A Conversation with Phil Andrews and Kevin Farley
This interview is the first in a series I will post during the 2017 World Weightlifting Championships in Anaheim, California. It took place about three weeks prior to the event. Phil Andrews is Chief Executive Officer of USA Weightlifting. Kevin Farley is Director of Membership, Communications & Digital Marketing. Daniel Kunitz is the author of LIFT: Fitness Culture from Naked Greeks and Amazons to Jazzercise and Ninja Warriors.
Daniel Kunitz: I know anecdotally that weightlifting is growing in the United States, but do you have any statistics?
Phil Andrews: At the time of the 2012 Olympic Games, we had about 11,000 members and by the end of the 2016 Olympic Games we had about 26,000. We were the fastest growing sport of the Olympic movement in that quadrennial: the other three were rugby, lacrosse, and archery. To be fair, rugby and lacrosse grew by larger numbers; we grew by a higher percentage. Our membership is still continuing to rise, though it has slowed down from that period.
The biggest rise was due to Crossfit, but we now see places like Life Time Fitness taking up Olympic weightlifting in their facility, and they’ve started to do some education about it with their coaches. We’ve started to see interest from a very broad base of people: it’s becoming more common in personal training, more common in strength and conditioning. We’ve also had record participation in competitions this year. Another thing I should mention is that we’ve had massive growth on the women’s side: we’re now just a shade short of 50 percent participation by women in the sport—that’s on the athlete side. The number of coaches and technical officials aren’t quite there yet, but they should catch up in a few years as more female athletes seek to become coaches and technical officials. The enormous growth on the female side is now reflected on our national team too. Consider this: only one person from the World Championship squad in 2013 had a total that would make the team this year, and that’s Geralee Vega Morales. Morgan King is an excellent example. She went to the World Championships in Oslo in 2013 with a 157kg total, which was fantastic at the time–this year we have athletes not making the team with a 170-plus total. The same is true of the men as well: we have athletes who didn’t make the team with a total that would have made them the number one athlete in 2013.
DK: This year’s American team has its best chance in ages of winning medals…
PA: Yes. As you may be aware, there are 9 nations banned from World’s this year due to doping violations. The ban certainly increases our chances of medals, but I want to be clear there were a number of athletes in contention for medals even before the ban: C.J. Cummings, Colin Burns, Sarah Robles, Mattie Rogers.
DK: One look at those names, as well as others on the squad, like Harrison Maurus, and you can’t help feeling that the sport is undergoing a sort of youth renaissance in this country.
PA: Absolutely. C.J. and Harrison are both in their last year of youth competition, and they’re obviously outstanding. Both are world record holders, both are competing in Annaheim, and we hope for them to set new world records there. They’ve both played a role at senior meets before: C.J. was the youngest lifter at the 2015 World Championships, and Harrison won a silver medal in his first international competition, the Pan American Championships, in July of this year. C.J. is the double junior world champion and the current reigning youth world champion. I’ll also note that this year we held the largest youth competition of all time worldwide, in Atlanta. We understand we have the highest youth participation of any country in the world.
DK: What is driving increased youth participation?
PA: There are certainly more schools taking up Olympic weightlifting as a primary method of strength and conditioning, and I think that as Crossfit has continued to grow, kids have come in through Crossfit and the Crossfit kids program, and that’s helped us. Also, we’ve now got more weightlifting coaches, and they need clients, and an easy way to find those clients is through related sports.
Kevin Farley: We’re trying to show youth athletes in other sports that weightlifting provides them a new avenue of competition, especially with gymnasts. For example, Harrison Maurus was a gymnast, and he came to the realization that he’s never going to be a really great gymnast, but he can be a really great weightlifter. A lot of these athletes are doing the lifts or doing some of the training in their home sport, whether it’s Track and Field, gymnastics, football, or something else, and we just like to let them know that they have a home in weightlifting.
DK: Is there any attrition from football, because weightlifting has such a low risk of concussions?
PA: I’m not certain that’s related. There is a case for the low injury rate in weightlifting playing a part, and I think that’s certainly true when people realize the low injury rate in weightlifting compared to other sports, particularly football. It’s actually one of the lowest in the Olympic movement. But I think not enough people know that the injury rate is so low. The other thing is our female participation is rising at the same rate as our male participation, which suggests it’s not due to football.
DK: Do you see an effect from changing attitudes toward strength in the broader culture?
PA: Certainly, one of the things that has happened over the last four years is that it’s become more socially acceptable and perhaps socially advantageous to be a weightlifter, or indeed a Crossfitter, as a female. As evidence of that one might point to the very large followings our female athletes enjoy in their social media, particularly Mattie Rogers. Mattie was recently named one of the 50 fittest athletes in the world by Sports Illustrated, and Kendrick Ferris on the men’s side was named to the same list—which had everyone from Simone Biles to LeBron James. I think that shows the higher profiles that our athletes are enjoying compared to previous years, and it shows that weightlifters are considered fit individuals, they are as desirable in their physique.
