Houston: The Kazakhstan of America and the 2015 World Championships

Much like last year, I very nearly didn’t make it to this year’s World Championships, held in glorious Houston, Texas. After an unseasonably warm autumn in the Midwest, the climate here went from Tatooine to Hoth in what felt like a matter of hours. Maybe Han finally got the hyperdrive working. Whatever the case, temperatures plummeted, the media erupted into a weather-related frenzy, and the meteorological gods conspired to send an apocalyptic snowstorm to my precise location at the exact hour I was scheduled to fly from ORD to IAH. It was exactly like The Perfect Storm, but with snow instead of rain. And weightlifters instead of fishermen. And planes instead of boats. So ultimately it was nothing like The Perfect Storm. But I digress.

Only via a combination of luck, unusual generosity on the airline’s part, and begging with the captain (I promised I’d finally finish the Grabero and Lydiet saga, although this just seemed to confuse and scare him…) did we manage to take off in the midst of moderate snowfall the worst winter storm in the history of the world.

Weather conditions under which we took off from Chicago. Also note that we were under heavy AT-AT Walker fire.

Weather conditions under which we left from Chicago. Also note that we were under heavy AT-AT Walker fire.

Houston, for the uninformed, is somewhere in Texas. This is significant because—much to the dismay of many of the state’s residents—Texas is a part of the United States.[citation needed] Depending on how you count, or more accurately what you count, the last time the World Championships were in the US was either 28 years ago, 31 years ago, or 37 years ago. Those correspond to the first Women’s World Championships (1987, Daytona Beach, Florida), the 1984 Olympic Games in LA (counted as the Worlds that year), and the 1978 Championships held in Gettysburg, PA.

[NB: I’d be remiss at this point if I didn’t mention that the homepage video for the official site of the competition, http://www.houstoniwf2015.com/, wildly misstates how long it’s been since the last Worlds were held in the US. To save you the pain of sitting through this video, allow me to quote the opening line: “For the first time in over 40 years, international Olympic weightlifting returns to the United States.” In absolutely no way, shape, or form is this accurate. At the risk of sounding somewhat harsh, that opening line—and most of the video—sums up a few aspects of what were otherwise a really, truly amazing Worlds: ambitious and well-meaning but ultimately clueless.]

The eternal mathematical question of trying to figure out when the last Worlds took place in the US...

The eternal mathematical question of trying to figure out when the last Worlds took place in the US…

Where were we? Ah yes, Texas. Which is surprisingly not that dissimilar from Kazakhstan, where last year’s Worlds were held. Both have notable spaceflight facilities: NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Baikonur Cosmodrome in south central Kazakhstan. Both are heavily involved in the oil industries, so much so that my Uber driver—who was in the oil industry for a period—had actually worked and trained with several Kazakhs. And oddly enough the area around the George R. Brown Convention Center, where this year’s competition was held, looked in many ways like a bombed out former Soviet outpost. (I’ve been told this is under construction; I certainly hope so.)

That said, the venue was damn impressive. Perhaps the best of the World Championships I’ve attended. True, Poland (2013) had a building with a far more interesting history and style, and Kazakhstan (2014) had theatrics that were hard to top, but this arena was really excellent. The stage was lit with the intensity of a supernova, and there was not a bad seat in the house, from what I could tell. It’s also worth noting that the hotel buffet was delicious—a far cry from the strange, pink sausages of last year. The training hall, too, was top notch.

You could tan under those lights on the platform...

The area that looks like the white hot core of a nuclear fire is actually the stage…

And how was the actual competition? Outstanding. Consider that Russia’s Alexey Lovchev took down Rezazadeh’s 11-year old records in the clean & jerk and total. And that was just one amazing lift of hundreds more! The whole competition featured dozens of record attempts (I’m guessing here, but it was a lot; “dozens” is certainly closer than the Houston video’s claim of “over 40 years”). 

In conversations with my co-commentator Dr Westbrook, we considered the possibility that these might have been the best Worlds since the legendary 1999 Worlds. While Lovchev closed the men’s sessions in fine style, the first men’s A session (56) featured both Om Yun Chol’s 171 clean and jerk (triple bodyweight yet again) and Wu Jingbiao’s 139-kilo snatch, the latter breaking Halil Mutlu’s 14-year old record. The excitement rarely let up from there: more world records attempted and made, an American (CJ Cummings) taking a crack at a Youth WR, four Chinese lifters bombing out, huge lifts from the likes of Boyanka Kostova, Artem Okulov, and others, and excellent performances by some US lifters, including Alex Lee, Mattie Rogers, Jenny Arthur, and Sarah Robles, to name just a few.

But you already know all that! (You do, right? Apologies to any of you who don’t.) Anyways, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. What went on behind the scenes and in the warmup room, the media room, and—most importantly—the hotel bar? In short, what was it like on the ground?

That’s precisely what I intend to discuss. Just not right now. It seems I’ve already run this post a bit long. So assuming I don’t flake out (always a possibility) I’ll return to this shortly, and cover a few of the more interesting aspects of this year’s World Championships: namely, the warmup room experience, the broadcasting madness, late-night discussions with a member of the Russian team, the crazy performance by North Korea’s Rim Jong-Sim, and what happened to our savior, Lu Xiaojun. In the meantime, to whet your appetite, enjoy some (rather shaky) video footage from the warmup room of the men’s 62A session.

Stay tuned…

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