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Embed code for: Random Acts of Weightlifting 21Nov14
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It's 2016 and we still don't have a plan for 2020. My thoughts about this same issue in 2014. First posted 21 Nov 2014.
RANDOM ACTS OF WEIGHTLIFTING
By Bob Takano, Member USAW Hall of Fame
By this time most U.S. weightlifting fans are aware of the rather poor showing of the U.S. Team at the recent World Weightlifting Championships in Kazakhstan. This competition was the first of two that would decide the number of competitors each nation is allowed to enter in the 2016 Olympics. Based on the combined results of the this competition and the 2015 World Championships, the nations that get to enter two or more competitors of each gender will be determined. The excluded nations will then have to vie to qualify one competitor of each gender through the continental championships scheduled for the first half of 2016.
In all probability the U.S. will only qualify one male and one female for the Games. This is a far cry from the days when America led the world in weightlifting rankings. Keep in mind that this is all taking place at a time when the sport is enjoying more popularity than it ever has in this country.
So what is the reason for this continuous unending decline in the quality of U.S. weightlifting?
As with many things, a little historical review is appropriate.
Ahh! The History!
The U.S.A. ruled weightlifting for a 10 year period after the end of the second World War. At that time the sport was primarily European and all male (women’s weightlifting didn’t make its Olympic debut until 2000). In 1946 much of Europe’s infrastructure was in ruins and a huge toll was taken in terms of young male lives. That same year the U.S. won the first of its 10 world team titles. In 1947 the U.S. hosted the world championships that drew the smallest number of participating nations in history—7. Of course, the U.S. won. The American “system” was a resounding success for a decade.
So what was the system? The first part was to have a far-reaching, devastating war that never reached American soil and to have a thriving economy in the aftermath. I was actually declared “some idiot on the West Coast” for pointing this out to former USAW president Murray Levin back in the 1970’s. The second part was to have young men randomly discover this underground sport, train with randomly devised methods, and then compete in national events to be selected for the world or Olympic team.
Except for the devastating war part and the inclusion of women, the system remains intact. By the way, for the first several years of women’s weightlifting at the international level, the U.S. was consistently number 2 in the world using the same random approach because every nation except for the Chinese was using the random method. The inclusion of women in the Olympics in 2000 meant that national governments would provide funding for the sport, abandon the random model and voila! We are scrambling to get one woman eligible for the Olympics.
Like many individuals with psychological problems, the U.S. weightlifting community has been in a state of self-denial since the golden age began to wind down in the late 1950’s. Instead of involving itself in some reasonable practices of introspection, it has been content to try and point the finger at perceived external causes of the decline.
The Communists are getting paid! Actually this was true, but even when it became a rallying cry some amateur Americans were beating some professional communists. We were comfortable taking the moral high ground on this because we believed in the amateurism credo of the Olympic movement. Few people, however, did the research to find out why the Olympics were conceived as an amateur endeavor. When Baron de Coubertin revived the Olympics in 1896 he saw it as a potential peace movement. He believed that by gathering the youth of the world in friendly competition, they would return to their native lands, assume positions of leadership and through their athletic relationships bring about a world of peace. So the Olympics were initially conceived as a dream for world peace, which meant that professional athletes should be excluded as they were mercenaries and had no interest in world peace. Hence the amateurism credo was adopted. The Olympics were never conceived as a program for enhancing athletic achievement.
One American Olympian, Avery Brundage, bought into amateurism whole heartedly and vowed to enforce it. Consequently he was eventually elected president of the IOC largely by the Communists because he would enforce amateurism in the U.S. Subsequently Americans growing up in the Olympic sport family believed that amateurism was “good” and professionalism was “bad”. Since the IOC has abandoned amateurism as a pre-requisite for participation the argument in its favor has lost its steam.
