This entire post should be read realizing I am a US citizen who loves weightlifting, and supports US weightlifting unequivocally. Here’s some information for you. The following are a sample of US records-
Men’s 77kg class- Snatch- 158, C+J- 190
Men’s 105+ class- Snatch- 198, C+J- 238
Women’s 69kg class- Snatch- 101, C+J- 127
Women’s 75kg class- Snatch- 106, C+J- 128
Now, here are the world records for those same weight classes-
Men’s 77kg class- snatch- 175, C+J- 210 (17kg, 20 kg difference)
Men’s 105+ class- Snatch- 214, C+J- 263 (16kg, 25 kg difference)
Women’s 69kg class- Snatch- 128, C+J- 158 (27 kg, 31 kg difference)
Women’s 75kg class- Snatch- 135, C+J- 163 (29 kg, 35 kg difference)
In the world of weightlifting, those are huge differences. In tight competitions (which they always are at the elite level), often 1kg difference or even lighter body weight can mean the difference between first and second. The national records for the traditional weightlifting powerhouses such as China, Russia, Bulgaria are similarly far above the U.S. Bulgaria and Kazakhstan in particular are interesting counter-examples, b/c their populations are so much smaller than the US (313 million people in the US, 16.8 million in Kazakhstan, 7.3 million for Bulgaria). Kazakhstan currently owns 4 world records, Bulgaria 2 (MANY, MANY more if you go back to historical records before they changed weight classes). The number for the U.S…. ? Zero.
Ilya Ilin, double world record holder from Kazakhstan.
The question is, why is this? The U.S. certainly has a large population; we have just as many if not more resources that could be devoted to our athletes. Sports are an important part of our culture. We’re dominant in many other athletic endeavors- what gives with weightlifting?
Here’s what I think are the top reasons for the US being so far behind much of the world when it comes to weightlifting.
# 1- there is no weightlifting “culture” in the U.S.
This is far and away the biggest reason. In many other countries, weightlifters are seen as top athletes. Children grow up idolizing lifters (along with other athletes). In the US, weightlifting is still an obscure sport. I can’t speak for other countries (having no experience with them), but it’s not hard to imagine fathers and mothers talking to sons and daughters in other countries about how great such and such weightlifter is. Parents who were into weightlifting before will pass that love on to their children. In this country, we talk about football, baseball, basketball. Fathers who saw Michael Jordan play will transmit that love of basketball on to their sons and daughters. We don’t know, or care, about weightlifting. Those of us who are really into it in this country are the exception- the majority of the population has NO CLUE, nor do they care about what a snatch or clean and jerk is. USAW currently estimates it has 7000 members. The numbers aren’t clear for China but I’ve read reports of 1 MILLION registered lifters. That is a more than 100x difference.
Chinese fans celebrating a successful weightlifter. I don’t know if we’ll ever see something to this degree in the US.
All the other reasons below stem from this first reason. If the majority of the population doesn’t know or doesn’t care about weightlifting, how are we supposed to develop the sport and funnel our best athletes towards it?
# 2- there is no money in US weightlifting
We are either the richest or one of the richest nations in the world (depending on the metric used). We spend billions as a population annually watching, playing and supporting athletic endeavors. Yet, the majority of this money goes to the “Big Three” (Baseball, basketball, football). From what I hear, financial support for our Olympians is dismal- it’s not uncommon for Olympic athletes to have to hold fundraisers simply to afford airfare to travel to events! The stipend for our Olympic athletes (the best of the best, remember) is nonexistent. The US Olympic Committee pays 25K for a gold medal, 15K for silver, and 10K for bronze. Any real money an Olympian can get is going to come in the form of endorsements or contracts with private companies (eg, shoe ads), and those are rare as hen’s teeth, and usually reserved for athletes who have already achieved success. The majority of Olympic athletes have a regular “day job” which they need to make ends meet, all while trying to become an elite athlete. Of all the “other sports” which receive little to no financial compensation, weightlifting ranks near the bottom.
If you achieve the once in a generation success someone like Michael Phelps has, there’s a lot of money in other sports.
In other countries, being an Olympic athlete IS considered a job. Elite athletes are paid to train by the government, and rewarded handsomely for success (I read over 1 million US$ in China for Olympic gold, etc). There is a real financial incentive to excel in “other sports”, including weightlifting.
So, basically we have a situation where a young, aspiring athlete has to make a choice- excel and concentrate on one of our traditional sports, such as basketball, where there’s a possibility of financial success, OR play another sport that they may love, but there is NO pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In addition, lack of money hurts every aspect of the sport of weightlifting- from number of training facilities and qualified coaches, to equipment, ease of access, travel expenses, etc. Money drives the success or failure of EVERY sport, and lack of money really hurts US weightlifting.
