On the “Politics” of Weightlifting: a response to Glenn Pendlay and the thousands of people currently swinging from his…

A bit of a warning: there’s a fair chance my response to Glenn Pendlay’s recent blog post is going to be a bit mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly boring, insofar as weightlifting is concerned. Think “Pride and Prejudice” but with all the kung fu and sex scenes removed. Those of you familiar with Artie Drechsler’s now (in)famous companion video to his excellent book The Weightlifting Encyclopedia might have some idea of how boring this might get. That’s going to seem like a cocaine-fueled roller coaster ride by comparison.*

"please don't make me watch that video again!!!" (nat arem, http://www.facebook.com/hookgripdotcom)

“please don’t make me watch that video again!!!” (nat arem, http://www.facebook.com/hookgripdotcom)

I had originally planned on relating some recent experiences with USAW celebrity and new BOD member Mike Graber, who visited me during the Italian leg of his 2012 European tour, which included something like forty cities in the span of 72 hours. Unfortunately, instead of hearing about our failed attempt to rent a car in Venice and drive to Croatia or Graber’s unsuccessful efforts to pay for everything using a Diner’s Club card (legitimate currency in precisely no part of the known universe), we are, for the moment, stuck contemplating the misguided and misinformed shitstorm currently surrounding the publication of this document.

mr graber in the midst of composing one of the 400 postcards he sent during his european tour

mr graber in the midst of composing one of the 400 postcards he sent during his european tour

To (briefly) summarize the document, this is a reference guide for the strategic selection of athletes for various international competitions. It is, admittedly, a bit dry and technical. What it does is lay out a plan for picking team members based primarily on what can be considered objective criteria. I say “primarily” because it gives the option—the option—to use what might be termed more subjective measures in certain circumstances. This is not an Eastern European takeover of our selection process (not to say that would be inherently a bad thing). For the most part this is common sense stuff designed to prevent and avoid past errors and abuses: e.g., making sure athletes are in the shape they claim to be in, or sending our best athletes to the most important competitions so that their efforts are not under-utilized at less important competitions. Basically, this subjective element is stuff that’s been around for years. Athlete selection is still based on performance at trials.

But to judge from the clamor on Glenn Pendlay’s Facebook wall and the recent emails I’ve received, this is nothing more than Soviet-style subjective team selection, which will result in our best athletes being displaced by lesser athletes simply because the whim of shadowy USAW figures deem it to be so.

photo of a typical BOD meeting: "gentleman, how can we most piss off people?" (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

photo of a typical BOD meeting: “gentleman, how can we most piss off people?” (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

There’s a lot to address here and people are rather fired up over this (despite the fact that roughly 97% of USAW members will not be affected by these, or any, proposed changes to how we select international teams). Admittedly, the stakes here are small, which is perhaps why the fighting is so fierce (and so fiercely stupid, often), to paraphrase a quote often given to Henry Kissinger.** From a variety of corners there is an unquestioning, unwavering support for Glenn Pendlay (who is, by any measure, one of our best coaches) as well as a violent opposition to even a whiff of something that might be perceived as subjectivity or unfairness to the “best” athletes. As is often the case, there is not some objectively “right” answer, regardless of how many CrossFitters are googily-eyed over Coach Pendlay and his athletes.

Still awake? I’m going to try to break this down into a few main points that people raise.

1) “We need to send the best athletes! Weightlifting is objective so it’s as simple as who lifts more weight!” (Or some such drivel…)

This is about as low-level of a response as can be given. As for sending the best, how do you define “best”? Sinclair? Proximity to medal? Weight lifted regardless of weight class or formula? People looking at this sport retroactively cannot agree on who was the “best” lifter of all time, despite years of very clear data: Naim Suleymanoglu? Yurik Vardanyan? Vasily Alekseyev? Tommy Kono? If a standard of best cannot be reached in retrospect, how in shit’s sake do people think they can offer contemporary (or predictive) answers to who the best lifter is? Consider that just last year Amanda Sandoval was not selected for the Olympic Team, despite being our “best” athlete according to one widely accepted standard (Sinclair). Simply put, there are many ways to define best.

