It’s been a tough week in the world of weightlifting.
On Wednesday, the International Weightlifting Federation announced the suspension of 10 lifters after retesting urine samples from the 2012 London Olympics and finding positive results indicating the use of performance enhancing drugs. Medals from 2012 will been taken away from athletes who tested positive and subsequently, given to those who earned these medals so long as the athletes who tested positive do not get the decision overturned during the appeal process. It also means that those athletes who tested positive will not be competing at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Then, on Thursday, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s decision discontinuing the USA-Weightlifting resident training program at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado was announced. The reason for this decision has not been given, but it’s likely related to the U.S.’s chance at earning medals in the 2020 Olympics.
An American male has not earned a medal since 1984 when Mario Martinez took silver as a superheavy weight (110kg+ at the time).
The last two American women to earn medals were Tara Nott who won gold as a 48kg lifter and Cheryl Hayworth as a 75+, both in 2000, which happened to be the first year that female weightlifters were able to compete in the Olympics.
Though it would seem that the removal of the 10 lifters who tested positive might in effect “change history,” giving US lifters of 2012 Olympics medals, this is not the case. A complete list of athletes who were found to use PEDS and the new podium finishes for 2012 can be found here. None of the medals are going to Americans.
In trying to understand the USOC’s choice to remove weightlifting from the training center, a look back at past decisions by the committee offers some insight. In the year 2000, Norm Blake was hired as chief executive with the intention of reorganizing the IOC’s economic structure. His approved proposal was “to shift funding from sports that do not produce medals to sports that do” (LA Times). This is the role of any Olympic committee- figure out which sports are most likely to earn a medal for their country and using the funds available to support that endeavor.
The success of the current chief executive, Scott Blackmum, as described in his bio on the USOC’s site focuses on the number of medals procured under his tenure. It states, “Under Blackmun’s direction, Team USA topped the overall medal counts at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games and 2012 Olympic Games, and won the most medals at any Olympic Winter Games held outside North America in 2014” (USOC). Like the Olympic chief executive should be, he is focused on the number of medals that America will earn in 2020.
Weightlifting’s popularity in the US is on the rise. In an interview with The Salt Lake City Tribune, USA-W CEO Phil Andrews reported that at the time of the 2012 Olympics, USAW had 11,000 members. Now, in 2016, membership is up to 26,000.
It seems like with numbers on the rise, America would have a better chance at producing Olympic champions at Tokyo 2020. Andrews is quoted as saying, “We want more in Tokyo [in 2020]… I think we’re likely able to achieve more. We want three men in Tokyo and four women. That’s our target.” In comparison, America is sending three woman (Jenny Arthur, Morghan King, and Sarah Robles) and one man (Kendrick Farris) to the 2016 Rio games.
However, even with the sport growing, most new members of USA-W are already senior athletes. Historically, athletes who produce medals at the Olympics begin training as juniors and have years of lifting under their belts before they compete at the Olympic games.
However, the loss of residency at the Olympic Training Center does not mean that America will be unable to produce Olympians in 2020.
USA-W athletes will be housed at the OTC until September 30th of 2016. Phil Andrews explains that USA-W will be using the next few months to plan for the future. Under the announcement on the USA-W site, he says, “We are truly disappointed to see the end of our resident program. This historic training site has assisted in producing Olympians and champions in our sport. Awareness of this closure prior to the 2016 Games gives our organization time to evaluate our training needs going into the next Olympic quadrennial.”
When asked on social media if he could elaborate on the decision of the USOC and whether USAW members should petition, he states, “Yes I am happy to [elaborate]. Firstly, it is important to understand that we aren’t the only program that has been cut. For example, US Fencing were cut in this same way last year. We were cut to 5 athletes. The USOC have no specific reason that they have given at this time, and no I do not believe that a membership petition would be of any use. On the other hand, this may give us a strong opportunity to widen the support we give to our Elite athlete pool.”
Regardless of whether USOC has cut the resident training program at Colorado Springs, USA-W needs to continue focusing on the development of our sport. Under the direction of Phil Andrews, who was appointed to CEO earlier this year, the sport will continue to grow in membership and a larger membership only increases the likelihood of an American medal in the future. Sarah Robles is also aiming for a bronze this summer in the 75+ class which means America might see a medalist in 2016.