# 3- lack of infrastructure/specialization
This reason stems from the previous two. Success in weightlifting in China or Russia is considered a national priority. There is government funding for training academies, coaching, talent scouts, etc. The entire system is organized to find, identify, nurture and develop talent. We have no similar structure in the US, and certainly no funding (as previously discussed). This means that our athletes who DO pick up weightlifting at an early age face an uphill battle from minute one. Small differences from the get go can have a huge impact on the end result (“snowball effect”). As an example, take a hypothetical child, age 6, who starts squatting in China. By the time he’s 8, he may have a 50kg back squat (thanks to organized coaching, daily training, etc). Now, take the same child but put him in the US. IF he even squats, it probably won’t be with the same degree of coaching or support that he would receive in China. The squat likely won’t be 50kg by age 8. Now, extend that out to age 18- the Chinese boy is now a man, and his squat has gone from 50 –> 70 –> 120 –> 200 –> 280 kg. The same child in the US, due to an initial “stunting”, may be squatting 30 –> 60 –> 90 –> 150 –> 200 kg. Or, looked at from another angle, due to an initial “headstart” (and better support along the way), the Chinese kid is just lightyears beyond the US kid at age 18. Small initial differences can and do compound into huge end differences. We see it all the time in academics and other sports- why not weightlifting?
Video- Tian Tao, 17 yr old 77 kg Chinese lifter, squatting 280 kg (610lb) TWICE.
Video- Khetag Khugaev, 14 yr old 69kg Russian lifter, clean 174kg from the blocks!
In terms of specialization, athletes in other countries are encouraged, or even forced, to specialize at an early age. Whether or not this is a good thing for the person, a result of “Communist ideals” or not, etc is beyond the scope of this post. However, the fact remains in the US we have a remarkably laissez-faire attitude towards a child’s athletic development. Think of how many sports a typical American child engages in, and the freedom they’re given to pick and choose what they want to do, how often, etc. It is not uncommon for an American child to play multiple sports, several times a week. While this may be great for developing overall athleticism (and honestly is probably a healthier outlook on life in general), it doesn’t help the child become truly excellent at ONE THING.
This is not unusual for an American child.
Early specialization encourages the opposite. The child is expected to become great at that ONE THING. All other considerations, including personal happiness, are secondary. Success is what matters, and to succeed at such a technically-demanding sport as weightlifting almost requires early specialization. I can tell you as a Chinese person that attitude is stereotypically Chinese. The Chinese mentality towards children and success is- do your best, do as you’re told, and happiness isn’t really even considered. Rote practice and endless drills are practically a Chinese way of life. The end result may not be a well-rounded person, able to talk Shakespeare and hit a baseball just as well as they can do math, but they’ll sure be a damn good weightlifter.
Chinese kids, just specializing early and getting really damn good at weightlifting.
I encourage all of you to visit the Pendlay Forum, and look for the thread “my China experience”. In it, a US weightlifter visits and trains with Chinese lifters for an extended period of time, and he details many things he’s learned, including training methodology, diet, etc. One thing he wrote sticks out in my mind- namely, that the children who start weightlifting in China are given a bamboo stick ONLY for the first two years. Rep after rep, squat after squat with the bamboo stick. Only after correct form (and tenacity) is demonstrated with the stick are they allowed to progress to… THE EMPTY BAR. Same thing, same progression with the empty bar. Day after day. Rep after rep. Finally, at some distant point, they start loading weight on the bar. So, not only are they forcing and ingraining proper mechanics from the start, but they WILL NOT let the child screw themselves up too early by using weights they’re not ready for.
Can you imagine an American kid in this system? They’d quit after a few weeks. Hell, if you told them they wouldn’t be touching anything other than the bamboo stick for the first two years, the PARENTS would pull them out. It may be boring and awful for the kids but it produces results. I can’t imagine any sort of system even vaguely like this succeeding in the US.
Unfortunately, all of these reasons are difficult to overcome, and the solutions are long-term at best and intertwined. It’s unreasonable to expect US culture to embrace weightlifting overnight (CrossFit is helping with that); that will be a slow process over generations, and quite honestly probably requires a standout athlete that brings success to the US before people start paying attention (think the “Miracle on Ice” before hockey really took off in this country). Without interest, there’s no money, and elite athletes will go elsewhere. Without money, there won’t be changes and improvements in infrastructure. I’m hopeful, but being realistic us weightlifters will probably be an afterthought for quite some time.
Other thoughts- women
I want you to go back to the numbers at the beginning of the post, and notice that there’s a larger disparity between the women’s records than the men. I have a theory why this is as well. I don’t think the following statements are disputable-
- female athletics are much more accepted in the US than in most other countries (Title IX, etc)
- although less supported than male athletics, female athletes in the US are celebrated much more so than females in other countries
- although inequalities still exist, females are considered much more “equal” to males in the US than many other countries
Nothing profound there. And, US women have had ongoing success, even dominance in many world sports (eg, basketball, swimming, gymnastics). So, why is there an EVEN WIDER gulf between the international and US women when it comes to weightlifting, compared to the men?
Julia Rohde, just one more stereotypically disgusting female weightlifter.
My theory is that females training with weights has had a stigma associated with it in the US that you don’t see in many other countries. Female athletes in other countries may face many more uphill battles, but IF they lift weights or “get strong”, they don’t face the same social stigmas that an American woman might. Consequently, a sport like weightlifting is REALLY going to face lack of support and interest in the US. I know many women that are helping to buck this trend (thank god), but it’s certainly an additional battle. I’ve lost count of the number of Facebook posts I’ve seen on my female lifter friends’ walls, from their “friends” that criticize/subtly attempt to undermine their lifting.
If you want to see something obscene, check out this page which has a list of all the world records in weightlifting. Pay particular attention to the women, including older historical records and look how many are from China. Simply unbelievable.