As for the alleged objectivity of weightlifting, this is indefensible from any number of angles. For one, there is judging, which, as we all know, can be extraordinarily subjective. There are also elements like strategy, head games, coaching tactics, weight class changes, faked injuries (yes, it has happened), and on and on. The numbers are objective in that an athlete in a given class who totals 340 places higher than another athlete in the same class who totals 339, but how those numbers are arrived at involves a very human, and therefore subjective, element.

2) “This is unfair to athletes who work/go to school/can’t afford it!”

An interesting point that many have raised. Essentially, the claim is that you cannot expect certain things from athletes who must lead otherwise normal lives (going to school, paying bills, taking care of families, etc.).

First, I sympathize with these athletes. Our athletes are not, by and large, professionals. That immediately puts many of them at a disadvantage compared to their international peers (to say nothing of the PED disparity). Furthermore, I think it’s absolutely extraordinary that our athletes do what they do despite having to hold down jobs, go to school, and live generally full lives (at least compared to their Chinese or Eastern European counterparts, let’s say).

"i lead a very full life, thank you!!!" (photo credit: http://www.facebook.com/hookgripdotcom)

“i lead a very full life, thank you!!!” (photo credit: http://www.facebook.com/hookgripdotcom)

But the issue is that sport, and especially elite, world class sport, is often not about fairness. At least according to the rules as determined by the rest of the world. Essentially what this amounts to, in theory, is the seeking of a sort of welfare that most people complaining would never support in the real world.*** By this logic, should people with jobs be given a 10-kilo head start? After all, it’s not fair to ask someone with a job to compete against someone who can train full time. And what about resources and money? Should poor athletes start with a 20-kilo advantage, since they didn’t have access to the best shoes, bars, or coaches? Or should athletes with small hands be allowed to use straps? (If only…)

The fact is that competitive sports are, in many ways, inherently discriminatory. People born with more slow twitch muscle fibers are at a disadvantage against those with more fast twitch. People born in cities with a great Olympic lifting coach have a geographic advantage. How is that fair compared to someone born in, say, the middle of South Dakota, which has no gyms, let alone coaches?

It is unfortunate, but certain policies in high level athletics are going to discriminate based on things that seem “unfair”. It is unfair that our athletes, many of whom work, must compete against state-sponsored athletes who do nothing but train, eat, and sleep (and take the occasional drug cocktail). But, apart from the PED issue, that’s the way the game is played and that’s all within the rules. (Interestingly, one could argue that PEDs can serve to minimize various inequalities and level the playing field in some ways, but that’s another issue…)

In short, it sucks if an athlete loses her spot on the team because she was unable to defend it because of work or family commitments (which, keep in mind, will not be the norm—locked team members cannot be bumped). But if another athlete is willing to make extra sacrifices, or is simply more fortunate to have better or more resources, then why wouldn’t you send the athlete who ends up doing better in the end? For a points-scoring international meet, why not send the athlete who, in the qualification period, does the total that puts her closest to the medal podium?

3) “This isn’t Eastern Europe! Our athletes aren’t Pros so you can’t expect them to follow that model!”

The first part of this objection, that we are not some Eastern European socialist state, is true (despite what misinformed Fox News viewers think about Obama’s policies). Again, the document does not turn our selection process into an arbitrary picking of athletes by some head coach mastermind. Those who think that clearly have not read the document, although perhaps USAW is at fault here, since one could easily argue that USAW has a poor track record of communicating with members. Very, very poor.

"what we've got here is failure to communicate. and a really, really shitty website." (photo credit: http://www.samefacts.com/2013/01/popular-culture/film-popular-culture/special-guest-star-weekend-film-recommendation-cool-hand-luke/)

“what we’ve got here is failure to communicate. and a really, really shitty website.” (photo credit: http://www.samefacts.com/2013/01/popular-culture/film-popular-culture/special-guest-star-weekend-film-recommendation-cool-hand-luke/)

But even if we did follow a more “professional” model, there is an argument which would support doing that. As much as I loath trite business maxims, this one is useful here: “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” In short, if we want to be serious contenders on the world stage then we should start acting like it, rather than waiting for it to happen so that then we can start acting like professionals.

