I’ve heard the proclamation “powerlifting is dying” for the last ten years. Those than unequivocally state what they assume should be obvious to all will site as examples of the impending powerlifting death: drug use, evolution of supportive gear, rule interpretations, and the most popular reason of them all; the proliferation of powerlifting federations.
Are these prophets of misfortune right? Is powerlifting dying? Before we get there, let’s go through a quick historical view.
Picking heavy things up and putting them down has been around since the beginning of time. Powerlifting as a sport was born from this.
By the 1950s impromptu competitions were popping up in the gyms throughout the U.S. In 1958 the AAU recognized these as “odd lifts” and by 1965 the first national championships were held and by 1971 the AAU was hosting the first “World Championship.”
The desire for strongmen to be independent from Olympic lifting grew quickly and required international governess. In 1973 the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) was created and the sport was on its way.
Personally, if was watching the heavily edited 1977 World Championships and reading Terry Todd’s Inside Powerlifting that inspired me and a couple of friends to drop the demented and misguided Weider dream of bodybuilding and pursue powerlifting (and all its trappings).
A History Lesson on Powerlifting
The political winds of 1978 affected powerlifting in a big way. The Amateur Sport Act required that each sport recognized or seeking sports recognition by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) must have its own governing body so in 1980, the United States Powerlifting Federation (USPF) was founded.
The USPF was governed by an executive committee and rules enacted through an annual assembly of voting members. In retrospect, it is clear now that although powerlifters are strong, we were not initially the best at managing an organization. The USPF was inconsistent with rules administration and the organizations leaders were somewhat elitist.
The independent nature of powerlifters prompted change almost immediately. Brother Bennett formed the American Drug Free Powerlifting Association (ADFPA) in 1981, giving drug-free powerlifters a level platform. The following year, champion powerlifters Ernie Frantz and Larry Pacifico created the American Powerlifting Federation (APF) allowing open competition free from drug testing.
The USPF, as an IPF affiliate, took exception to the APF and sanctioned any lifter who participated in an APF event. This was not unilaterally supported within the hallowed halls of the elite over at the USPF however their president Conrad Cotter held his ground and began the process of sanctioning lifters from lifting in any APF meet. This prevented them from qualifying for the IPF world championship(s).
Ernie Frantz filed a federal lawsuit against the USPF and the IPF. The details of this lawsuit is online and reader beware – it’s boring as hell. Frantz eventually lost his suit against the USPF in a long, drawn out melodrama fight. Interestingly enough, the IPF was founded in judgment due to the organization’s refusal to show up. They (the IPF) didn’t give a shit and just stopped holding meets in the U.S.
This ego-centric crap dragged on from ’84 to ’87. I found myself a small player in the attempted recovery. In 1988 I was the New Mexico state chairman and one of two national athletes’ reps. Not a big deal by any stretch but as such I held two votes at the 1988 national assembly (held in coordination with the USPF Senior Nationals). I’m sitting in this meeting, watching national caliber lifters (who secured proxy votes from their respective state and/or region chairman) argue with Conrad Cotter and the executive committee as they tried to forge a path forward.
This was all done in a surreal setting following the gawd awful Robert’s Rules of Order. Three or four proposals were set forth on the floor that day including an umbrella organization where open and drug-free lifting existed in two sub-sets. Another proposed a life-time ban for any lifter who tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, and another proposal which virtually eliminated all testing in the U.S.
The mindset was if the IPF isn’t coming to the U.S. we’ll have our own rules and only comply once out of America. The setting was so dysfunctional it was laughable. As you can imagine… nothing, zip, nada was settled and the USPF continued to move forward with an air of arrogance.
By 1996 the IPF had endured enough. Brother Bennett saw the opportunity and petitioned the IPD as the sole U.S. representative. Thus, the ADFPA ceremonially changed their name to USA Powerlifting (USAPL).
It was during this time of adaptation that several powerlifting organizations sprung up. The trend continues today which spurs the mantra “powerlifting is dying.” Those soothsayers also site as an example of our dying sport, our inability to become an Olympic event.
They will state, erroneously I might add, that the IOC will never recognize powerlifting as a sport because “we have too many organizations.” Again, our arrogance shades the truth.
The IPF has representation in the World Games as an International World Games Association (IWGA) member. Basically, all sports competing in the world games that are NOT an Olympic sport. The IPF petition in 2008 and again in 2012 for IOC recognition was rejected primarily due to the IOC’s zero tolerance (doping policy). Other reasons have been noted as well: unequal male/female balance, and lack of participation in “all sports” games.
Is Powerlifting Dying?
All of this means butkus. Powerlifting is not dying due to lack of IOC recognition. Powerlifting is not dying from “too many federations.” Powerlifting is not dying because of multi-ply gear. Lastly, if powerlifting was dying from performance drug use, it would have died a miserable death by 1977.
The exact opposite is closer to the truth; powerlifting is alive and thriving more than ever. Why? One word: Choice. That was how powerlifting was founded. Strong men in the fifties wanted another choice (other than Olympic lifting and bodybuilding) in demonstrating their strength. They wanted a platform that tested unadulterated power.
The sport was created out of this desire. Federations are created out of choice. We have powerlifting federations that test regularly, and federations that don’t test at all. We have raw federations, multi-ply federations, and single-ply federations. We even have a push/pull federation. There are a few who will argue that we do not have one national championship. What would this favor, eleven lifters?
What we have done is created web-accessible Top 20 lists on Powerlifting Watch. We, as powerlifters, have created our own ranking system. We have created several online forums, developed several contrasting programs, built powerlifting only gyms, created our own lifting bars, chains, and bands, and written over one hundred e-books.
Powerlifting is independence by its own nature. In its simplest form it is leaving heavy things up and putting them down. A demonstration of strength. Strength is necessary for independence; strength is co-dependant with independence.
I argue that powerlifting will never die.
If in some bizarro world politicians John McCain and John Kerry petition to outlaw powerlifting – we would still secretly meet in basements and storage sheds just to see who can squat, bench, and deadlift the most.