The discreet charm of weightlifting

Friday, 15 february 2019

Weightlifting is an historic Olympic discipline that is as fascinating as it is little-known.

What are the origins of this discipline?

Trials of strength have been present in all civilizations since the ancient Olympic Games and the Middle Ages. The knights Pierre Terrail de Bayard, Bertrand Du Guesclin, and Godefroy de Bouillon were famed for their immense physical strength. In the 14th century in Picardy in northern France, the Grand Ferré, at the head of two hundred peasants, is said to have repelled the English in the diocese of Beauvais thanks to his strength. And in literature, Rabelais describes the dumbbells used by Gargantua for his physical education.
Weightlifting took its modern form in the 19th century and was represented at the first Olympic Games of the modern era in Athens in 1896. Women’s events did not enter the Olympic program until the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

Why do we find it fascinating?

Weightlifting feeds our shared fascination for strong men. Village fetes around the world have always included a test to identify the strongest man in the neighborhood. Weightlifting epitomizes this quest. But it is more than that, because in order to lift these heavy weights, it’s not enough to be strong; you also need self-control, a high degree of coordination, and explosive muscle power. Weightlifting is therefore a discipline that requires great technical prowess in addition to speed and flexibility. What is more, it requires extraordinary timing to lift the barbell, and in this respect, the two techniques of the “clean & jerk” and the “snatch” are certainly among the sport’s most beautiful lifts. The writer Jean Hatzfeld describes in his latest book Deux mètres dix (“2 meters, 10 centimeters”) his fascination for this discipline, which he first discovered at the Moscow Olympic Games; one of the characters in his novel is an imaginary weightlifting champion from Central Asia. Fashion model Laetitia Casta is also a keen weightlifter.   
Nevertheless, weightlifting went through a difficult period for many years because of doping. Some 20 Olympic medal-winners tested positive. That said, the International Federation reacted by taking drastic measures. Weightlifters are now among the most severely tested athletes.

Who are the stars of this sport?

Louis Hostin marked his era by lifting 117 kg at the 1936 Berlin Games. But two of the sport’s biggest stars rank among the greatest figures in the history of sport in their respective countries. The first, of course, is the immense Vasily Alekseyev. He was Olympic super-heavyweight champion at the Munich Games in 1972 and in Montreal in 1976, and 22 times World Champion. Having broken 80 world records, Vasily Alekseyev was a huge star in the USSR. The other legendary figure in this discipline is Naim Süleymanoğlu. He was born in Bulgaria as Naim Suleymanov in 1967 and broke his first world record when only 15 years of age. His small size (1m47) and explosive muscle strength made him an exceptional weightlifter. In 1984, Bulgaria boycotted the Los Angeles Games but in 1985, he won his first World Champion title. The following year he defected and asked for political asylum in Turkey. That’s how he became Süleymanoğlu. And it was under his new flag that he became Olympic Champion in Seoul in 1988, a feat that he repeated in Barcelona in 1992 and again in Atlanta in 1996. He also won 16 world titles and broke 50 world records.

In France, we can mention Daniel Senet, silver medalist in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Vencelas Dabaya, who was born in Cameroon, remains the last great figure in the French weightlifting pantheon with his silver medal at the 2000 Olympic Games in Beijing.

What are the benefits of weightlifting?

Weightlifting is a discipline open to everyone. All you have to do is adapt the weights to your strength and morphology. Practicing this sport will allow you to develop qualities such as increased muscle strength (of course) but also flexibility, self-control, stress management, and a sense of coordination. It is extremely comprehensive; you exercise both the upper and lower parts of your body, burn body fat, and obtain a toned and muscular body.