Yes, much of this boils down to money (or the lack of it). Our athletes need money to be able to devote their lives to training and recovering. CrossFit and some other business endeavors (like MuscleDriver USA) are starting to fill this void. My hope is that they will continue to provide help for our athletes and that USAW will eventually be in a position to provide top-tier athletes with the funds to live as full-time weightlifters. But in the meantime it doesn’t hurt to prepare for the day when we do have professional weightlifters. The days of a “weekend warrior” winning World or Olympic medals through grit and determination while holding down a full-time job and a family are long over. We are, for better or worse, in an era of professional weightlifters. Until we start acting like professionals and accepting that we can learn some things from the countries that do it best we’re doomed to stay in the same position we’ve been in for years now.

does she look like she works at home depot part time?

does she look like she works at home depot part time? (photo credit: http://www.facebook.com/hookgripdotcom


And finally, as I meander to my point…

Are we all still here? And awake? I hope so. As a sort of summing up, I think a main issue to consider with regard to this rather reasonable document—as well as future changes to our sport—is what our goals as an organization are. If our goal is to win medals at the world stage then we need to make use of every tool at our disposal, which will occasionally mean the strategic deployment of athletes, which may mean treating athletes “unfairly” depending on how you define fairness. If our goal is to be as fair as possible then this will result in a different strategy, one that is likely to get us worse results on the world stage (which is fine, since world-class performance won’t be our main goal).

These two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive but they are often at odds with each other. Consider the 2011 Pan Ams and World Championships situation: Our top athletes were qualified for both events. The events were very close together and thus our current HPD, Pete Roselli, suggested we consider sending a B squad to the Pan Ams with the intent of saving our top performers for the more important job of scoring points at the Worlds. This tactic would also give much-needed international experience to upcoming lifters. I supported the suggestion of deploying our top points scorers to only the Worlds but the rest of the BOD was against it. The claim was that it was “unfair to the athletes.” The result was a disaster, with several of our top performers getting sick at the Pan Ams and turning in subpar performances at the Worlds. It is impossible to say how we would have fared had we gone with the option of saving our best lifters, but if we follow the example of history (and what else do we have?) we can say that it generally makes sense for drug-free lifters to avoid international competitions spaced too close together.

Anyways, this has gone on long enough for the time being. There is more to say, of course, and there are various objections that can be raised to these points, and those can be countered with other claims, and so on. But I think the heart of the issue is a question of whether we want to be a world class weightlifting competitor first and an athlete-centered organization second or the other way around. Unfortunately, the evidence from history and other countries suggests that playing sport at a very high level sometimes involves putting the needs of large groups of athletes behind the needs of the country or organization. This is a normal part of most endeavors that take place on the world stage. If you don’t like it then don’t play.

"it's not even that radical of a document, for god's sake!!!" (nat arem, http://www.facebook.com/hookgripdotcom)

“it’s not even that radical of a document, for god’s sake!!! do you people even read?!” (nat arem, http://www.facebook.com/hookgripdotcom)


* In all fairness, I’ve never actually watched this video. But I do have it on good account (from several people) that it is the audio-visual equivalent of taking a rhinoceros tranquilizer right to the cerebral cortex. A friend’s father swears by it as a treatment for insomnia and is currently in FDA trials to market it as a prescription drug for just that purpose. In several states it is illegal to drive or operate heavy machinery if you have watched the video in the last three hours.

** “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” This is often credited to former Harvard professor Henry Kissinger, although it seems the origin is a bit more complex. See the following: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sayre’s_law. Whatever the origins, the sentiment remains generally true.

*** It’s interesting to hear so many admitted conservatives demanding “fair” treatment that asks for an unlevel playing field to be leveled out via rules and regulations. Apparently regulation is bad when it means preserving the environment or funding after school programs but it’s good when it keeps their athletes on international teams.

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7 Responses to On the “Politics” of Weightlifting: a response to Glenn Pendlay and the thousands of people currently swinging from his…

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