The IWF is controlled by Europeans and they want the U.S. to lose! This is an interesting boogeyman that has been created by some folks with a rather narrow world view. While Cold War rhetoric might have provided some early impetus for this distracting thought, the rise in numbers of the world television audience puts the lie to it. For decades now the IWF has felt that the best thing possible for developing global interest in weightlifting would have been a strong U.S. presence. Televised clashes between the U.S. and Russia, China, Iran (fill in the blank) would have topped the international ratings. The IWF has been hoping for the arrival of a Messiah that would lead the U.S. to the top simply because huge numbers would love to cheer us on or watch us lose. They are still waiting.
They’re All Taking Drugs! Despite a great many indications to the contrary, members of the U.S. weightlifting community still buy into the argument that drugs are the reasons that a Kazakhstani is winning the gold, while our guy/girl is 27th. There is more drug testing by WADA than ever before and the number keeps going up. There is more funding for a WADA. There are plenty of drug suspensions being handed out, although the number is gradually declining. The clean and jerk records of the pre-modern drug testing era are rarely exceeded by the current marks. While it cannot be denied that some chemical skullduggery is taking place, the energy put into concocting rumors of pharmaceutical conspiracies could certainly be put to better use devising strategies to improve our current condition. After all we relentlessly prove that our system doesn’t work.
The Kazakhs and the North Koreans are the current darlings of world weightlifting. They have achieved this status because they devised plans. Nothing worthwhile ever happens without some serious planning. Neil Armstrong didn’t walk on the Moon because of random occurrences and haphazard phenomena. The unicorns are not going to save us.
So where is the plan? We are still using the 1950’s non-plan which means we are not going to beat anyone except maybe Iraq if Haliburton hasn’t rebuilt them too well.
The U.S.O.C. wants us to have a plan. So much so that they’ve coughed up the money for a salary (or so I was told). The position is called High Performance Director. I applied for the position when it was first offered and was told that it was being financed by USOC to insure that the federation was being strategic in its development of international teams. I was turned down for the position (This isn’t a gripe by the way as I’m very happy doing what I’m doing now). This was sometime around 2011 when the position was filled. I expected to see a four year plan for Rio and a seven year plan for Tokyo. So far—no plan. At least not a publicly revealed plan. So we need a plan.
When I visited Bulgaria during the peak of their reign in 1989 I was told that they started each Olympic quadrennium with a program of 3200 selected athletes from school age to top professionals. The goal was to figure out who would be the 10 left standing in 1992. That would be the Olympic team.
This process of finding 3200 select athletes was a much much bigger factor in their success than doing max singles everyday. Most of the people I meet that want to follow the Bulgarian system would not have made the select 3200. By the way we currently have more lifters registered with USAW than 3200, but they have happened upon the sport on a more random pathway. For those of you that come from the world of sales, pure numbers of weightlifters don’t work the same way they do in that sphere.
At the 2012 USAW Coaches conference, Zygmunt Smalcerz, our national resident coach, did a presentation on talent selection methodologies in his native Poland, a nation that regularly beats us. I was specifically told not to make available to my readers the contents of Zygmunt’s Powerpoint. Apparently there is some bias against the concept of talent selection.
Instead of wasting valuable human resources on the process of culling unselected talent, we could be issuing talent guidelines and encouraging talent selection. Does this sound like a plan?
For a few years I coached a lifter from Portugal named Francisco Coelho. He was enormously talented and represented his country in the 1984 Olympics. He told me about his experiences with the Portuguese Weightlifting Federation. For years he was the only lifter in that country with any hope of winning a medal. Their response was to spend most of their budget on transporting him to international events, paying for him to train in countries with better programs, hiring foreign coaches to coach him and doing whatever could be reasonably done to improve his performance levels. They spent very little on their less talented lifters and on the national program as a whole. If he had medaled the budget for Portuguese weightlifting would have increased. They were keeping their eye on the prize.
