What Can Powerlifting Learn from the Olympic Games?

TAGS: Winter Olympics, olympic games, MGG, metal bash pro bencher, technology, genetics, Eric Maroscher, powerlifting

Before he was a part of the crazy Kardashian family, Bruce Jenner was literally the World’s Greatest Athlete, as Olympic winning decathletes are titled as such. Bruce was in the 1972 Summer Olympics, placing tenth. Over the next four years, by all accounts, he trained like an absolute mad man. A man possessed with winning the Olympic Games as the winner of the Olympic decathlon. When Bruce Jenner won gold in the 1976 Summer Olympic Games he was 26 years old and when he won he not only beat the best in the world, but broke the Olympic decathlon record by scoring a record 8,634 points.

In the eighties through nineties, the Winter Olympic name was Bonnie Blair. An American speed skater that decimated opponents and records along the way. It was said that Blair’s records might stand for the next fifty years. Since their time, both Jenner’s record and even Blair’s records have been surpassed. Interestingly, Blair’s records over the next couple of years were being broken by skaters who were not even ranked in the world. How can that be? We’ll get back to that in a bit.

While watching the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia there was a theme for me. A theme that, as a powerlifter, was loud and clear. I was watching the events and I noticed the world records being broken had just been broken. In other words, these were not records from the Olympics of yester-year, nor from the last Olympics, but as recent as last year or even the heat prior. There were records falling in both old and new Olympic sports. What I noticed were the super light-weight guns of the Biathlon. I noticed the sleds that were designed by the engineers of the BMW Company. I noticed the snowboards with this $3000 an ounce substance that when applied to the snow board made the board practically float above the snow and removed nearly all of the friction. I noticed the specialty sunglasses that enhanced the flags even in the most blinding snow. I noticed sports technology everywhere. I noticed further that these sports were fast moving and constantly building on their prior success and this was done in large part via technology.

Back to Bonnie Blair. The reason Blair’s records were being beaten is because of the clap skate. A skate designed with a high-tech hinge so even though the skater's shoe comes off the ice, the skate at the toe, does not, allowing for a much, much, much faster time. Now, here is what I didn’t notice. I didn’t notice people saying, “Well, Bonnie Blair would still be the best if the technology wasn’t there and the skates hadn’t changed. Why? Well, because then an older person would say, sure, but if Liselotte Landbeck back in 1932 had digital timers and the ice was smoothed by a superior Zambonie type machine, she would have gone faster. Fact is, the Women’s 500 meter speed skating record in 1932 was 58.7 seconds and in 2013 that same distance is covered in 36.36 seconds.

Has human genetics changed so much in 81 years that people are twice as fast? A large part of this is technology. Sure Eric, but what about a low-tech sport like swimming? That is just a man or a woman and a pool. Well, not really. I think most people know of or have at least heard of Olympic Gold Medal Swimmer, Mark Spitz. He won gold in the seventies and over the years set the world record in the men’s 200 meter butterfly seven times, his fastest time being 2:00.70. In a pool with H2O just like Spitz, Michael Phelps swam the same exact distance but at 1:51.51. Did the water get slicker? Did Mark Spitz mustache cause him to swim nearly 10 seconds slower than Phelps. Did the human body change so much so that a man could shave off nearly ten seconds off the best time ever in just 40 years? So how did technology help Phelps? Well, for one, after each race he has four trainers work on his body, one trainer per limb. After virtually each workout he receives micro-current therapy, electronic-stim therapy, active release therapy, ultra-sound therapy. His workouts are filmed and that film is digitized into stick figure type drawings showing Phelps and his team of coaches every nuance of his form, kick, arm motion, drag in the water, every aspect of his start, turns, and stretch at the end of the race. He has access to a hyperbolic chamber. He travels first class in a jet while icing with a Game Ready machine, supplementing his diet with the best supplements and nutrients (Subway is just a commercial people). So, you have a couple of freakish genetic athletes with a killer instinct to win, a vicious work ethic, and the best technology known to man and yes, you can get ten seconds out of that.

As with Blair and Landbeck, the question must be asked...are comparisons made between these two, best of their era swimmers? Not so much. They are both champions of their era and Michael Phelps is not frowned down upon because of his use or exposure to technology and neither is the Russian bobsled team whose bobsled of 2014 is practically a rocket ship compared to the bobsled sliding brick of the 1960s  These four guys in the Russian bobsled are simply crowned the best because they won against their peers and they, along with the technology that helped propel them to the top, are now a part of the history of the Olympic games...end of story. These Olympic sports continue to grow in audience and sponsorship and they continue to get more exciting as the numbers get smaller or bigger depending on the sport. What these sports all have in common is the fact that they are evolving and also fully and unabashedly embracing technology. Let me say that again: evolving and unabashedly embracing technology. This is where powerlifting can take a lesson from these Winter Olympic events.

