I’ll openly admit right from the beginning that I’m not sure if this article is going to strike a chord with all of you. I hope it will, because it’s an important subject and I’ve definitely got some things to say about it. But I’m not sure where it’ll catch on regarding you and your lifting. Let’s take a shot at it and see how it goes.
The 2015 World Weightlifting Championships happened a couple of weeks ago in Houston. It was a thrilling international event, but what I’m going to talk about here is the performance of the United States team. As usual, Team USA didn’t win any medals at the Worlds. We only had a couple of lifters place in the top 10, and most of our team was in the 15-20-25th place range. Our men’s team placed 28th, which is pretty low.
This isn’t uncommon. I don’t know if many of you follow international weightlifting results, but the performance I just described above is typical at the World Championships and Olympics. Even if you’re not a big weightlifting fan, you’ve probably heard the US isn’t a top competitive power in the international scene.
Now that the Worlds are over and America placed near the bottom of the results, all of the “our US coaches are incompetent compared to the European and Asian coaches” discussion has kicked into turbo overdrive, as it does every time Team USA gets destroyed at the big meets. The internet lights up like a pinball machine with armchair quarterbacks who try to make the case that American weightlifting coaches are too stupid to produce lifters who are capable of winning world medals. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this over the years, I could retire from my job right now.
“American weightlifting coaches don’t know how to teach technique, design programs, or anything else that will take athletes to the top of the medal podium at the Olympics and World Championships.” That’s what you hear a lot if you’re an American lifter or coach.
That whole idea is stupid, inaccurate, and ridiculous. That’s what this article is going to be about. If you care about weightlifting, you should want to know the truth about what’s going on…about why the big bad United States of America isn’t an important factor on the world level of our great sport. And even if you’re not too interested in this situation, it’s important for you to have a complete understanding of how things work in this game. Because you’re a part of this game, you see. We all have a place in the weightlifting world. Whether you’re an Olympic hopeful or just a recreational lifter who trains in a garage and doesn’t compete, you’re involved in the world I’m talking about. You fit in, somewhere.
That means you need an educated opinion about what’s really happening in the game, and I mean what’s REALLY happening beneath the surface. The “surface” is the score sheets you read after the meets are over. They tell you how much everybody snatched, clean and jerked, totaled, and where they placed. Any idiot can read those and recite the facts. I’m talking about reading between the lines and knowing the truth that lies beneath the exterior. Think about it like it’s a big iceberg. All you see above the surface of the water is the tip of it. But there’s a much larger piece under the surface that you don’t see, and that’s where the real bulk is…the real weighty part.
Some facts about the sport of weightlifting…
Weightlifting in America functions with no youth development program, no feeder system, no financial support, and no drugs. Sure, there’s a tiny bit of money for some of our top athletes and there’s a tiny bit of drug use among some of our lifters (although rarely from people who are on the national team). But the levels of these things are very low and spotty. There is no wide-scale, established system that provides any of this. It’s an amateur sport with an amateur system, in the plainest possible language.
The top countries we compete against at the international level have all of the stuff I mentioned above, and most of them have it in mass quantities. Not all of them are quite as large as the weightlifting machine that exists in China, but almost all of them have a system that’s way ahead of us. In Europe and Asia, weightlifting is a professional sport. People make their living in it and the sport itself has a lot of status. That means it’s an entirely different animal from what’s happening in the United States.
Think about the sport of American football (not soccer). Football is played in Europe, but it’s mostly a smaller club sport with no real professional development system. Now imagine taking one of the football teams from Europe and putting them in a game against the best team in the American NFL, like the New England Patriots. Do you know what would happen? The Patriots would demolish the European team by a score of 65-0 or something like that. Kind of like when the US competes against Russia in weightlifting. Amateurs can’t compete successfully against professionals, people. It just doesn’t work that way in sports. Take one of the top Golden Gloves amateur boxers in the world and throw him in a ring with Floyd Mayweather. You get the point.
Despite these facts, our country consistently produces weightlifters who are within ten percent of the top totals in the world. If you don’t believe this, just go back and look at the results of our US National Championships over the last fifteen or twenty years, whip out a calculator, and compare our best people with the world champions. Wes Barnett, Tom Gough, Kendrick Farris, Chad Vaughn, Oscar Chaplin, Pete Kelley, Tara Nott, Melanie Roach, Cheryl Hayworth, and many other lifers I’m not mentioning are within ten percent of the medal-winning totals at the Worlds and Olympics.
Our top weightlifters don’t take drugs. There have been one or two isolated cases that contradict this, but 99% of our world team members are clean. Trust me, it’s true. The random testing system in this country is extremely structured and serious. If you’re a highly ranked US lifter who’s in contention to make an international team, you’re required to be in the random testing pool. There’s no way around it. I was in it for ten years, along with several members of my club who I trained with every day. You get tested up the wazoo in this country, all the time. The anti-doping organization in the United States (USADA) doesn’t play around and they don’t take prisoners. If you don’t play by the rules, you’ll test positive and they’ll nail you to the wall. If you compete at the national level in America and you take drugs, you’re probably going to get caught. It might not happen right away, but you’ll go down eventually if you show up at enough drug-tested meets.
