It wasn’t easy trying to maintain a degree of pseudo-objectivity at this year’s American Open, held out in beautiful Palm Springs, California. Not that anyone has ever accused me of being balanced or objective or in any way reasonable and not prone to wild flights of exaggeration (to say nothing of outright fabrication). But my own hyperbolic tendencies aside, this year was especially difficult to remain neutral.
A little background: about a week or so before the AO, the event’s organizer, Nick Frasca, contacted me. There were a handful of very cordial, very polite emails that, among other things, noted the potentially redemptive power of corporations in the context of American weightlifting. I like free-market capitalism as much as the next socialist libertarian and I recognize that corporate America is good at lots of things—making boatloads of money for small numbers of people, for example, or buying elections—but so far they have yet to produce a weightlifting medal. At least to my knowledge. In this instance it seems the Russians (and the Chinese, and the Bulgarians, and the Turks, and the Greeks, and the Columbians, etc. etc.) know a thing or two more than corporate America. Therefore you can understand if I was a bit skeptical of the whole thing.
But wait: let’s try to keep an open mind about this whole thing. I was already booked to go to the American Open so there was no sense in forming judgments before I had even set foot on the ground and checked out the scene. There would be plenty of time to complain about how essentially wrong things had gone after the competition (not a rare thing in this organization).
Then I arrived in Palm Springs and was so overtaken by the area’s absurd beauty that I wondered if I was suddenly faced with the opposite problem: that I was so smitten by the martian desert landscape that any hope of being critical and objective was lost. There was certainly a lot in the desert community’s favor on my arrival. Due to
USAW’s stinginess in covering my flight expenses some last-minute booking of my flight I had to fly into Orange County airport, nearly two hours west of Palm Springs. Fortunately my standard automobile reservation was upgraded to a snow white BMW 328i, an appropriate vehicle for the car culture of California. There was no way to pull up to the competition in anything less, I felt. As an official representative of USAW it’s only appropriate that my image matches up to the organization’s level of quality.
The drive was stunning, at least once I made my way out of the concrete and asphalt web that is Orange County. I passed by signs for strange places I’d heard of only in books or movies—“Bakersfield,” “Barstow,” “San Diego” (a “whale’s vagina,” I believe). Who knew these places actually existed? Not me, certainly. By the time you’ve been heading east for forty five minutes or so the development thins out considerably and pretty soon you’re driving through a rocky desert landscape where the hills and mountains butt up against and in some cases nearly spill out onto the road. It all looked like some sort of Cormac McCarthy-esque vision, sans the caballeros and people riding around scalping each other.
In the middle of this desert moonscape sits Palm Springs, a little patch of verdancy, as though the mountains themselves shat out some sort of suburban emerald. Palm trees, perfectly clipped lawns, and a grid of streets that would make a city planner from ancient Rome proud. There’s a bit of the feel of an affluent resort or retirement community, and though this might normally be off-putting it somehow works here, perhaps thanks to the retro-cool architecture that is referred to as “Mid-Century Modern.” There is an almost time-capsule sense, as though the dry desert air has preserved a slice of 1950s and 1960s Americana. You’re tempted to buy an enormous white Cadillac and a pair of wraparound sunglasses and cruise the strip making shady movie deals that involve lots of work on the “casting couch”.
It’s a sentiment that’s aided by a 26-foot-tall statue of Marilyn Monroe in her famous pose from The Seven Year Itch. (Interestingly, the steel and aluminum statue was built in New Jersey and spent time in Chicago before landing in its current location in Palm Springs, right across from a decidedly un-1950s/60s Starbucks.)
If I seem a bit effusive with my praise it might help to bear in mind that when I eventually pulled in to Palm Springs I may have been slightly out of my mind. In what was probably a bad idea I decided that for my California drive I must listen to only California-themed songs for the duration of the journey, in order to get myself into the appropriate mood. Unfortunately the only relevant song on my iPod is The Magnetic Fields’ “California Girls”, which, after nearly two hours, had driven me to the very edges of sanity.
Aside from the landscape and the city of Palm Springs itself, there was a lot to like at this year’s American Open. By the end of the weekend I was singing the meet’s praises to anyone foolish enough to get within earshot of me. By Sunday I had also spoken with Mr Frasca and heard more about his ideas, which turned out to be far more in line with my own (and probably with those of many in USAW) than I would have imagined. But more on that later…
The hotel—the Renaissance—offered very fine accommodations at a reasonable rate, although charging for wifi is just thievery at this point. My only real issue was with an absurdly priced breakfast buffet: six dollar orange juices and a buffet that cost something like $130 for flaccid, pre-made waffles, Jimmy Dean sausages, and a handful of other items. The ridiculous wifi fees suddenly seem like a bargain when you consider you just paid $50 for a snack box of Raisin Bran. The hotel’s other meals were slightly better in price and quality, although no one’s going to say “If you go to Palm Springs you simply must eat at the Renaissance Hotel” anytime soon. Not unless everything else in town burns down, at least.