Does a bench shirt, once you have worked hard to master it help you bench more than you can bench raw? Of course. Can I bench more in my Metal Bash Pro Bencher shirt than I can in my 1993 Double Denim bench shirt (that would blow out every other meet)? Without a doubt. You are using technology with equipped powerlifting to try to produce the biggest bench press you can. Will your Metal bench shirt, once you have worked hard to master it help your total? Absolutely. Does my modern bench shirt take away the significance of any of the meets I won wearing my old school bench shirt? Hardly. As a lifter who has competed both equipped for years and raw for years, I want to touch on this before all of my raw buddies throw a fit. My raw brothers, if you think the deadlift bar, your 27mm super whippy bar with gnarling that really lets you choke that bar tight, is the same bar that John Kuc used when he pulled his 870-pound pull some thirty plus years ago...think again. In fact, ponder it while sipping on your high-tech whey protein isolate shake. Say it with me, “Don’t be scared of technology.”

Ultimately, technology can only go so far, as the weakest link is the human link. A bobsled can only go so fast until the human reflexes can no longer control it. A race car can only go so fast until the human driver can no longer steer it from hitting the wall. A bench shirt can only have so much resistance and then the weak link, the radius and ulna, break. I have seen that three times so we are at that technological breaking point with the bench shirts as too much shirt requires more weight to get down to your chest than you can physically drive up. Remember, even with the best squat suit, the lifter has to lift the weight and if the suits were the total answer, everyone would be a 1000 squatter. The point being, technology moves a sport forward and sometimes I hear powerlifters bringing their own sport down by comparing powerlifters of differing eras or trying to compare apples to oranges with the raw versus equipped arguments. Raw versus equipped is like playing baseball with a wooden bat versus an aluminum bat, meaning that with the technology of the aluminum bat you can hit further and the ball comes off the bat with greater speed but keep in mind, you still have to be able to hit that 94 mile an hour fast ball to see the difference. Too often that ultimate aspect (actually hitting the ball and actually lifting the weight) is forgotten.

With regard to the baseball analogy. When folks look at career home runs, we often forget that player X hit 500 home runs and player Y hit 600, but player Y’s right field fence was closer. Does that make either of them less or more of a homerun hitter? What if that were the case in powerlifting. Okay, my 700-pound pull wins because your 700-pound pull was really 715 pounds. If the issues of homerun fences is not the end-all, be-all of the home run discussion, why should we as powerlifters in 2014 care about equipment or technology from 1984? As a powerlifter who had his first meet in 1989, I have seen the changes in powerlifting gear, bars, etc. Personally, I am fine with it as I am competing against other lifters in 2014 not against lifters from 1984. It is okay for us powerlifters to embrace technology, it is okay for our sport to progress, it is okay to compete raw, it is okay to compete with gear because you are competing with like individuals. It is okay to want to use the latest technology and have the best gear. I know when I pick out my protein powders, I want the one that via technology gives me the best results and that is definitely not my chalky-tasting, took-hours-to-digest milk protein shakes from 1983. By the way, before someone tries to blames all of the Olympic progress on performance enhancing drugs, think again. They have always been pervasive and always will be. In fact, historically there were more athletes passing tests because the drugs have changed little, but the testing has changed dramatically, through, of course…technology. Prior to 1968, there was no testing in the Olympics, yet synthesis of testosterone was reported as far back as 1935 and Dr. Ziegler (US Olympic Team physician by the way) developed and marketed the original Dianabol back in 1958.

I have heard all the points to these arguments over my 25 competitive years and what I see are other sports moving forward, embracing the advancements of their sports equipment and they are sports that are advancing. Hell, even the titanium golf clubs that Tiger uses compared to the clubs Arnold Palmer used back then don’t detract either man’s greatness, so why should we as powerlifters put so much time and negative energy when it comes to technology and powerlifting? I can’t help but wonder if our internal squabbles and self-inflicted wounds as a sport caused by our unwillingness to fully embrace technology/change in the sport is one of the larger factors keeping us out of the spotlight we so much deserve as we are truly one of the greatest sports on the planet.

What will bother me in 2016 when the summer games are in Rio, is that once again, powerlifting will not be represented. And while I am preoccupied with that thought, Bruce Jenner will sit back and watch his beloved decathlon being followed and cheered on by millions all over the world. When the 2016 gold medalist for the Decathlon is crowned, Bruce will, with his legacy firmly intact, merely say, “Congratulations sir.”

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