Five-ring Circus

An Ode to Weightlifting, My New Favorite Olympic Sport

I’ve been lucky enough to attend many of the events at the Beijing Olympics. The woman’s all-around finals in gymnastics were particularly thrilling, and I wasn’t above taking a picture of Michael Phelps in a medley heat. I can even brag that I managed to snag a front-row press-box seat for Usain Bolt’s dancing 9.69.

But none of this, for me, can compare to attending my new favorite Olympic event: weightlifting. That’s the sport I keep going back to with the enthusiasm of a recent convert. I realize that this puts me at odds with several billion members of the viewing public other than those in Iran and Kazakhstan. But if you enjoy suspense, strategy, and aesthetic purity of action, there’s nothing better than an Olympic weightlifting final.

I have felt my fair share of sports-related suspense, particularly from baseball. But weightlifting has a particularly intense flavor, especially when you’re in the audience. The bar lies there, loaded with what looks like an impossible amount of weight—often more than 400 pounds. The lifter slowly pads over, sometimes letting out a roar in anticipation. As the athlete crouches before the bar, all is silent—the whole room focuses with the lifter. I am reminded of that moment, if you’ve ever felt it, before you go diving off a tall cliff—am I really going to do this? Then the incredible act of will. The bar is grasped and thrown overhead. The results are never ambiguous. Triumph is complete; failure is total.

It is true that many Olympic events are similarly dramatic. But there is something pure and clean about the physical act at the center of weightlifting that is incredibly satisfying. You can’t squeak by with a victory on points, outlast the clock, or bribe the referees. (You can cheat by taking performance-enhancing drugs, but let’s leave that aside for now.) Unlike in gymnastics, there is no such thing as scoring a 14.575.

The simplicity of the lift also differentiates the sport from boxing and judo, which have moments of absolute glory but also have lots of mess in between. Real boxing isn’t like Rocky, where every punch is perfect and lands with a satisfying thud. Even a beautiful sport like soccer has its share of ugliness (sometimes 89 minutes’ worth). But real weightlifting is perfect. Either there’s a gigantic amount of weight over your head or there isn’t.

Australian weightlifter Vivian Lee

Some of my introduction to the sport’s finer points came from Vivian Lee, a member of the Australian national team. Tiny (4-foot-11) but powerful, she’s a former gymnast and martial artist who turned to lifting two years ago and now holds the Australian record in her weight class (48 kilograms). As Vivian explains, lifting is “the most mentally challenging sport I’ve done. Once your hands touch the bar, you cannot hesitate. You have to decide you’re going to do it. You only have that split second. You either get it, or you fail completely.”

“Fail completely” is the best way to put it. It’s important, I think, that failure in weightlifting is magnificent. One thing I dislike about gymnastics or diving is that so much of it comes down to small flaws—a stumble, or a tiny slip—in otherwise perfect routines. At its worst, commentators and spectators forget the big picture and end up fixated on “the dismount” and whether there was an “extra step.” The flaws are so superficial that the judging is more like gossip than sport.

In weightlifting, failure is not about deductions; it’s about complete meltdown. It is about huge muscles failing to do what they are told, a breakdown in the connection between body and mind. Success consists of beautiful, measured movements, while failure is sudden and catastrophic. In Japanese, this aesthetic is called mono no aware, the contrast between extreme beauty and perfect death. In weightlifting it lies in the difference between the perfect lift and the giant thud of the unlifted weight that announces the death of a dream.

Beyond the aesthetic and emotional pull of lifting, I suspect what really got me hooked is the strategy, discussed in detail in this recent New York Times piece. The key point is that the weightlifters (in fact, usually their coaches) choose how much they plan to hoist. Their “bids,” so to speak, are all displayed on a giant board, like a bizarre stock market that trades in kilograms instead of dollars.

The order of lifting goes from lightest to heaviest: If you plan to lift, say, 180 and your opponent wants to start at 170, you can watch and laugh as he or she plays around with lighter weights. The strongest lifters put up huge bids to intimidate their opponents. At one event I went to, the North Korean competitor, a ferocious-looking woman, chose the Olympic record (135 kilograms in the clean and jerk) as her first lift. Now, that takes guts. Or, rather, it takes absolute faith in the coach’s decisions. As Lee says, “If my coach believes I can lift the weight, I can. In a competition I don’t think [about] what is on the bar.”

The strategy of starting high, however, carries a big risk of “bombing.” If you can’t lift your weights at all (you get three chances) you get a big fat zero and are effectively eliminated. The North Korean, who went for the Olympic record on her first attempt, couldn’t get the weight over her head on her first two tries. All seemed doomed for the people’s republic. But then, on the last lift of the day, she hoisted it—barely, but distinctly. With that one lift, she walked away with the gold medal and a changed life. That’s what I mean by drama.

The drama is obvious and appreciated by the audience, which is what makes weightlifting the best live show in town. The dirty secret is that the crowds at some Olympic events get bored, especially in the big stadiums. Watching swimming heats or the women’s heptathlon can consist of squinting at tiny dots moving far below—and, unlike on TV, there’s no commentator to help you out. At worst, spectators are reduced to cheering dutifully when they notice their nations’ athletes doing something, replacing true fandom with blind nationalism. Weightlifting is just different. Success and failure are obvious even to a layman, and it’s easy to root for any athlete who’s willing to challenge the laws of gravity that are, in a sense, a universal human burden. At the 85-kilogram final, I found myself, along with much of the Chinese audience, screaming encouragement at a plucky Kazakhstani lifter. We were cheering on a fellow human, not a flag.

Then there are the athletes themselves. Guy Trebay recently wrote that much of the appeal of the Olympics comes from watching the athlete’s bodies—that “a viewer is permitted and even encouraged to ogle an ongoing parade of muscled and lithe and rippling and toned and occasionally highly perplexing bodies.” OK, so weightlifting is rarely about sex appeal in a classic sense. But the power that these athletes emanate is palpable. These are the strongest men and women in the world. It’s impossible to look away.

And what’s a sport without the unexpected? Last Thursday, I saw a burly Frenchman, Benjamin Hennequin, successfully throw 450 pounds over his head. He held the bar in triumph, let it drop, turned, and collapsed. I thought for a moment he might be dead. Rather, he had blacked out—as Lee tells me, probably because the barbell, when he put it on his chest, blocked an artery to the brain. “Sometimes,” she added, “you lose vision.” In a more gruesome incident here in Beijing, a Hungarian managed to turn his elbow completely backward during a lift. Afterward, instead of bending toward his shoulder, his arm was now bending away, as if God had cursed him with the front leg of a horse. Please tell me: When’s the last time you saw that in women’s gymnastics?