KF: Another interesting thing is that in the 1970s and 80s there was a lot of research showing that strength and conditioning was not good for developing adolescents, but that research has now been supplanted by other research showing there is no link between strength and conditioning and stunted growth or anything like that. That bad data that was around through the 90s, that strength and conditioning was bad for children, was a hot-button issue that kept people away. That revision in thinking, that this not a dangerous sport, helps us better sell weightlifting to any reluctant parent. Our coaching education program teaches safety in the gym, safety in the weight room. You have a better chance of being injured as a high school athlete playing soccer than you do Olympic weightlifting.
PA: One thing that has helped us is the advent of, and extreme use of, social media, the Instagram platform in particular, because IG allows a very quick, easy view of a PR in a snatch or clean-and-jerk or even just a clean or a squat.
KF: Our sport is really designed for social media, especially Instagram. Weightlifting is so explosive and so quick that it’s just made for those moments on social media. Athlete videos and athlete competition videos perform the best–they perform better than any type of news that comes out of the federation, even important news like qualifying totals, competition days. It’s really all about the athletes and people seeing how quickly these athletes can put weight over their head.
DK: Are you seeing growth in your social media numbers?
KF: Yes. I’ve been here since June of last year, and we’ve seen growth in our social media platforms every single month since. We’re growing now on Twitter a little bit more than we used to. There are some tools that I use at our national events to help to get quick video and turnaround and to take advantage of the competition as it’s happening. So, we’ve seen growth on Twitter, big growth on Instagram and on Facebook, and it all comes back to watching the athletes do what they do. We’ve found that people like the competition stuff, but they really like getting behind the scenes, not only with the athletes but what’s really going on at the national events, pulling the curtain back and showing these athletes in a new light. Social media has really helped with that. The athletes themselves show their training routines, show off their home gyms, that kind of thing. Also, at national competitions people really seem to like to see what these elite athletes–whom they’ve watched train for so many months–do in the warmup area, see what they do to get ready to try to win medals. People really get attached to these athletes, watching them go through their training cycles and being with them for those many weeks leading up to the competition.
PA: One of the other things we’re doing that’s quite exciting is that we’re actually using it somewhat as a recruiting and scouting tool as well. It’s a great way for Mike Gattone, whose job it is to recruit elite athletes into weightlifting, to see what an athlete who is, say, throwing, does in a weight room. At Instagram headquarters, they found that quite interesting—they said it was the first they’d heard of it being used as a scouting tool. It’s one of the ways we can use technologies that fit our sport in ways that other sports can’t. Next year we’re looking to figure out how to use Instagram for that particular project even better.
DK: Social media is my go-to for following weightlifting. It doesn’t work as well on television.
KF: It certainly is a challenge, and a lot of that is just inherent to the sport. The excitement doesn’t translate as well to television as it does in other sports, and I think that’s okay. We’re taking steps to try to change that. There are rules we have to follow that come from the international federation, and that’s okay, but it’s our job to create an environment that not only excites the athletes and technical officials but also the fans in the venue and on TV.
We don’t broadcast our national events on television, but on the web site we broadcast 14 hours per day for three days on three or four independent streams, so you’re talking about hundreds of hours of programming, and a lot of that has commentators and pretty high production values.
DK: I gather this year’s World’s is a particularly consequential . . .
PA: Well, as you may be aware, the sport of weightlifting is under review by the International Olympic Committee as to whether we stay on the Olympic program or not. The International Weightlifting Federation recently took some very important steps toward assuring our place in the Olympic program. Those were primarily in the area of anti-doping. There are two areas we need to look at. One is to make the sport more appealing, which comes down to the sport program plus some of the ways we cast the sport, how people look at the sport. The second is anti-doping. We have a robust program together with the IWF and USADA, implemented already for Anaheim. And I think all parties are happy with that. The IWF took some strong action against 9 countries that threw our sport into disrepute, through the 2008 and 2012 retests, and those countries will not be able to appear for a further 12 months in all competition. The second thing that was announced–and I think is imperative for our sport is using an independent testing authority. That’s a move similar to those taken by the athletics and aquatics federations in response to similar problems. Those are critical moves, and they took them bravely. The clean sport commission, which is chaired by Richard Young, who wrote the original WADA code, together with others, have done a great job in the initial work. Should we be able to succeed in persuading the IOC that we have done sufficient work to clean up our sport, then we will be in a much better place. I think the public wants to see clean-sport athletes going head to head, and I think clean sport athletes can provide the excitement of competition, as well as the variety of countries winning medals that the public is seeking.
DK: Is the fact that World’s is being held in the US for the second time in a row indicative of the growth of the sport in this country?
KF: I think it’s related, because the U.S. wouldn’t have the influence or ability to bring the World Championships here if we were not growing the way that we have. We enjoy a very good relationship with the IWF, and we stepped in when the Malaysian Federation was no longer able to host.
DK: I imagine that knowledge of weightlifting is one of the bigger barriers to the growth of the sport.
KF: It is an issue. We are Olympic weightlifting–we’re not bodybuilding, we’re not powerlifting. There are sports that are similar to ours, so there are people who will be confused about who we are and what we do. Having the World Championships in the U.S. is a perfect opportunity to show what we’re all about.