By Paul D. Bowker | March 02, 2012, 4 p.m. (ET)
Sarah Robles
1920 Olympics Poster
Poster from the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games. Photo courtesy of the IOC.

AN OLYMPICS ORIGINAL: The inclusion of weightlifting in the Olympic Games goes all the way back to the I Olympiad in 1896 in Athens. It is a true Olympic original and has evolved into one of the favorites among spectators because of its dramatic individual moments. Weightlifting was absent from Games just three times: 1900, 1908 and 1912. But since the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games, it has existed every Olympic Games. Women‘s weightlifting made its debut at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, and China has dominated that competition. Chen Yanqing and Liu Chunhong have each won a pair of gold medals. U.S. weightlifter Tara Nott won gold in Sydney and three-time Olympian Cheryl Haworth, who became perhaps the best-known female lifter in U.S. history, earned a bronze medal.

FROM TRACK TO LIFTING: One of the brightest young stars for the United States is 23-year-old Sarah Robles, a former shot putter for the track and field team at the University of Alabama. She first tested the waters of lifting in 2004, when her track coach wanted Robles to use lifting as conditioning for shot put. “I loved it,” she said. “One day, I’m going to do this.” By 2008, she was. She wound up leaving Alabama and eventually landed at Northern Michigan University on a weightlifting scholarship and trained at the U.S. Olympic Center that is situated on campus. She is a three-time U.S. champion just four years after competing in the sport full time. The London 2012 Olympic Games would be her first in The Olympics. “A lot of the stuff I’ve accomplished in my four years of competing, some people have been working almost twice as long as I have,” Robles said. “I’m very, very thankful that God has given me a body that is made for this sport. … Nothing in my life has ever been given to me easily. I’ve always had to work for it and I’ve always had to jump into the deep end and hope for the best.”

Sarah Robles Scored Credit Sarah Robles
Weightlifter Sarah Robles performs a clean and jerk of 100kg. Photo courtesy of Sarah Robles.

THE CLEAN AND JERK: There are two disciplines in Olympic weightlifting, and the clean-and-jerk competition is what really draws strong reactions from spectators at the Olympic Games. In the clean-and-jerk, there are two parts to a successful lift. First, and often starting from a squatting position, the weight is lifted to a lifter’s shoulders. That is the clean. Then, following a pause, the weight is lifted above the competitor’s head with arms stretched vertically. That is the jerk. The other Olympic discipline is the snatch, which comes from the French word “arrache.” In that event, the weight is lifted from the floor to above a lifter’s head in one movement.

WEIGHTY TALK: The strongest male competitors are able to clean-and-jerk nearly 600 pounds and hit nearly 500 pounds in the snatch. Women have topped 400 pounds in the clean-and-jerk. Hossein Rezazadeh of the Iran set an Olympic record with a clean-and-jerk lift of 263.5 kilograms, or more than 580 pounds, at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.

OK, HOW IS IT SCORED? At the Olympic Games, a weightlifter’s total score is determined by a combination of the snatch and the clean-and-jerk. The best, or highest weight, achieved in each discipline is added for a final score. Each lifter has three opportunities in each discipline. Now here’s where the advantage can go in the favor of a weightlifter who weighs less than his or her competitors: If there is a tie in the total score, the winner is the lifter who weighs less. If the total weight lifted is equal, and the weight of each lifter is equal, then the gold-medal winner would be the one who achieved the successful lifts first.

THE OFFICIATING: Three referees, usually situated just in front of the lifting stage, carefully watch each lifting attempt. If it is not a legal lift, a referee will push a button for a red light, indicating that the lift does not count. A white light means it was a good lift.

THE SHOES: Imagine holding anywhere from 400 to 600 pounds above your head. In this sport, wobbly ankles are definitely not an option. Most of the lifting shoes used by Olympians feature a Velcro strap to help build arch support and a wooden wedge in the heel to provide support and prevent falls. “When you’re having hundreds of pounds over your head, you don’t want any extra movement in your ankles,” Robles said. Lifters also wrap tape around their wrists and use knee sleeves for support. Many also use belts around their one-piece uniforms.

THE CONDITIONING: Here‘s where it gets interesting. Many other sports use lifting for conditioning. Walk into an athletic facility at a college, and you’ll see football players, basketball players, softball players, all lifting. In weightlifting, there are few alternative conditioning methods because weight training is the thing. Some coaches will call for swim therapy or for their athletes to do sprints to help their legs. At the U.S. Olympic Training Center, Robles said, one coach even had the lifters participating in volleyball games every third off day. One thing you won’t see Robles use is an iPod in her training. “I tried lifting one time with an iPod, and it got caught on the bar and it hit me in the face,” she said, laughing.

THE MEDALS: There will be 15 gold medals, 15 silver and 15 bronze handed out in London. The competition breaks down to eight men’s weight divisions and seven women’s weight divisions. The men’s weight classes range from 56 kilograms (123.46 pounds) to heavyweight (105kg-plus). The women’s weight classes range from 48kg (105.82 pounds) to heavyweight (75kg-plus).

Natalie Profile Pic
Natalie Burgener at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Photo by Getty Images.

TEAM USA MEDAL CONTENDERS: Several U.S. lifters who are looking to be medal contenders in London, and the medal picture should be clearer after the USA Weightlifting National Championships and Olympic Trials, scheduled for March 2-4 in Columbus, Ohio. While the national championships are for both men and women, only 15 women will compete in the Olympic Trials portion of the event, scheduled for Sunday, March 4 (the U.S. men have yet to qualify Olympic berths). In addition to Robles (“I want to make a good splash. I want to make the Olympic team,” Robles said), a highlight among the women could be two-time Winter Olympian Katie Uhlaender, a skeleton athlete who won the world championship over the weekend in Lake Placid, N.Y. She is now attempting to also be a Summer Games Olympian in the 58 kg weight class. The only 2008 Olympian competing in the 2012 Olympic Trials is Natalie Burgener at 63kg. The two athletes nominated to the U.S. Olympic Team will be selected based on how they do in relation to a qualifying standard within their weight class at nationals and the Trials. The standard is designed to project who has the best chance to medal in London.

THE DISCS: In all, there will be 1,630 weight discs used in the weightlifting competition at the London 2012 Olympic Games. The weight of each disc ranges from five to 25 kilograms. The discs are arranged in even numbers on each side of the barbell so that they are balanced for the weightlifters. They are held in place by collars on each side, which weigh 2.5 kilograms each.

PARALYMPIC POWERLIFTING: Lifting also will be featured in the London 2012 Paralympic Games, beginning Aug. 30. In this competition, Paralympians must bench press the weight, creating a test of upper-body strength. The bench is placed approximately half a meter above the floor. Athletes are grouped by body weight for the competition, just like at the Olympic Games. Athletes with different impairments still compete for the same medals. In all, 200 athletes (120 men, 80 women) will compete in 20 medal events at the Paralympics.

Key Events

  • National Weightlifting Championships and Women’s Olympic Team Trials, March 2-4, Columbus, Ohio
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Paul D. Bowker is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.
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