Olympic Games Fool’s Gold: Vindication Day!
For decades bodybuilding and powerlifting twisted themselves into pretzels seeking Olympic Games recognition.
Meet J-Roc (above), Olympic Games Gold Medal winner?
The following tale is often dismissed as the powerlifting equivalent of an urban legend. This powerlifting horror story is based on the account of one man, a man I knew, admired, and believed. The story takes place at the 1968 Olympic Games held in Mexico City. Since everyone involved is dead, we shall never know the real truth.
The crux of the tale is that, in conjunction with the weightlifting that took place at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, the International Weightlifting Federation, the weightlifting governing body and recognized affiliate of the IOC, the International Olympic Committee, entertained and then accepted powerlifting as a new Olympic sport.
Then, according to iron icon Bill Starr, a man in a position to know since he was there, Bob Hoffman, the “father of American weightlifting” began buttonholing IWF executive board members and got them to reverse the recognition of powerlifting as an Olympic sport. Starr’s famous quote, “For 30-minutes powerlifting was an Olympic sport!”
Hoffman, the sugar daddy of American Olympic weightlifting, had a multiplicity of reasons for his action. Powerlifting was problematic for Bob. First, if powerlifting became an Olympic sport, he would have to become the father of American powerlifting. That meant funding two squads of American lifters. Hoffman footed the travel bill (air, hotel, per diem) for USA weightlifters heading to the world championships or the Olympic games. If he had to do the same for the powerlifters, his outlay would double. The alternative was, for Bob, too horrible to contemplate.
Hoffman was impaled on the horns of a strength dilemma: if Bob did not step up and offer to fund USA powerlifter travel expense to world championships and the Olympic games, he would create an opening for his demonic foe, Joe Weider. Joe “trainer of champions” Weider was ready, willing, and quite able to step up and foot the bill for American powerlifting team travel expenses. This would enable Joe Weider to become the father of American powerlifting. That was unacceptable to the father of American weightlifting.
Joe Weider had already developed strong friendships with the elite LA powerlifters operating out of Bill “Peanuts” West, Westside Barbell Club. Luminaries included George Frenn, Pat Casey, Hal Connelly, Steve Merijanian, Len Ingro, et. al., Joe Weider had the money and expressed an inclination and willingness to become the father of American powerlifting. Hoffman would lose his mind if somehow his archnemesis, Joe Weider, got control of the sister strength sport.
What if Weider-backed powerlifters won more medals than Hoffman-backed American weightlifters at the world championships or Olympic games?! That was a totally unacceptable scenario. Another problem: there was a widely held belief amongst the weightlifting intelligentsia that the new sport of powerlifting was siphoning off a goodly portion of American weightlifting talent.
In 2020 we understand that the elite weightlifter and the elite powerlifter are two diametrically opposed animals. There have been no “crossover champions,” men that have dominated in both strength sports in the interceding 52 years. The Olympic lifter is as different from a powerlifter as a soccer forward is from an NFL pulling guard. Still, in 1968 the consensus was that American powerlifting success would be at American weightlifting’s expense.
For these reasons, Hoffman (allegedly) submarined powerlifting in 1968. The 1970s would bring a rash of steroid scandals that changed everything, insofar as any possibility of powerlifting’s inclusion into the Olympic games. When the drug scandals broke, the IOC identified “at risk” sports, sports that benefited from PEDs, Performance Enhancing Drugs. PEDs are of far greater benefit to a shot-putter than in a gymnast, or an equestrian rider. Ergo, the discus was deemed an at-risk sport while synchronized swimming was not. Powerlifting became radioactive.
Once the first wave of steroid scandals broke in the 1970s and then continued unabated into the 1980s, powerlifting’s chances of Games inclusion evaporated. Yet, within the powerlifting community the Olympic fantasy was falsely, or perhaps naïvely presented to their faithful members as the ultimate goal: getting powerlifting into the Olympics was the eternal priority, everything should revolve around attaining Olympic inclusion.
This lofty goal would be attained by demonstrating that powerlifting could and would become a “clean” sport, as drug-free as 10-meter diving or dressage. There would be lots of out-of-competition testing and plenty of drug suspensions until all the bad apples were purged. Powerlifting would become so drug-free and pure that the IOC elite would say, “Powerlifting is so pure and clean, so cool and popular, that it deserves to be in the Olympic games!”
In another kiss-up move, the IPF (International Powerlifting Federation) and their American sister affiliate, changed their weight classes to mirror the IWF’s (International Weightlifting Federation) changing of their weight classes.
The IWF created a new set of world records by establishing new weight classes. They sought to create a “clean slate,” the commencement of a new, pure, clean, drug-free era of weightlifting, one that would differentiate modern, clean, pure, chaste, wholesome weightlifting from those dirty old (amazing, incredible, god-like) drugged-up Bulgarian and Russian lifters of the 1980s. Oh, and they eliminated a weight class, thereby shortening competitions.
