The Olympics aren’t over yet, but so far, the United States has had two athletes land on the podium in weightlifting events. For those who don’t follow U.S. weightlifting closely, it may come as a surprise that this is the most successful outing Team USA TISI -0.5% has had in years.
Sarah Robles became the first U.S. woman to win two Olympic weightlifting medals, with her bronze medal in the women’s +87kg joining the medal of the same color she won at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. With that win, Robles, 33, became the first U.S. athlete to earn an Olympic medal in weightlifting in 16 years.
There’s more. Kate Nye, who, at 22, is competing in her first Olympics, earned a silver medal Sunday in the women’s 76kg. Taken together, these accomplishments mark the first time the U.S. has earned two weightlifting medals in a single Games in 21 years—and the first time in 53 years the U.S. has made the weightlifting podium in consecutive Games.
One person who is not at all surprised by the United States’ success in Tokyo in weightlifting? USA Weightlifting CEO Phil Andrews, who has been quietly building the national team into a competitive force in weightlifting while also cleaning up the sport’s doping and administrative issues.MORE FOR YOUThese 10 Countries Offer Six-Figure Payouts To Their Olympic MedalistsHere’s How Much Olympic Superstar Simone Biles Makes In EndorsementsFC Barcelona Will ‘Accelerate’ Two Player Exits And Force Heavyweight Salary Deferrals This Week
Andrews’ successes were obvious before these Games—weightlifting is the second-fastest growing sport in the U.S., with more than 50 percent of its competitors now female—but Olympic medals tend to shine the brightest.
“We really went in [to Tokyo] with a degree of expectation on the shoulders of our athletes,” Andrews told me by phone Friday, before Robles or Nye had yet made their podiums. “Regardless of how much you might try and shield people from that, an athlete who stood on the podium on the world championship or set a world record knows they’re good. That was different from past Olympic games.”
Indeed, the United States was the only nation other than China to bring a full weightlifting team to Tokyo, and that is a direct result of the work Andrews and his team have been doing to grow the sport in the U.S. from the grassroots level up. The work began when Andrews was appointed CEO of USA Weightlifting in April 2016, having held the post on an interim basis since the previous December.
In that time, U.S. membership has almost trebled; numbers are up to over 30,000 from 9,000 pre-Covid. That has corresponded with a massive jump in revenue, as well, doubling over the last quadrennial to the $7.2 million range. Whereas USA Weightlifting used to be entirely reliant upon membership revenue, it now sees a significant portion of its revenue come from coaching education (more than $2 million), events (more than $1 million), sponsorships—the body has 27 partners now—and fundraising.
This isn’t the first time Andrews has steered a minority sport to monumental growth; the English native worked in professional ice hockey for British champions Coventry Blaze. During his tenure, the organization saw double digit increases in attendance and sponsorship revenue.
“The sport of weightlifting has grown but also the movement of weightlifting,” Andrews said, citing popular workouts and clubs like CrossFit, Lifetime Fitness, 24 Hour Fitness and Orange Theory—the larger health clubs that have the capacity to put in platforms. The focus on strength and conditioning has increased, as well. “We’re seeing more snatching and clean and jerk in collegiate weight rooms and down to the high school level too,” Andrews said.
The result is that weightlifting has “probably never been healthier in the U.S.”—especially for women. With membership numbers over 50 percent, weightlifting in the U.S. is “technically a women’s sport at this stage.” Historically, the first international women’s weightlifting tournament wasn’t even held until 1983—and women’s competition in the Olympics only started in the 2000 Sydney Games.
Even when Covid-19 threw sport National Governing Bodies (NGB) a curveball—both in regard to generating revenue and serving athletes and members—USA Weightlifting was able to course-correct.
The organization lost around 1,500 members between March and May 2020, corresponding with a 19 percent decrease in revenue month-over-month. But it was able to move both coaching education and actual competition online, including the Virtual Super Championships and the American Open Series Online Qualifier. Because those who wished to compete had to remain USA Weightlifting members to do so, those moves halted the decrease in membership numbers.
The organization also put guides out to engage members who wanted to keep up their fitness at home, demonstrating how to make an at-home kettlebell using a bucket and sand, easily purchased at Home Depot HD -0.3% or Lowes just as the fitness equipment supply chain failed. (In July 2020, a ReportLinker report forecast the home fitness equipment market to grow from $6.76 billion in 2019 to $9.49 billion in 2020 at a compound annual growth rate of 40.4 percent.)
The USA Weightlifting grassroots and youth population has also become a cornerstone of its overall health. In July, 17-year-old American weightlifter Hampton Morris set a Junior Pan-American record and Youth world record with his 155-kilogram (341.7 pound) clean and jerk—more than two and a half times his bodyweight. Needless to say, he also won gold in the event.
In 2021, the U.S. won its fifth-straight title at the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) IWF -0.1% Junior World Championships with 18-year-old Olivia Reeves’ gold medal. From 2016 to 2019, CJ Cummings, now 21, won four straight junior world titles; in 2019, Kate Nye also won gold as the U.S. women finished at the top of their team standings.
Cummings was a podium favorite in his event at the Tokyo Olympics, the men’s 73kg, but finished ninth out of 10. The American men haven’t won an Olympic weightlifting medal since 1984. However, five of the eight U.S. team members are 25 or younger, and, at 21, Cummings is the youngest. He almost certainly has more Olympic weightlifting in his future.