The venue was a short, five-minute walk (through the hotel’s pool, if you so desired—not actually through it, but around it) to an adjacent convention center. In addition to USAW’s American Open it was also hosting the Outlaw Open, an associated event for CrossFit types. Like so many other competitions of this sort it follows in the grand tradition of picking names that could easily be Steven Seagal movies. “Outlaw Open.” “Firebreather Challenge.” “Hard to Kill Invitational.” “Under Siege Open.”
But I digress. Clearly the CrossFit people (although I should stress this was not an official CrossFit meet) have a better handle on what gets the general public’s attention. Given their meteoric rise to success it’s perhaps good to remember the wise words of H.L. Mencken regarding taste and the American public. USAW could learn from these people (but more on that later).
The setup for the weekend was unconventional: all the B session lifters went on Friday and there were two platforms running at the same time. The two-platform setup apparently caused some problems (and was occasionally distracting for athletes), but the lifting setup for the main stage (and the A sessions) looked to be top notch. I heard no complaints all weekend from officials or athletes about the main platform or the stage. [NB – I have since heard complaints, but this is USAW. It will be a cold day in hell when somebody isn’t annoyed with something.] It was elevated, allowing for visibility for everyone, and if the enormous room itself was a bit dark at least the stage area was well lit. A big screen showed information and replays.
The warmup area was similarly well-prepared. After an early screwup—apparently there was a lack of squat racks and sauna information—things were set right. Plenty of good platforms, bars, and plates. Even during the mens 85 A session—with around 600 lifters—there were enough platforms to avoid unnecessary waiting or confusion. In the 94 A session, with only four (yes 4, IV, δ, ٤, 四, or, for those of you reading in binary, 100), lifters, this very nearly meant each athlete could snatch, clean, and jerk on a separate platform. (It also meant that Jon North and his ego were able to warm up on separate platforms.)
So in the end you had a large space with a raised platform, a (mostly) functioning computer and display setup with replays, adequate warmup facilities, a convenient location both in terms of the venue and the city itself (no worries about snowstorm delays, e.g.), and—for several sessions—the announcing skills of Canadian radio and television journalist Richard Mason, a man who’s superb announcing skills make you wonder why anyone lets Denis Reno take hold of a microphone (will all due respect to the knowledgeable Mr Reno).
Surely there must be something to complain about, overpriced breakfasts aside?
Of course there was, and it’s the same gripe that we’ve been hearing about in USAW national meet circles for years now: the judging. I don’t know what our problem is, but refs in this country appear to have some sort of cruel vendetta against athletes. It wasn’t quite as bad as this year’s Nationals (where, in a weird trick of mathematics that is still being worked out, there were more overturned lifts than actual lifts in the whole competition), but it was bad. So far as I am aware we’re the only country whose refs keep their fingers on the red-light button. Any claim that we need to get our athletes ready for world-level judging is bullshit. Lifts that are regularly turned down in this country—good lifts, by any reasonable standard—routinely pass at Worlds and the Olympics. (Watch Ilin’s expertly-timed oscillation of the bar just before he jerks if you have any doubt about what’s okay internationally.)
Beyond harsh calls, there’s also the issue of consistency, or inconsistency. Good lifts getting turned down, bad lifts getting passed, and identical lifts getting different calls based on what must be nothing more than judges’ personal whims. The irony is that some of these judges are from an era when athletes held weight overheard with arms bent into double-biceps poses.
When did we get to be such dicks? From what I gather there’s some hesitance to take any real steps to change things, either for fear of repercussions or offending people, but to deny that this is what people are talking about and that this is something in need of change is not doing anybody any favors. Part of the problem may be the testing of National refs that goes on at these meets. Years ago I heard one ref, who was then undergoing testing to become a National ref, tell me that they will never question a red light, whereas you might be expected to justify a white light. I raised the reffing problem after the 2012 Nationals but it went nowhere.
Bottom line: this needs to change. The sport is, first and foremost, for athletes—something our nationals refs seem to have forgotten. It is made up of athletes. If there is ever any doubt w/r/t/ a lift then it ought to be in favor of the athlete.
More to come…