Most/all of the top weightlifting countries in the world have established, organized drug systems that allow their lifters to juice without testing positive. In many cases, these systems are funded and guarded by the government. If you don’t believe this, then you just don’t understand the doping situation in Olympic weightlifting. No disrespect meant. I’ve been in this sport for over 25 years, mostly competing at a pretty high level, and I’ve spoken with dozens of athletes and coaches from the countries I’m talking about who have openly confirmed everything I’m telling you. It’s no secret.
Almost every steroid user I’ve ever talked to in my life will tell you that the drugs will give you a minimum ten percent increase on your lifts, if you’re taking the right stuff at the right time in your career. Many of them have said the number is higher than ten percent. Considering all of these things, you’re left with a pretty obvious conclusion. American coaches have consistently produced clean weightlifters who are roughly ten percent away from the top lifters from Europe and Asia who are getting that extra bump from the juice. Hopefully, we can understand that this means we have coaches in this country who aren’t bumbling morons. They don’t have a complete fundamental misunderstanding of how to teach technique or design programs, as some voices would have you believe.
Some actual examples…
Some of those untouchable genius coaches from overseas have come to the United States to coach over the years, and they haven’t produced the kind of results they got from the lifters they coached back in Europe. There are two examples I can specifically speak of.
Dragomir Cioroslan came to the United States from Romania in 1990 to become our national resident coach at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Dragomir was coaching here for almost 15 years before he moved on to explore other interests. During the time he was coaching here in the states, Dragomir had tremendous success…by American standards. He produced some of the best weightlifters we’ve ever had in this country. Guys like Barnett, McRae, Gough, Kelly, Hamman, and several others. These guys made Olympic Teams, broke national records, medaled at lower level international meets like the Pan Am Games and such, but they never rose to top international dominance. Wes Barnett nabbed a silver medal at the Worlds in 1997, but that was the best result of Dragomir’s coaching tenure here.
Dragomir was a former Olympic medalist from Romania who trained in the European system of the 1970s and 80s in his own country, along with Bulgaria and other places all over the world. He was one of the best lifters in the sport and he was a part of that mythical system we all know about from Eastern Europe that dominates international weightlifting. In other words, this was a guy with the expertise and knowledge that was producing world champions overseas. But he couldn’t win world championships here, not in the US system.
Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying about Dragomir, either. I knew him well and liked him tremendously, and I think he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever seen in any sport. His work was phenomenal, and I have nothing but good things to say about him. The point I’m making is the US system isn’t designed to beat the Russian or Chinese systems, regardless of who’s in charge of coaching it.
That was from 1990 through around 2004. You could basically rewrite the paragraphs I just gave you and substitute the name Zygmunt Smalcerz for Dragomir Ciorslan, and you’d have an exact description of what’s been going on at the USOTC for the last 8 years. Zygmunt is a coaching legend from Poland and a former Olympic gold medalist, and he hasn’t been able to win world championships here in the US either. His results have basically been right around what Dragomir did.
Just to restate the point in case you missed it, don’t think for one second that I’m disrespecting either of these men. They’re incredible coaches and men of respect, without a doubt. But the point we’re learning here (and I know I’m repeating myself) is that the coaches in Europe who are producing Olympic champions aren’t better than the coaches we’ve got here in the US. Dragomir and Zygmunt have produced lifters with tremendous American accomplishments, but we’ve had several coaches right here in the US who have produced lifters at the same level as these two gentlemen.
And before you start misinterpreting what I’m saying…
We certainly do have some coaches in this country who are idiots. Some of them have been able to convince people that they’re experts. You have to be careful who you listen to if you’re new. But I digress.
Drugs are absolutely not the only reason for America’s low international ranking. I’ve always said that, and I’m saying it again now in plain English just so nobody tries to hang a “he thinks drugs are the only issue” sign on me. There are many pieces of the puzzle in this discussion. Having a small talent pool is the biggest piece, and that’s why we don’t have armies of guys with the totals of Farris, Wilkes, etc. And you’ll never have a large talent pool without lots of money, which weightlifting doesn’t have in this country.
On top of all this, there are many other fine points that could be mentioned when you’re trying to answer the “Why aren’t we competing with the best in the world?” question. I’m limiting the analysis for the sake of brevity in this article, but there are definitely more issues I could bring up. Suffice to say it’s a very complicated topic and there are several very legitimate reasons why we’re getting our butts kicked internationally, but none of them are about the work ethic of our athletes or the skill of our coaches.
The main reason I’m writing this is because you get dumped on a lot if you’re an American Olympic lifter. I learned this lesson well from my time on the national scene, and I wasn’t even the top athlete in the country. People disrespect you. Hell, you even get disrespected by American lifters from thirty years ago who were juiced to the gills and lifted just a little more than you’re doing clean. It wears you down because you’re busting your onions to train as hard as you can, you know you’re getting the shaft in the global scheme of weightlifting, and you still have to deal with negativity and criticism.
All I want to do is defend the athletes and coaches who are fighting the good fight and getting no appreciation for it, and that includes you all. If you win the US National Championship, it’s a massive accomplishment that should be honored, not crapped on by internet idiots who want to quickly point out how far behind the Chinese you are. If you medal at a national meet, or even qualify for one, you’ve established yourself as one of the top weightlifters in our country. That means something, even if there are international lifters who are fifty kilos ahead of you.
Whatever level you lift at, don’t let haters get you down. Even if you’re not a national-level lifter, if you just train in a gym and you’ve got people who try to bash you. You’re the one in the arena and they’re just losers who run their mouths, so screw them and the horse they rode in on.