The powerlifting elite solemnly intoned, “Well hell, if we want to lift in the Olympics, we need to mimic the IWF weight class changes – we too will cleanse our books: this will be our year zero.” I wrote an article at the time pointing out that the IOC was hardly looking to include another at-risk lifting sport into the Olympic games.
Quite the opposite, the goal was to throw out at-risk sports and events; toss them out of the Olympic games and replace them with more popular, viewer-friendly, no-risk “sports.” (sport was given a highly elastic definition) Promoters wanted events that were popular with the TV viewing public. They wanted ratings. Period.
Does anyone really think the Olympic game viewing public craves Olympic weightlifting or powerlifting? In America, neither sport can draw more than 500 (paying!) spectators to their respective national championships.
I wrote an article in the 80s saying that the then new craze of Break Dancing stood a better chance of getting into the Olympics than powerlifting. This brought howls of outrage. My critique was callous and beyond ridiculous! Powerlifting was destined for the Olympics, just you wait and see! You would have thought I’d sucker-punched the 90-year-old queen of England.
The blowback was severe. I really hit a nerve. The Olympics were really important to these people; they really believed that in the not-too-distant future they would see themselves competing at the Olympic Games, winning medals (“USA! USA!”) on ABCs Wide World of Sport afterwards being interviewed by Kurt Gowdy.
December 10th, 2020, was my vindication day: I was made aware that Break Dancing is now an official Olympic sport. As are skateboarding and ballroom dancing. The IOC has apparently lost powerlifting’s phone number. I have a long memory. As Shakespeare once noted (and I paraphrase,) “Vindication is a dish best eaten cold.” Vindication after 35 years is pretty damned cold vindication. Yet vindication none the less.
Speaking of Joe Weider: bodybuilding and the Weider Brothers had their own Olympic mirage evaporate. The Weider brother, Ben and Joe, had a dream of seeing bodybuilding in the Olympics. Ben, the elder, was an imperious sort, drawn to power, governance, and classical orthodoxy. Rich and cultured, a proud Canuck, Ben was a major collector of Napoleonic antiques and artifacts.
He envisioned the bodybuilding Olympic champion being crowned in the Games final event, the recognition of the world’s most perfectly constructed male and female, the perfect humans. This would be the brothers’ ultimate legacy.
This ultimate dream was pursued full-bore. As a top-gun writer for Muscle & Fitness (83 feature articles,) I had a ringside seat when the mighty Weider Empire was at its peak, this in the 1990s, before the internet revolution destroyed the magazine business. So serious were the Weider brothers about their Olympic dream, they feted, lured, and beguiled Juan Antonio Samaranch to several Mr. Olympia competitions.
Samaranch was a big deal: the IOC president from 1980 to 2001, the seventh president of the International Olympic Committee, (IOC) Juan spent a lot of time in and around Atlanta leading up to the 1996 Olympic Games held in Atlanta.
For two years in a row the Olympia, the biggest bodybuilding competition in the world, was purposefully held in Atlanta so that the Weider’s might entice Samaranch, who had temporary residence in Atlanta, to attend. The brothers wined and dined the IOC boss. They in turn were teased and tempted, led on, seduced. Ultimately, predictably, it failed.
In hindsight it all seems a cynical ploy on the part of the IOC boss, the wired insider looking to profit and party off the rich brother’s obsession. Samaranch knew from the first time he ever heard it proposed that bodybuilding would never be an Olympic sport. He knew that there was no chance in hell that was ever going to happen. He knew that – yet happily accepted the brothers lavish enticements.
The Weider brothers were no one’s fools: these men stripped the bark off business competitors. They deservedly seized control of bodybuilding and bettered it, taking it to stratospheric levels of popularity. The Olympics seemed more Ben’s dream than Joe’s; regardless, the full weight and might of the Weider empire were fully behind this full court press effort to get bodybuilding into the Olympic games. And they predictably failed.
In 2020 I assume the powerlifting powers that be have cut loose their great white whale, the Olympic fantasy, once and for all. Illusions and delusions are neither healthy nor sane. Besides, the modern 2020-era Olympic Games bares zero resemblance to the epic, once every four-year, clash of civilizations that they once were.
There was a time when the Olympic Games were used by world powers on the world stage to demonstrate the superiority of their system of governance. The communist iron curtain countries sent their Drago-like, state-supported, drug-addled, robotic athletes against true western amateur athletes – this to demonstrate communisms superiority to capitalism. The whole world stopped during the ten days of the Summer Olympic Games between 1956 and 1988.
The modern Olympics have devolved into a bland, homogenized, diffused jumble of unrelated events. The modern Olympics hardly cause notice. Who really cares about winning a medal in the modern diluted Olympics? Will it lead to a movie role or book deal? Otherwise, who cares! The modern games are hardly a clash of civilizations, more an international athletic talent search game show.
Back in the 50s, 60s, 70s and thru the 80s, the Olympic Games were the athletic version of the showdown at the OK corral: communism versus capitalism, freedom versus totalitarianism, serious shit. Back then, the Olympics mattered. Nowadays, not so much. It makes it easier to let go of a dream no one really cares about.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.