We perennially have one lifter who is clearly superior to the rest. That’s about all we can find with a random system. Why not allocate more resources to increase the medal chances of that one individual. Isn’t that consistent with the mission statement of the federation? Wouldn’t that be part of a plan to heighten weightlifting’s public visibility?
Regional Training Centers
This program, although never formally killed, has been left to wither on the vine. It was a program that for very little cost made available well above average training on a much more geographically expanded basis. We are a very large nation and regional training centers could be used as involvement centers, educational centers and a source of reliable coaching. There are individuals with facilities that would love to have the blessing of the federation. Besides they’re going to keep coaching anyway. They could provide newcomers with information about qualifying procedures, training, volunteering while simultaneously putting the federation in contact with community resources that would otherwise go unrecruited. Furthermore they could become centers of talent identification. This could all be part of a plan.
I’ve observed in several Olympic sports that potential stars and their families will actually shoulder the burden of moving to a location where the best training is available. I’ve seen it in gymnastics, figure skating, tennis and track and field. Parents of budding stars find the best coaching and move their child and in some cases the whole family in order to access the best sports pathway.
In weightlifting there is only a handful of coaches who are currently coaching and capable of taking a talented youngster to the top. They are widely dispersed around the country. The federation needs to establish the connections between potential medalists and top coaches as a matter of policy.
In this scenario the facilities and coaching are already in place. This is an effective solution in lieu of developing more training centers. It would also not be outlandish for the federation to provide scholarships or residential subsidies as incentives for exceptional performances. This sounds like a plan.
Bench mark goals
In one sense this sport is about numbers and it’s part of the attraction. People that gravitate to this sport do so partly because of the objectivity and the real meanings of the numbers. They are all about measuring themselves against absolute standards.
Why do we have no bench mark goals for our national teams at the 2014 and 2015 World Championships? These are the two most important events shy of the Olympics, and the qualifiers for slots in the Games.
There should be performance goals and placement goals. Right now it’s “do the best you can” and next year we’ll do the same thing.
These goals should be put in place so that they uplift the culture of the program. They need to be strategic in that regards. Right now we have nothing.
Let’s Build Some Stars
We have a culture in the U.S. version of weightlifting to try and be fair and treat everyone the same. This is hampering us. Every Olympic sport needs stars. Stars make the sport more attractive and they bring in athletes, parents and sponsors.
The two most well known American lifters are Holley Mangold and Jon North. Both are well known, but not because of efforts on the part of the federation. Holley became initially well known because her brother plays for the New York Jets, and then for appearing on The Biggest Loser. Now she is just recognizable for her girth. Jon is well known for his outlandish behavior. Very rarely is either one noted for a particular lift or performance.
While weightlifting is still not a staple on mainstream media, the federation could manage the concept of “internet famous” in a manner that emphasizes the great aspects of the sport. C.J. Cummings is a star in the making. He is lifting stupendous weights but his technique is less than optimal and his career is in need of some management. The federation could help in both these areas. The benefit would be a high profile, appealing superstar with a strong connection to the sport and USA Weightlifting. CJ’s session had a larger than expected audience at the Nationals this year, and the federation needs to make the best use of this resource.
Star coaches are also attractive. There are now a great many young coaches anxious to make their marks. Video profiles of some of our veteran coaches would do much to inspire the up and coming and keep them more heavily involved. Since each coach is responsible for a number of lifters for years to come the opportunity to enhance the esteem of the coaching persona should not be wasted nor ignored.
All of these items will involve a change in mindset that the leadership of the federation needs to adopt at this very crucial period in the development of the concept of the sport in the public mind. Otherwise we can continue to meander along the same random path that unrelentingly leads to the bottom of the international weightlifting ladder. y resources that would otherwise go unrecruited. Furthermore they could become centers of talent identification. This could all be part of a plan.
In one sense this sport is about numbers and it’s part of the attraction. People that gravitate to this sport do so partly because of the objectivity and the real meanin