“The goal this Games was a full team, and we achieved that,” Andrews said. “And just getting there was grueling this particular quad.” In the 2016 Rio Games, USA Weightlifting was 24th in the world in qualification. This time around, it was second, behind only China.
But weightlifting, especially on the international stage, still faces an uphill battle.
Weightlifting is provisionally included on the Paris 2024 Olympic program. However, the IOC Executive Board also voted to reduce the number of weightlifting competitions (and, thus, athlete quotas) for the Paris Games.
At Rio 2016, weightlifting had 15 medal competitions (eight men and seven women) with a total athlete quota of 260. In Tokyo, there are 14 medal competitions evenly split between men and women, for 196 total athletes. The Paris 2024 Games are set to have only 10 medal competitions (five men, five women) and 120 athletes.
It tracks with what Andrews describes as the IOC’s strategy of “sport sampling.” To make way for new sports like skateboarding, surfing, sport climbing and karate and returning sports like baseball and softball, other sports must lose medal competitions. Sports like rowing and wrestling are also seeing their quotas reduced, but “there’s no question [the IOC] punished weightlifting by removing significant portions of our sport for the way our sport’s been managed and the doping in our sport,” Andrews said.
In June, a 50-page investigative report alleged corruption, including covering-up doping cases, among international weightlifting officials. The same allegations, which were first brought to light in an investigative report by German broadcaster ARD, forced 20-year International Weightlifting Federation president Tamás Aján to resign his post in April 2020.
The United States, with its doping control program, United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), was the first federation worldwide in any sport to require anti-doping education for every single member, which they must complete before any competition. The U.S. offered that program to the IWF successfully in 2018.
“We do see still positives in the U.S.; the difference is we are seeing them at the grassroots level primarily,” Andrews said. But he cites education, constant messaging, the play tip center [an anonymous reporting hotline], and the massive testing programs of USADA for keeping those figures down.
USADA and WADA, the international equivalent, have come under fire for having outdated or deliberately confusing rules and regulations—such as those that forced sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson to withdraw from Tokyo after testing positive for marijuana.
But there’s no question weightlifting needed to be proactive in finding and punishing the use of more common performance-enhancing drugs such as boldenone, one of the substances at the center of the doping program that resulted in Romania’s one-year ban from competition, including at the Tokyo Olympics.
However, if the IWF and the IOC can’t get on the same page regarding the sport’s future, and if the IOC doesn’t feel confident in the IWF’s new leadership, the result could be dire—the removal of weightlifting from the Olympic program altogether.
“The [IWF] has done a poor job of managing their relationship with the IOC, and it is, as it stands, likely at this stage we’ll see elimination from the Olympic games unless we address our governance issue quickly,” Andrews said. “We USA weightlifting reformists kept the IOC engaged; there are people willing to play the IOC’s game within the sport. The game is, ‘We’d like to keep you in the Olympics; we’re ‘Faster, Stronger, Higher Together—you’re the Stronger of that.’”
The ultimate message to the IWF? “Sort out your governance, sort out your leadership, serve your athletes. If we can do that, we will be retained in the games,” Andrews said.
And yet, removal from the Olympics isn’t a disastrous proposition for USA Weightlifting, in large part because of the work Andrews has done to bolster the organization’s membership, finances and mission.
“Obviously, we’re an Olympic sport and we want to be an Olympic sport,” Andrews said. “But in the event we were removed from the Olympic Games, I don’t think it would be catastrophic to us as a business. We’d still be able to support our athletes to the world championships, the Pan-American Championships and just to train—for the average person walking into a gym doing a snatch and clean and jerk for fitness for their competition.
“In fact, it would have less of a negative effect than Covid has had on our community as a whole.”
Still, there’s no denying the Olympics creates what Andrews refers to as the “shop window” effect. “The sheer level of awareness, that is still of massive value to each sport,” Andrews said. Weightlifters don’t receive the massive sponsorships, say, gymnasts or swimmers do—but at the very top, they can. Cummings, for example, is sponsored by Reebok.
Because Cummings’ situation is the exception, not the norm, USA Weightlifting dedicates a significant portion of its revenue to ensure its top athletes don’t have to go out there and find a job regardless of their endorsement level. Athletes are paid based on their world ranking; the top tier sees the top four in the world earn $4,000 a month. The next tier covers the top eight in the world, who qualify for the Olympics, and the top 15, who are likely to qualify. Then the bronze level is basically the developmental level.
To Andrews’ knowledge, USA Weightlifting pays the highest athlete stipend of any national governing body.
But because USA Weightlifting receives less than 2 percent of its budget from the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), it has to generate revenue in order to pay its athletes. Memberships alone weren’t enough to sustain the organization; by branching out into coaching education courses, events and sponsorships, however, the organization can afford to support its athletes while maintaining healthy reserves and increasing overall revenue.
The result is a far healthier organization than the one Andrews took over in 2016. And the tangible reward of that growth are the two medals U.S. weightlifters will bring home from Tokyo this month.
But even if weightlifting were one day not included on the Olympic program, USA Weightlifting would likely be just fine. A few years ago, that may not have been the case.