Over two consecutive weekends in May I was able to officiate at both the American and Canadian national weightlifting championships. Now that I have returned home and the dust has settled it is time to go over the impressions gained.
First came the US Nationals. These were held in Memphis, Tennessee on the grounds of Graceland, known to all pop music fans as the Elvis Presley estate. There were just shy of 400 athletes attending. This necessitated the use of two simultaneous platforms in order to complete the event in three days. Two platforms mean two complete electronic set-ups, with full-time technicians to oversee their operation.
This might be decried by the traditionalists but it does result in a very polished presentation. Announcements from the speaker on one platform did not interfere much with those of its neighbor. A bonus for the audience was that they got to see double the action. This can be a problem at single platform events, especially when there are a lot of gaps in the action, as often happens.
After Memphis, being a country music fan of long standing, I naturally hit I-40 to make the 200-mile jag over to Nashville, where I spent most of the week. Come Friday it was off to Montreal for the Canadian version. There, the athlete numbers were only about 120. This was lower than in previous years due to higher qualifying totals.
As in the US, the CrossFit crossover phenomenon had greatly increased the number of qualifiers. It was decided to raise the standards as opposed to the US two-platform solution. The increased numbers have already led to the cancellation of closing banquets in favor of more athletes.
The raising of qualification standards, though, does not please the more marginal athletes. At the same time, events of this scope are always rising in cost, so a large entry list is needed to pay the bills. We always seem to be able to go with one-platform, two-day Nationals, but it is likely that will be more difficult in the future. Time will tell.
Participation was affected in another way due to the proximity of the Junior and Senior Pan American Championships as well as the Junior Worlds, with the Pan-American Games also on the Horizon. Many of the elite lifters of both countries then had decided to skip their Nationals.
On the plus side, the medals winners now are more evenly spread throughout their countries. No longer does one area dominate like days of old. Previous areas of weightlifting scarcity now have their own winners to celebrate. This is a development that will be good for the sport.
The Use of Video Replay
In both countries can be seen the greying of the sport’s technical officials. While CrossFit has swelled the ranks of the athletes, and to some extent that of coaching, it has had far less effect on officiating numbers. That is something that the newcomers just don’t seem to be attracted to.
This is important since the use of more than one platform necessitates the use of more officials. Not only that, but the air schedules on Sundays (when most events end) often require that many leave early. This can leave the final sessions short of officials. So, it becomes vital that new people can be found, especially when experienced people are now in their seventies. Their knowledge is great but it will have to be diffuse to younger replacements as soon as possible.
This brings me to another aspect of officiating that was tried at Memphis but is under discussion throughout many sports circles. That is the topic of using video replays to assist officials in decision making. Video replay is now widely used in many sports, notably football, baseball, hockey, and basketball, among others.
They vary in how much their officials can utilize video repays to assist in decisions. Soccer and weightlifting were more conservative, waiting until 2018 to allow such. Weightlifting had historically eschewed such assistance, their point being that lifting took place on a much smaller field of play compared to team sports and that infractions had to be seen by referees.
There seemed to be little need for electronic adjudication. The turning point came at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Scotland where a bad referee decision affected the medal placings. With the bad feeling generated from that incident, it was finally realized that video could prevent such happenings so the IWF began discussions on how to implement such. Finally, a policy was laid down, resulting in a pilot testing at the Youth Worlds in Las Vegas in 2019. This has now been followed up by its modified usage in Memphis.
In the IWF rules, four cameras are used, one near each referee and another behind the platform. These videos can then be used to review the referee's or jury’s decision if challenged or in case of disagreement within the jury. Memphis had only one camera situated near the center referee.
A challenge can be started by the lifter/coach before the timing clock is started for the next lifter. Therefore they must act quickly. The jury itself may also challenge the referee's decision. The unanimity of the jury members is required before they can reverse the referee's decision.
In addition, the lifter or coach can only challenge the decisions of its own lifts. They cannot challenge those made by their opponents. If that were possible, it would often result in frivolous challenges.
There is only one challenge permitted by an athlete during competition. This is in line with other sports so as to discourage frivolous challenges. Therefore if one wants to challenge, there better be a legitimate reason. If so, and the jury agrees to reverse the decision, the lifter will still be allowed one challenge on subsequent lifts. This also emulates other sports. The lifter should not be penalized for a bad decision by the officials.
The video replay is connected to the video board to allow in-venue spectators and home TV viewers to watch the replay. This is a good idea and will keep the jury honest as they would not want to be seen as biased or incompetent. Memphis did not have a video board connection, unfortunately.
Some predicted that such challenges would slow the competition, always a concern in our sport. This proved not to be the case. The only lifts that can be challenged are one’s own lifts, and then only those that were completed and then red-lighted.
Such lifts are few in number in any competition, especially elite ones where the lifters either succeed or fail. Even with those lifts a lifter or coach has to be careful, as they only have one challenge card.
If they use it on an obvious bad lift, they cannot then challenge a later legitimately marginal one. In that situation, the best course is to only challenge the more difficult to judge clean and jerk, preferably on the second or third attempts. The lifter has little to lose challenging the third attempt since he or she will be done afterward.
It was also suggested that lifters may use a challenge strategically in order to buy time. This is indeed possible but they will use up their challenge card in doing so. This would not happen on the third clean and jerk unless the challenge is legitimate, as no more time is needed.
The rule does not allow slow-motion replays—this is because the referees are still required to make their decisions in real time. They cannot see in slow motion so cannot be expected to see something that way and then be penalized for such a failure.
The jury may examine the slow-motion replay, if available, to satisfy their own curiosity about the lift but they cannot reverse a decision on that basis. That is allowed on many of the team sports. The large playing fields, speed of play, and the number of players make it impossible to catch all violations and off-sides, so those sports have decided that reliance on video will be tolerated.
The Future of Video Replay for Weightlifting
While this video technology was appreciated by many it is unlikely it will be available to events below the elite levels due to financial and technological expertise reasons. The USAW should be commended for their attempt at instituting it and thus allowing its officials to become familiar with it before they ever work at an international competition where it will be used.
This was not yet available in Montreal but there are enough techno-geeks in the Great White North that we will hopefully see it before too long. Speaking of those, I was also impressed with the competition management systems developed by Jean-Francois Lamy of Montreal and Les Simonton of Baltimore. Both are continually looking at improvements while searching out “bugs.” Their efforts are much appreciated.
Now that the seniors are done, the regular season is over for most lifters in North America. The elite gets no rest as there are a number of big events to come. Some of the rest may enter a summer event or two to keep sharp. None can afford to take it too easy as the level of competition is now much higher than even a few years ago. It is also deeper.
Some of the women’s sessions had all lifters starting within a kilo or two of one another—very tight and difficult to plan starting times for each lifter. This tight scheduling was unheard of a few years ago.
The USA especially is now knocking on the door at the various world championships but Canada is not too far behind. No longer are their medals excused as “flukes.” They are now being called “favorites to win.” A new generation of coaches, officials, and administrators have made this happen.