Prelude: This piece is being started as I attended the 2016 American Open Weightlifting Championships in Orlando, FL. These are thoughts that occurred to me during that weekend and are not written as criticisms. They are merely an exercise in reflection, something that everyone should engage in with some thoughtfulness.
They are also not a longing for a nostalgic past. I believe that most nostalgic moments are based on physiological responses to the events of the moment. Most people are nostalgic about events that occurred when their physiology was functioning most effectively.
My hope is that these reflections will in some way turn out to be provocative.
The Viewing Experience
I spent a fair amount of time at this event sitting in the audience. Except for the one session where I sat in the front row, I got to watch a bunch of torsos lifting weight. There were hundreds of spectators at many sessions and even though many of them were participating lifters and coaches, a significant proportion were probably fans, supporters, and others who were not members of the weightlifting community. All of these groups deserve a decent view of the action.
USAW needs to get the sport out of hotel conference facilities. They may be the cheapest alternative, but no sport with much spectator appeal is being conducted in hotel conference rooms. They are flat and most of them have horrible acoustics, although this past weekend’s sound was acceptable.
One thing that needs to be done if the hotel solution is the best is to have taller stages. The current stages are too short to allow for reasonable sightlines. Weightlifting can only be fully appreciated if the entire body of the athlete can be viewed. The organizing committee might consider the type of venue where a dance production could be presented. Dancers appreciate having people watch their feet.
The USAW scoreboards are also pretty worthless as scoreboards if the audience is situated so far from them. For most spectators they are just dynamic design pieces with a moving yellow bar that indicates where the next red or blue rectangle will appear. They need larger fonts and the elimination of superfluous information like the flag of the state of the athlete’s club.
Another thing that has become the new normal as the entry list has grown Is the use of 3 platforms with sessions occurring simultaneously. At times there were 3 A sessions taking place at the same time which made it difficult to fully appreciate the performances taking place
I really feel that we need to go back to a one platform event, especially if we are thinking long term about getting live coverage that showcases our best athletes. A single platform set up on a half of a sports arena with tiered seating would provide the best viewing experience. A drape would cut the playing surface in half, and the warm-up area could be set up behind the drape.
New Coaches and Athletes
In this new age of less-selective, big entry list mentality, many of the newcomers may not realize the degree of scrutiny that happens at a national event. At an event like the American Open, the “audience” is full of lifters, coaches and officials who have been watching the sport for decades. We came from an era when there was indeed some prestige involved in participation at a national level event and for most it was the result of years of effort. That’s not necessarily true anymore.
In the warm-up room there are monitors where the coaches can view the action on the competition platform. They view each lift with a critical eye. They can’t help it—that’s what they do. Each technical error, faux pas in decorum, and poor coaching decision is on display. What is dismaying is that in most cases the newbies aren’t even aware ofthem. If we are going to have a sport that collectively develops, the newer participants are going to have to do some self regulating.
Those that lift and coach in a decidedly amateurish style are being scrutinized.
The Product of USA Weightlifting
Over the entire course of the event, I rarely heard one word about improving the product of USA Weightlifting, which is lifting performance. Over the past few years, the federation has been making more money than it ever has in its history, and that seems to be a justification for carrying on in the same way. We’ve lost sight of our mission statement which is to promote weightlifting (not bad weightlifting) and to win medals at the Pan Ams and Olympics.
Some are expecting Tamas Feher and Pyrros Dimas to show up next year and rescue us, and maybe they will. But it’s doubtful that anything might happen very rapidly.
Since the federation was forcibly reorganized in 2008, we’ve never had a four year plan. Although we’ve had a High Performance Director who is responsible for one, we’ve never had one materialize. Presumably Dimas will put one in place, but the clock is ticking toward 2020 and other developed weightlifting nations are probably in the process of implementing theirs. We are pretty happy with ourselves over the prospect of holding the 2017 World’s, but we need to be known for developing weightlifting talent instead of showcasing everyone else’s. Are we really silly enough to believe that by merely staging large events for hundreds of unselected athletes that somehow we are going to randomly develop an athlete development infrastructure to guide highly talented athletes to elite level performances?
