Is there anything better than the Arnold SupermegafantasticFitnessSportCorporate, uh, Event? Objectively, yes, like a room full of puppies or a room full of Klokovs and puppies, but that’s neither here nor there. The Arnold Sports Festival and all its associated madness is a supreme demonstration of what happens when you take the respective worlds of sports and corporations and essentially force feed them heavy doses of testosterone and dragon blood. I’ve been to every Arnold (save one) since 2005, and I can’t imagine why I’d stop going. The human spectacle on display, the throngs of organisms with orange skin and bulging, vein-laced muscles, the thick set jaws with heavy beard stubble, all attired in clothes that look like some hellspawn conglomeration of neon lighting and spandex, is simply too fascinating to ignore. And that’s just the women…
Yes, whenever I feel that my normal day to day activities are growing a bit dull and grey, when the people around me lack the fluorescent glow that signifies a lifetime of tanning beds, when I feel the need to ingest hundreds of free samples of supplements of dubious origins, quality, and legality, I find it high time to get myself to that jewel of Ohio, lovely Columbus, for The Arnold. It is a way of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation, as they say. (And should you subscribe to such nineteenth-century notions of health and fitness there is no doubt someone at the Arnold willing to sell you a pill, drink, or bar of something that will fit within your peculiar scientific worldview.)
From an Olympic Weightlifting perspective, is there anywhere in this country better than the Arnold to see truly world-class athletes and competitions? Consider the luminaries who’ve been to past Arnolds: Shi Zhiyong. Zhang Guozheng. Giorgi Asanidze. Oleg Kechko. Diego Salazar. Carlos Andica. Mike Graber.
Am I forgetting anyone? I seem to recall someone, a towering, larger than life personality who is an extraordinary athlete, devilishly handsome, and a goddamn fantastic ballroom dancer…
Oh yes: Dmitry “wearing a fanny pack without irony” Klokov. [Also consider for a moment that this outfit, in the context of The Arnold, was no more out of place than khaki shorts, popped collars, and a bottle of rufies would be at your average frat party. If anything, this outfit was understated.]
Klokov was not in attendance at this year’s Arnold. After the back injury that forced him to withdraw from the overhyped, underwhelming, and whored out (even by Olympic standards) London Games I’ve heard very little of him. [Klokov: call me…] But why not take a moment now to recall those better days, and revisit some Arnold history, with a little video of Klokov training in Columbus before his 400 total there.
Right. Now that we’ve watched that we can all put our pants back on and return to the present. Fortunately, Mike Graber was in attendance this year, and what he may lack in size and lifting ability compared to Klokov he makes up for in terms of sheer, unadulterated
insanity enthusiasm. I had the distinct pleasure of driving out to Columbus with current BOD member and general Man-About-Town Mr Graber, along with Mr Mangiaracina and our secret Uzbek weapon, 85-kilo lifter Muhammad Begaliev. Graber—whose excitement for USAW knows no bounds—had been in a frenzy over the Arnold since January. Of last year. He was so overstimulated that for the first half of the drive he simply ran alongside our car, and only somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania was he tuckered out enough to sit comfortably inside without running the risk of breaking any windows or chewing through the car’s upholstery.
On Saturday, when we had a chance to make a few laps around the convention center, the Human Circus that is the Expo floor did not disappoint. If anything, it seemed more crowded than in previous years (possibly because they squeezed in an extra aisle of snake oil salesmen). But the animals on display at The Arnold have been covered elsewhere.
The real highlight of the weekend was (of course) the Olympic Weightlifting. Simply put, the Arnold offers the best Olympic Weightlifting meet in the country. In a sport like ours, where so many things are done wrong, or poorly, or simply not done at all, consider how many things the Arnold and its organizers do right: an excellent and well organized warmup area; ditto for the training area; on-site sauna availability; check scale availability; a raised stage; proper lighting; an audience hall that was packed full for most sessions; free coffee in the warmup room.
And, of course, there is the actual lifting. Saturday offered two outstanding sessions: the men’s Pan-Am Trials and the men’s open session, where athletes threw heavy things around in an effort to win some money.
The Pan-Am Trials was a damn fine session. Several athletes, perhaps inspired by the magnificence that is The Arnold, or maybe just catching a quick high off the waves of artificial testosterone that are no doubt wafting through the entire expo center, put up impressive numbers. A few of the many good performances that stood out to me: Kevin Cornell, I believe going 6 for 6, with lifts of 155 and 195 in the 105-kilo class; Travis Cooper’s (85) outstanding 190 clean and jerk; James Tatum (77) going 3 for 3 in the snatch to finish with 141; and a 170 snatch by 105+ lifter Cameron Swart that caught me completely off guard (I thought, at best, he was going to deadlift it; my only guess is he made a deal with the Devil in the back room, since this was by far his best and easiest-looking lift of the three snatches he made).
Saturday night was the main event, when we were ready to unleash our Uzbeki charge into the fray. Mike Graber, sporting a blazer festooned with various pins and a hookgrip.com sticker, handled head coaching duties and the counting of attempts. I was given the far easier jobs of loading weights, slapping Begaliev on the back, and taking the occasional hit of ammonia. One cannot underestimate the importance of staying sharp and keeping the sinuses clear during a competition, even if you’re not doing any actual lifting.
The warmup area for this session was a study in concentration and intensity. Several of these lifters—Begaliev among them—are true professionals. To watch Begaliev was to see an athlete in his element, doing what he has been training to do for the majority of his life. Amidst all the chaos, the falling weights and scrambling coaches and loading and unloading of barbells and the calls of the announcer and Graber running around like a rabid wolverine on cocaine, Begaliev maintained a composure that would be the envy of Buddhist monks.* When he began to take the bar—first empty, then 60, 90, 110, etc.—every attempt was nearly identical: smooth and efficient, with a fluency that no doubt comes from having started lifting at age 9.
The session did not disappoint. As expected, top lifts went to the supers, with Fernando Reis (Brazil) duking it out against Canada’s George Kobaladze. Reis—whose extensive tattooing across his enormous frame must have been done by the same team that carved Mt Rushmore—managed a solid 407 total (182 and 225). For a guy who is roughly the size of a deepwater drilling rig he is fast. His final clean and jerk—the heaviest ever lifted in competition at the Arnold—was good enough for first place in the overall ranking. Kobaladze was close behind with a 397 total, down in the snatch but equalling the clean and jerk. Something to keep in mind: Kobaladze is 37 years old and he’s clean and jerking 225.
Third place overall went to Begaliev, who went 5 for 6 with lifts of 150 and 185. In doing so he edged out Travis Cooper (in fourth) and Carlos Andica (fifth) by virtue of lighter bodyweight (they all totaled 335).
Yes, The Arnold did not disappoint. But there was more to my weekend than just the spectacle of the Expo, the nearly continuous days and nights of Olympic Lifting, and the hope that Klokov was waiting somewhere in the wings to stage a triumphant comeback. In addition to all the usual madness, I had the pleasure of picking Mr Begaliev’s brain on Uzbeki training methodology for much of the 17+ hours I spent in the car with him.
But that’s still to come, in Part Deux! In which I reveal the secrets of Uzbeki training…
* Not to say he was the only lifter so composed, but he was the one I was most focused on and therefore the one whose habits I took note of.