There is a certain point in one’s interstate drive to The Arnold that you begin to realize you are not alone on this journey. And it’s not just because your vehicle is occupied by USAW’s man-about-town Louis Mangiaracina, who has not stopped for breath between talking and eating for something like two hours. Somewhere around the middle of Pennsylvania, a state that seems to go on for a distance more appropriately measured in parsecs than miles, you notice a different clientele among the usual rest-stop populace. Mixed among the doughy faces of cornfed midwesterners are athletic men and women sporting leathery tans and gelled hair, their bodies stuffed into Zubaz pants and tank-tops with menacing brand names like “TapOut” and “Beast”. Where did all these sideshow attractions come from? you wonder. And then you remember that they, too, are all on their way to the mecca of American sports/fitness/nutritional supplement culture, The Arnold.
Circus attractions aside, both the drive out to this year’s Arnold and the drive back were uneventful affairs, which was a welcome relief after last year’s return journey, when a hideous snowstorm stopped traffic on route 80 in PA for about a week. Sitting in a parked car on a stretch of highway without an exit in sight may make for an interesting/horrifying story, but it’s not one I’m looking forward to repeating anytime soon. Or ever.
But The Arnold, as always, was a good show. I don’t know how this year’s numbers compare to recent years in terms of vendors, athletes, attendees, etc., but this year certainly felt bigger, similar to how it felt during my first visit to The Arnold way back in 2005. As usual, all manner of human/animal/supplement/spandex hybrids were on display, from the pint-sized cheerleaders to the lithe fencers running around in their crisp white bakers’ uniforms to the sideshow freaks that populate the bodybuilding and fitness competitions.
It only takes a few minutes around this crowd to realize The Arnold is a special place.
The interesting thing about this explosion of physical culture–or perhaps one of the interesting things–is that Olympic Weightlifting and its practitioners appear almost normal by comparison. Anyone with any experience in Olympic Weightlifting, or who happens to be an athlete themselves, knows this is not a statement to take lightly. Weightlifters are, by and large, weird fuckers, and the fact that it takes specimens like an orange-skinned woman with herculean muscles and a five o’clock shadow to make us look normal says quite a bit about our sport.
But at The Arnold, compared to the pre-adolescent girls done up in clown makeup and the semi-sentient science experiments and the people who earn their living bending nails Olympic Weightlifters look like standup citizens, people you wouldn’t look twice at in polite society.
Olympic Lifting, the venue
This is not to say the Olympic lifting at The Arnold was boring; far from it, although it wasn’t always exciting for the right reasons. After deciding to sleep through my own lifting session, I headed over to the venue to get my press credentials–attained through quasi-legitimate means for once–and to check out some of the lifting. As usual, Mark Cannella and his crew out in Columbus did a solid job with the setup, although a few changes made to the arrangement this year were less that optimal. For one, the competition and warm-up areas were reversed; i.e., the crowd walking by to and from the Expo saw not the warm-up area, as in previous years, but instead saw the actual competition.
My companions and I were a bit mixed on this at first. Olympic Weightlifting competitions, to the uninitiated, don’t always offer the fast-paced excitement of something like Strongman competitions or shuffleboard. Most of an Olympic lifting meet is taken up by various non-lifting activities, e.g., loading the weight, calling the athlete, chalking up, listening to Denis Reno, and so on. All of this means you get to watch an average of one lift every minute or so. Thus the advantage of having the warmup area face the passersby is that people get to watch multiple lifters perform lifts. The other advantage is that watching training and warm-ups is fun, and typically lacks the fuss of athletes’ pre-lift rituals or shoddy judging (more on which later).
But the setup certainly drew crowds, and as always The Arnold proved itself to be the best option currently available for promoting Olympic Weightlifting to the hoi polloi.
Unfortunately another element of this year’s setup wasn’t so successful. The seating, for whatever reason, wasn’t staggered or fanned out or in any way arranged to allow for easy viewing of the platform. What this meant was that you had only two options for a good view of the lifting stage: sitting in one of the referees’ chairs or stealing enough growth hormone from one of the bodybuilders in attendance to turn yourself into an 8-foot tall pituitary freak, able to see over the sea of heads blocking the stage.
When Gravity Attacks; Friday’s men’s sessions
On Friday the men’s lifting started sometime around dawn and went until midnight or twelve thirty. Of the sessions I saw, which included the 56s, 77s, 85s, and 94s, there were few surprises apart from the last class.
Among the most memorable things about the 77s and 85s were the great number of missed lifts. It was like watching an epidemic unfold before your eyes, as athlete after athlete let the barbell go anywhere but overhead. At one point so many snatches had been missed that I forgot what a make looked like. Even the judges started looking impatient, as missed lifts gave them few opportunities to exercise their authority with arbitrary calls. As anyone who was in attendance at the Nationals knows, this was a phenomenon that affected the entire weekend of lifting, with something like 1000 lifters bombing out of the competition (I may need to check my numbers).
Which brings us to the other memorable element of the 85 session (and much of the competition all weekend): the abysmal judging. Lifts with no appreciable defect were turned down; lifts that wouldn’t pass muster in somebody’s garage were white-lighted. It was a debacle, and from what I heard the 105s the following morning were even worse (I missed most of that session). I can’t imagine what could be worse than the judging in the 85s, unless you were to start throwing red and white confetti around and judging lifters based on which color stuck to the athlete better. I recognize this is something people complain about after almost every national event, but this was bad.
Piss-poor judging aside, the 94s were a damn good competition. Ian Wilson, Phil Sabatini, Jon North, and Jared Fleming were all in fine form. The top three finishers–Wilson, Sabatini, and North–were separated by only bodyweight and one kilo (344, 344, and 343). Had Fleming not been hit by a blackout on his first clean and jerk attempt he no doubt would have been right in that mix, as his 160 snatch put him in excellent shape to take home an overall medal. It’s clear from the finishes of these guys that this is the class to watch for the next couple years. Fleming and Wilson are both young enough to not get any movie references from the 1980s (a shame) and will no doubt continue to improve; Sabatini is still making strides despite being about a decade older than those two; and North, always a strong competitor and always slightly unhinged, is unlikely to stay content with his third-place finish. The totals a little further down, into fourth and fifth place, were only 10 or so kilos off the medal stand. It was a fine class to end the day on, even if it meant getting back to the hotel at something like one in the morning, where I then had to grab whatever sleep I could before the hideously early Board of Governors meeting the following morning.
to be continued…