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The History of Olympic Weightlifting – Physical Culture Study



A spate of YouTube videos has recently rekindled my love of Olympic Weightlifting. Specifically the iconic footage of German weightlifter Matthias Steiner winning a gold medal at the 2008 games in Beijing has encouraged me to begin digging into the history and indeed, the evolution of weightlifting at the Olympic Games. For those unaware of Steiner’s path to the games in 2008 I suggest a quick google search as I simply cannot do justice to the man’s story.

My goal today is not to discuss Steiner’s life history but rather to examine the sport he competed in. So with this hopefully simple goal in mind, we’re going to explore the history of weightlifting at the Olympic games. Beginning with the first official games in 1896 and moving across time and space towards Tokyo 2020.

Early Beginnings 

As detailed previously on this site, the first official Olympic Games in 1896 did indeed feature a weightlifting component. Unlike the rather snazzy operations of today, the first weightlifting efforts were rather haphazard in their execution. There were no weight classes and the lifts consisted of a one and two handed lift. The winners of said tournament were Launceston Elliot and Viggo Jensen. Somewhat strangely, points were also awarded and taken away based upon the style in which a competitor completed the lift. It was, as they say, a start.

This start did not admittedly impress everyone. When the 1900 Games came around there was no room for a weightlifting event. Likewise although the games were included in the 1904 iteration in St. Louis. Unlike the 1896 Athens’ Games, the American iteration piled as many possible lifts into the programme as possible. In total, athletes at St. Louis were faced with ten individual lifts comprising of both single and double handed lifts. My favourite part of this was undoubtedly the tenth lift, which entailed a free styling of different lifts with a dumbbell or barbell.

How fun would it be to see today’s heavyweights tasked with performing circus tricks with a barbell for two minutes Echoing the confused nature of weightlifting at the Olympics was the 1904 gymnastics competition which featured a club swinging component. Weightlifting and weight related feats were confused at this time to say the least and it was for this reason that no weightlifting contests were held at the subsequent games in 1908 and 1912. For those of you wondering what happened at the 1916 games I suggest you brush up on your world history.

Raising the Bar: The Regulation of Olympic Weightlifting 

French weightlifter and 1920 Olympic champion Ernest Cadine,

First, yes that is a terrible pun. Second, yes I am proud of it.

The early history of Olympic Weightlifting had left much to be desired. The 1896 and 1904 games had used entirely different lifts, no weight classes of note and were unsure about what they were actually testing. To survive as an Olympic sport, changes needed to be made. When the games came to Antwerp in 1920, weightlifting had finally become more organised. This time there were actual weight classes, five in fact. Ranging from featherweight (under 60 kilos) to heavyweight (82.5 kilos and over), the games took into account the fact that one’s weight might just influence the weight they can lift. Unlike the 1904 games, competitors in 1920 were faced with lifts revolving around one and two handed snatches, presses and cleans.

Fun fact about the 1920 Games

French and Swedish lifters brought their own equipment to the games, intent on using their own barbells. It was only after the referees intervened that the Europeans contented themselves with the regulation barbells.

The games proved to be a success and at the subsequent games in Paris the same format and lifts were used. Regularity in the lifts and weight classes afforded the sport a more respectable image. After all, few Olympic sports had been forced to change the parameters of contest as frequently as weightlifting. The sport’s future was beginning to seem bright on the Olympic Stage.

Snatching at Modernity: Olympic Weightlifting from 1928 to 1972

Though the 1920 and 1924 games had gone a long way in establishing weightlifting as a respectable Olympic event, the sport was to undergo one more change before it really took off. When the Olympics came to Amsterdam in 1928 the weight classes from the previous two games were retained but the lifts had changed. Thankfully this was to mark the last change to the format until the early 1970s.

Gone were the one handed lifts and in their place three lifts familiar to any gym goer worth their salt. Competitors were now tested on the clean and jerk, the snatch and the clean and press. This was the winning formula. From then on only weight changes were made such as the addition of a bantamweight class in 1948, a middle heavyweight class in 1952 and flyweight and super heavyweight classes in 1972.

Something that I find remarkable about Olympic Weightlifting during this period was the popularity of these lifts amongst the general training population. In the United States Bob Hoffman of York Barbell ensured that trainees were greatly aware of the importance of these lifts within their training. Likewise England’s Health and Strength magazine regularly featured pieces on either the Olympic athlete’s themselves or their training programmes. Unlike today when the lifts are the preserve of specialised athletes and Crossfitters interested in all round development, the clean, snatch and press were part of the general muscle builders repertoire back then. Reflecting on my own practice it is funny that when I stopped playing rugby I discontinued the Olympic lifts in favour of ‘muscle building’ exercises. Those interested in bodybuilding in the 1930s, 40s and 50s would have laughed at my naivety.

Pressing Concerns

While the above section ends on a somewhat nostalgic note, it would be remiss not to note the controversies surrounding one of the Olympic lifts during the period 1928 – 1972. As detailed excellently by John D. Fair, the Olympic Clean and Press came under scrutiny from the 1950s onward when coaches began citing the frankly dangerous form being used to press the bar overhead. As an example of this I submit footage of my favourite Soviet lifter Vasily Alexeev clean and press from 1976.

Many were complaining, with merit, that the clean and press had devolved into a test of lumbar and not shoulder strength. With this complaints ringing in their ears, organisers removed the press for the 1972 Munich Games. From then until today, the Clean and Jerk and Snatch became the only lifts in town. Weight classes changed, a point detailed in the following post, but the essence of the games remained.

The 70s and 80s were undoubtedly a golden age for Olympic Weightlifting. New records were set with impressive regularity. The weightlifting community witnessed the rise of legends such as Vasily Alexeev, Naim Süleymanoğlu and Nicu Vlad (okay I am picking out my favourites here). American and Soviet lifters battled it out for sporting and ideological supremacy, much to the delight of the viewing public.

The success of Soviet lifters during this period led to a certain mystique being attached to the training methods of these seemingly unstoppable lifters. We discussed this in our posts about the Bulgarian Split Squat and Romanian Deadlift, both of which were depicted as fuelling the supremacy of the Soviet lifters. I suspect the state sponsored weightlifting programmes were of greater influence but hey, what do I know?

The Falling of the Iron Curtain and Raising of Another Curtain 

With the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Olympic weightlifting lost its greatest narrative, that of East versus West and Democracy versus Communism. Nevertheless the sport continued to thrive if TV ratings are anything to go by.

Now the keen eyed amongst you will have noticed a glaring omission from the post thus far. Despite competitions being held in 1987, the first female Olympic weightlifting competition had to wait until the 2000 games in Sydney Australia. Stemming in part from a long held societal prejudice against female engagement with heavy weightlifting, the addition of women’s weightlifting was an overdue measure. Since 2000, the sport has been largely dominated by Eastern lifters, thereby echoing the supremacy of these regions in the men’s divisions.

Looking Toward the Future

While it is to early to speculate on the 2020 games eventual winners, we can perhaps confidently say that the Clean and Jerk and Snatch aren’t going anywhere fast. Despite proposed changes to the weight divisions for the Tokyo games, Olympic weightlifting has, from humble beginnings, become a mainstay of the Olympic calendar.

As always….Happy Lifting!

Addendum

Owing to the need for expediency, I left the issue of performance enhancing drugs to one side here. As a quick point, it is worth noting that such drugs emerged during the 1950s amongst the weightlifting community. The documentary Icarus reveals that drugs, unsurprisingly, have not left competitive sports. I’ll leave it at that.

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