5
Aug 08

Olympic Preview: WEIGHTLIFTING

FT + TMFD3 comments • 830 views

Some of Freaky Trigger’s Olympic coverage, you will have realised reading Kat’s swimming piece, is being provided by writers who are genuine experts and enthusiasts in their field – as well as possessing a gift of bringing the drama of sport to you the reader.

Others, however, have chosen sports based on what was left over when everyone else had picked. Since this is very much how my participation in sports has always worked it seemed a fair method. Thus I introduce myself to you now as Freaky Trigger’s newly appointed weightlifting expert.

Weightlifting as a sport is both simple and mysterious. The simplicity comes from the fact that every single event in every single category at the Olympics is the same: no variance in victory conditions, rules or tactics, just in how enormous the participants are. The mystique comes from the fact that it’s never on the TV except when the Olympics come round, when it seems to fill up the whole schedule. Also, Britain don’t take part in it* so when I was small it seemed doubly baffling, as it was always there and yet nobody had anything much to say about it. It was dominated back then by the Eastern Bloc countries who were Our Enemies: while we concentrated on breeding a race of lanky fops good only for running away the iron men of Bulgaria and the DDR were busy practicing by lifting whole tanks.

Luckily times have changed! Here is what my literal half hours of research have uncovered about weightlifting so far.

The magic of weightlifting

Weightlifting is all about maximum individual effort. It does not seem to be a particularly tactical sport at the moment of competition (training and exercise regimes are another matter) – what’s needed is a combination of skill, power, and determination. Skill and power are familiar to us from other events, of course – the shot, javelin, or high jump – but what makes weightlifting uniquely compelling are two other factors in combination.

The first is the all-or-nothing nature of weightlifting. When you throw a javelin it goes a better or worse distance than your opponents. But weightlifting is more like the high jump – you either lift the weight cleanly or you don’t: no room for compromise or “good enough” or “puts you in contention”. The weight goes over your head or it doesn’t. And because the weight is such a big physical thing the fail in weightlifting truly is epic: the slang for failure in the sport is “bombing out”.

The second is the uniquely sustained exposure and pressure the weightlifter suffers. A high jump is over in a second or two: a clean-and-jerk can take up to two minutes before failure or success is confirmed. That’s two minutes alone on a stage, the audience (and worldwide TV audience), focusing on your every expression and movement as you try and focus on the enormous slabs of steel you’re trying to lift. It’s no surprise weightlifters seem to talk about the sport not in terms of competing against each other but in more individualist language: constantly striving to better their own personal physical limits, shutting out the rest of the sport and the world.

What will happen in Beijing?

There are mens and womens events, each divided into a half-dozen or so weight classes. Each contestant needs to do two lifts: the snatch, which is the lift done in one movement, and the clean and jerk, which is in two movements and involves heavier weights. The clean and jerk is the really dramatic one where you think the lifter is going to do themselves a mischief at the halfway point, and they drop the weights on the stage with an almighty bash if it goes wrong. The snatch is more a psychological battle where lifters just grip the bar, stare at it, and then walk away.

The winner is the person who hefts the biggest total weight over these two lifts.

So to Beijing: weightlifting is one of the events where China are looking to clean (and jerk) up, at least in the lower weight categories – they’re leaving the heavyweight ones to the traditional powerhouses from Eastern Europe and the Middle East (Iran is a big weightlifting nation). Most informed opinion suggests they will do so, and a lot of the interest will be in whether they can double up on the top medals, or whether a non-Chinese competitor can split gold and bronze. But of course, anyone can have an off day. The higher weight categories seem a bit more open: the superheavyweight mens looked set for an epic battle with the Iranian defending champion Hossein Rezazadeh hoping to win a remarkable third gold, but his doctors have informed him he must never lift again! Noes! But that event will still be exciting in his absence, and not just because of the stupendous weights being lifted: it is one of the few Olympic events which might well be won by a sitting MP. (Your reporter will of course be keeping a close ear on the unofficial SI units of weightlifting being used by the commentators.)

This being sport, the Australians seem in with a shout in a couple of areas too.

So far I have only found out much about men’s weightlifting: the women’s discipline isn’t as big news, and also has a long-standing image problem which it shares with certain track and field events: the imaginative jump from “unfeminine” to “not actually women” is easy to make. This is slightly unfair – in fact the entire sport across both genders seems to be riddled with doping with Bulgaria having already withdrawn its entire team for being drug-pumped weightbots.

Commentators have called for weightlifting to be withdrawn thanks to these scandals – this is unlikely to happen (cf that IHT article) as it’s a venerable Olympic sport. Also, for me anyway it’s harder to care about doping in weightlifting than in, say, cycling, where drugs are being used to give power an advantage over tactics and skill. In lifting, power is everything anyway: putting three times your bodyweight over your head on a huge metal bar is ALREADY completely freakish and eye-bulgingly mental, the monkey glands make a difference only in degree.

Stay tuned to FT for my virtual matside reports on the weightlifting events!

*(this is not wholly true – Britain’s one weightlifter in Beijing will be Michaela Breeze, who came 9th in her class in Athens and I remember seeing on Newsround where she came across as very nice and passionate about her sport. She said that to be a British female weightlifter was to plough a somewhat lonely furrow, which doesn’t really surprise me.)

Comments

  1. 1
    Pete on 5 Aug 2008 #

    I always found clean and jerk funny.

    Its interesting that you illustrate this with a comic picture, as weightlifters are about the only people with the physiques that male superheroes have. Superheroines, even if stupendously strong, vary rarely look like female weighlifters though.

  2. 2
    Martin Skidmore on 5 Aug 2008 #

    From one of my favourite sequences in all of comics!

    No Brits? One of my favourite sports related anecdotes was about a Brit weightlifter. Precious McKenzie was 4’9, four-time Commonwealth Champ at Bantamweight. He used to hang out with Brit shot put great Geoff Capes, who was 6’5 and 23 stone and a two-time World’s Strongest Man winner. They had a regular routine where they would go into bars and Geoff would say to the landlord “Will you give us free drinks all night if I can lift my pal above my head?” They claimed that at least 90% of the time the barman would say something like “Fuck off – if HE can lift YOU, you’re on!” You can see the rest coming…

  3. 3
    anatol_merklich on 6 Aug 2008 #

    The tactical part I suppose is choosing which weights to attempt — afaik each lifter has three lifts in total (in each of the two parts of the competition) to achieve a result.

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