Attila Adamfi ©IWF

We all know that weightlifting was already on the programme of the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. At that time - and for many years more - only men competed in the sport.

But you may be surprised to learn that the women's participation was banned by law. The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) constitution included a paragraph that weightlifting "is a sport for men only". 

Then, in the 1980s, things started to change.

Prior to the Congress in 1983, a movement advocating the participation of women in weightlifting started to spread from the United States. Its flagbearer was Judy Glenney, who made it clear that unless the IWF gave recognition to women an independent Women's International Weightlifting Federation would be founded.

Following negotiations, in 1983, Dr. Tamás Aján, then general secretary of the IWF, lit the sparkle that started women's weightlifting's long journey. Upon his proposal, on October 20, 1983, the IWF Executive Board in Moscow approved to include in the rules the control of women’s weightlifting in nine bodyweight categories: 44 kilograms, 48kg, 52kg, 56kg, 60kg, 67.5kg, 75kg, 82.5kg, and over-82.5kg

It was necessary to introduce women’s weightlifting in the framework of an international tournament, so - thanks to the efforts of the IWF Secretariat with Anikó Németh-Móra already there and playing an active role - on March 23, 1986 the first international weightlifting competition for women was organised in Budapest, Hungary with the participation of 23 athletes from five countries.

The tournament was a great success and now new ambitions were pointing towards the World Championships. After a proposal by IWF President Gottfried Schödl and the general secretary, in close cooperation with the USA Weightlifting Federation, the first World Championships for Women were held in Daytona Beach, Florida, from October 30 to November 1, 1987. Exactly 100 athletes from 22 countries took part. Cai Jun of China became the first women's world champion in the 44kg category.

In 1991, in Donaueschingen, Germany, the first World Championships for both men and women were held.

New bodyweight categories were then set in 1993: 46kg, 50kg, 54kg, 59kg, 64kg, 70kg, 76kg, 83kg and over-83kg.

Warsaw in Poland hosted the first Junior World Championships for women held together with men in 1995, and on December 13, 1996, Aján submitted the request to accept women to the Olympic Games weightlifting programme.  

Tara Nott became the first female Olympic weightlifting champion ©Getty Images
Tara Nott became the first female Olympic weightlifting champion ©Getty Images

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to include women’s weightlifting as of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games with seven bodyweight categories, increasing the number of events from 10 - only men - to 15 - eight for men and seven for women.

In 1997, the women's bar was introduced and in 1998, in Ramat Gan in Israel, the first World Championships for University and College students were organised where women were already included.

New bodyweight categories were set: 48kg, 53kg, 58kg, 63kg, 69kg, 75kg and over 75kg.

From here on, at any new competition introduced or one where weightlifting was included, women were an integral part. 

At Sydney 2000, 85 athletes from 47 countries took part as women's competitions were included for the first time at the Olympics. Tara Nott from the US became the first Olympic champion. Following the Games, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch declared that women brought new colour into the sport and their participation would entail a skyrocketing progress.

On December 8, 2000, Greece's Fanny Zora was elected as the first female member of the IWF Executive Board, as assistant secretary together with the general secretary with no voting right.

The IWF, especially through its Technical Committee, has applied policies and measures and changed its rules and guidelines increasingly promoting the nomination, the education and the selection of female technical officials at all levels of competitions, including the Olympic Games. 

Celsa Alvarez Suárez of Spain became the first female referee and chair of the Women’s Commission. In 2004, Reiko Chinen of Japan became the first female President of Jury at the Athens Olympic Games.

In Manchester in 2002, the first Commonwealth Games were organised featuring women's weightlifting and in 2007 the International University Sports Federation (FISU) appointed Anikó Németh-Móra as chairperson for weightlifting in the World University Championships International Technical Commission.

At the Beijing 2008 Olympics, China's Yan Wang served as the first female sport manager at the Games.

The issue of the eighth bodyweight category for women was included in a working plan by Australia's Sam Coffa, chairman of the IWF Technical Committee, in 2009. On June 27, 2011, IWF rules were modified regarding uniform and headgear, enabling Muslim women to compete.

In December 2012 in Baku in Azerbaijan, proposed by the IWF President, the new IWF constitution approved a secured and elected position for women on the Executive Board.

Women's events are now an integral part of weightlifting ©Getty Images
Women's events are now an integral part of weightlifting ©Getty Images

Moira Lassen of Canada was elected as the first female Executive Board member with full power in 2013. She chairs the IWF Women’s Commission.

In 2014, the IOC's Agenda 2020 approved including a recommendation to foster gender equality, achieve 50 per cent female participation in the Olympic Games and to stimulate women’s participation and involvement in sport.

This recommendation gave new impetus to achieving gender equality in weightlifting - for this reason the evaluation of the possible introduction of a further bodyweight category began

In 2015, the IOC approved the IWF’s proposal to add an additional category to the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, in order to reach full gender equality in the athletes’ quota and the number of bodyweight categories.

It has to be seen as a huge achievement considering the IOC’s usual approach not to increase the number of events at the Games. This success gave us the courage to go further and to consider the introduction of the eighth bodyweight category for women.

In April last year at the SportAccord Convention in Lausanne, the IWF agreed in principle on the inclusion of the eighth women’s bodyweight category to the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, these being the first multi-sport Games to confirm the additional category on the programme.

A few days later the author of this article had the first discussion with the IOC Sport Department on the possible inclusion of the eighth women’s category at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games in order to reach gender equality.

Following further extensive discussions at individual and institutional levels, the Women’s Commission’s survey, and the full support of the Committees and the Executive Board, on June 24, 2016 the IWF Congress unanimously approved to introduce an additional bodyweight category for women in order to have the same number of categories for both women and men. 

Elaborating on the decision, the IWF Secretariat conducted a thorough analysis of the over-75kg athletes’ bodyweights in our database back to 1998. 

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics could feature an equal number of events for men and women ©Getty Images
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics could feature an equal number of events for men and women ©Getty Images

Based on the statistics and considering further sport specific factors, the IWF Executive Board decided to introduce 90kg and over-90kg for juniors and seniors and 75kg and over-75kg for youth at a meeting in September.

With only one day difference, 33 years after the first step of women’s weightlifting, on October 19, 2016, the IWF Congress unanimously ratified the introduction of the eighth bodyweight category for women. 

The Congress also approved the article in the Constitution to provide a vice president position to women - additionally, besides the already existing Executive Board member.

This year's Universiade in Taipei, Taiwan, and the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia are already confirmed to include the 90kg and over-90kg bodyweight categories in their programme.

Thirty years after the first World Championships for women, the IWF World Championships returns to the United States, with the 2017 edition being organised in Anaheim under the leadership of Ursula Papandrea, President of USA Weightlifting.

The programme, with the possible inclusion of the eighth category, for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games is under coordination with the IOC, and we hope that having a woman as Governor of Tokyo, the former President of the Japanese Weightlifting Association Yuriko Koike, and a female sport manager in Chinen will not only help to achieve gender equality at the Games but also demonstrate that gender should not be a disadvantage anymore. The IWF is an organisation endorsing equal possibilities for female leaders in key positions within or outside of the sport.

We shall not rest on our laurels and celebrate our success, but draw on strength to continue our common efforts to further develop our sport, both for men and women without any distinction.