Save for CJ Cumming’s record setting session on Saturday, there were really no stellar performances to stir the imagination and inspire. Top programs regularly feature a number of such occasions that serve to unite, inspire and uplift. We need to orchestrate such occasions in a systematic manner and not as a result of happy accidents.
The Newly Elevated Status of Officials
At the 2012 American Open (which I helped to organize) we mainly had 1 platform and for a couple of sessions we had 2. Now we regularly have 3 at the American Open and Nationals. We’ve suddenly gotten to the point where we now need more officials. Add to that the relatively new requirements that Technical Controllers, Marshalls and Announcers must be cardholders and the necessity for Juries composed of at least 3 members and we are faced with the need for 9 card holding officials per platform. This has greatly elevated the value of officials.
Now the vast majority of officials do a great job. Most are selfless and spend a lot of their own money to keep the sport functioning. They in essence, define the sport by only allowing high standards to be maintained. Now the changing circumstances have made them a more valuable commodity because the demand so greatly outweighs the supply. As a result there is a little more swagger to their step. Nothing wrong with that but it does show how certain decisions like low qualifying totals can greatly alter the political profile of the members of an organization.
What this should remind us is that for an organization to flourish all the stakeholders must have some political leverage else the organization begins to function for one group of stakeholders. The function of leadership should be to make sure that political leverages are relatively balanced so that the organization can consistently move forward.
We need to realize that team scoring and team championships do not really happen and are communication devices to let the uninitiated know how we are doing.
If you are the weightlifting administrator for (Name a country other than the U.S.), and you go to the Ministry of Sport or Chancellor of the Exchequer and ask for more money for your program, you can’t tell him or her that you’ve got this great 63 kilo woman who does 110-140 because it’s not an understandable argument. If on the other hand you can say that you have the second best team in your continent, up from 5th, you might get some money shaken loose. It’s a metric…..get it?
The last time there was much high drama centered around the team title at national events was when various teams were trying to see who would end the 37 year run of team championships of York Barbell. Well a couple of teams did it, Goliath died, and nowadays most people outside of the teams in the hunt don’t really care. Nonetheless some coaches are focused on team scoring, commit some skullduggery to do it, and end up creating more ill will than goodwill. Just keep in mind that the only real things that happen are snatches and cleans and jerks.
What Have We Learned—Where Are We Going?
One of the really great persons who has come through my internship program is Fred Callori, the coach of Beantown Barbell. Fred is an attorney with a prominent law firm in Boston. He told me that the company maintains a historical committee composed of both veteran and less experienced employees. The function of this committee is to keep track of the history of the firm and to advise the management against repeating the mistakes of the past. What a great idea!
This is something that USAW could implement with little fanfare or expense. We already have a historical conscience in the person of Artie Dreschler, but we could use a historical committee focused on the history of failed policies. In 2008 we were forced by USOC to purge the Board of Directors of the veteran members for a few years. The result has been that the Board is populated by relative newcomers with no knowledge of the institutional memory of the body. The new Board that will take over on January 1 is one that is somewhat detached from the older members of the organization and hence unable to take advantage of that experience. And like all organizations we face the prospect that the more experienced lose interest and/or die off and when they go they take their experiences with them.
One of my current proposed projects is to have my assistant Tom Showers record a series of Skype interviews with some of the veterans in the sport so that we have a living history available to the future leadership of the sport. Greg Everett did some of this in his film American Weightlifting, and I’ve done some audio interviews that were up on my old website, but I’d like to see a more thorough effort in this area so that our history as an institution is not lost. I do very much regret that we didn’t get to listen in on the wisdom of our weightlifting forefathers before they passed away.
Anyway these are the result of some mental expeditions that I took while attending this year’s AO.