the blame cannot be leveled at CrossFit coaches, alone. USAW at all levels needs to do some legitimate housekeeping if it wants to thrive.

If you were at the American Open or watched it via the webcast, you know the results and the situation, and unless you’ve been asleep since the 1960s you know that USAW has a long road to redemption ahead. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be going all that well, and in its basic functions the organization could learn a lot from CrossFit, just as CrossFit can benefit from the perspective of the many fine athletes and coaches in the world of USAW. If we’re being honest, things aren’t looking good for 2012, and— given the needed timetable for finding and training talented young athletes— 2016 is a long shot, too. Let’s hope we aren’t still having this conversation in 2020.

[i] I’ve heard rumors that this problem was sorted out at some point during the weekend, but what that means is unclear to me. Nor is it clear if that was actually the case. Either way, plenty of people were forced to pony up 30 bucks, which— with all due respect to America’s weightlifters— is absurd.

Photo by David Boffa