Brian Oliver ©ITG

When Karoliina Lundahl first took up weightlifting in the 1980s it was a men-only sport dominated by Europe.

She had no idea about China - until women were given international recognition and she started competing against them. 

"It didn't matter who they sent, what their name was, they were going to beat us," said Lundahl, who competed for Finland at every International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Championships from 1993 to 2001.

Twice she won world titles, in 1994 when the Chinese "winner" was disqualified and in her own country in 1998 when her Chinese rival bombed out.

But Lundahl never once lifted a bigger total than a Chinese rival and on one occasion, in 1997, she finished 50 kilograms behind the winner, double weightlifter of the year Tang Weifang.

"At the World Championships we would all look at the entries to see if the letters CHN were there in our weight category, and if you didn't have one against you'd have a little celebration," she said.

"You'd say 'yes, I have a chance, there's no Chinese against me'.

"It wasn't the names we looked for, we didn't remember their names - I still can't remember the names of any Chinese lifters I competed against.

"It was just those letters, CHN."

In 1988, 1992 and 1996, the three Olympic years when women had their own World Championships but not yet a place on the Olympic Games programme, there were 27 world gold medals up for grabs, and 27 times the letters CHN were there against the winner's name.

Of the 10 gold medals at the 1986 World Championships, the last year for men only, seven went to Bulgaria, two to the Soviet Union and one to Romania in a clean sweep for the Soviet Bloc.

There was one silver medal followed by the letters CHN but since then the men, too, have made unstoppable progress, helping China to top the World Championships medals table 16 times this century and to establish a dominance that is almost embarrassing.

Since the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games Russia and Bulgaria between them have not won as many Olympic gold medals as weightlifters from Fujian province or Hunan province.

Chen Wenbin in his director's office at the IWF Fuzhou Training Centre ©CWF
Chen Wenbin in his director's office at the IWF Fuzhou Training Centre ©CWF

In the same time span, apart from Turkey every single European nation has been outscored in terms of Olympic gold not just by Fujian and Hunan, but also by Shandong, Guangdong, Guangxi and Zhejiang provinces.

Equally remarkably, only one male lifter from China has had a doping violation on the IWF's list of sanctions, which goes back to 2003.

There have been seven female doping violations, including three gold medallists at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, but overall China has a good record on doping, and unlike all the other high-achieving nations in weightlifting it does not have to worry about losing Olympic quota places for Tokyo 2020.

The Russians see their homeland as the birthplace of weightlifting.

The sport developed around the "Soviet system" of training in the middle years of the 20th century, before the controversial and punishing "Bulgarian system" became popular in the 1990s.

Maxim Agapitov, President of the Russian Weightlifting Federation, said: "The culture of weightlifting comes from Russia, from the Soviet countries, absolutely.

"So many countries learned from the Russian school of weightlifting."

But he also said, at the IWF World Cup in Fuzhou two weeks ago, where Chinese lifters set nine world records: "China has the best system in the world - better even than the Soviet Union in the past."

When a single province can outperform Europe's finest, when Russia says China's weightlifting programme is the best the world has seen, what is going on? Is there now a "Chinese system" and if so, how does it work?


Weightlifting, or similar demonstrations of strength involving the lifting of tripods, city gate bolts or stone barbells, has been around a long time in China; perhaps as long as 2,700 years according to the 1999 book Sport and Physical Education in China.

In modern times weightlifting and table tennis had a head start on other sports, as they respectively gave China its first world record holder in 1956, and first world champion in 1959.

When Chen Jingkai made that historic lift in Shanghai, taking the record from an American in a China v Soviet Union "friendship match", it led to the creation of a national training programme in the sport.

The Cultural Revolution put an end to sport in China for much of the 1960s and 1970s, and China did not join the International Olympic Committee until 1979, but the training structure was in place to make real progress in the 1980s.

In that decade women started training professionally, even before the first women's World Championships, and China won its first Olympic weightlifting medals - four golds at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, which were boycotted by Soviet Bloc nations.

Since then China has risen, at first slowly and then explosively, to the top of the sport.

Chen Wenbin is one of the most qualified people to explain what has happened in China since the 1980s.

Chen sits in his palatial director's office at the IWF Fuzhou Training Centre, built by the Fujian Weightlifting Association in 2005 and given IWF status in 2015 after years of hard work, planning and fund-raising.

The centre, built over 10 years, has 50 training stations, accommodation blocks for scores of athletes and coaches, dining rooms, ample space for research and administration, and other sports facilities.

Chinese weightlifters starting young at school ©CWF
Chinese weightlifters starting young at school ©CWF

Chen, 62, spreads his arms and says this office is "heaven" compared to the hell of his original training centre in the early 1990s, on the nearby island of Chuanshi.

His journey from then until now goes a long way to explaining why China dominates weightlifting - a journey that has featured, above all, hard work, but one that would have gone nowhere but for careful planning and management, state funding, effective recruitment and a ready supply of talent, especially from rural areas, harnessing science and technology with outstanding coaching, a healthy obsession with avoiding injury, and a development plan that starts at school with children aged 10.

Chen is known as "the gold medal coach" having trained three Olympic champions and six world champions individually, nine Olympic gold medallists as China's head coach, and hundreds of other winners at national and international level.

In his lifting career he was never higher than fourth in the national rankings, but as a coach he was "enriched by my own deficiencies" and became one of the sport's all-time greats.

From the age of 25 Chen studied coaching for two years at the Tianjin Institute of Physical Education, reading voraciously and working out ways in which he could have performed better as an athlete.

After a period of spectacular success in charge of the Fujian province team, he was deputy head coach of China's national men's team for four years and, from 2006 until his retirement in 2016, head coach.

A significant feature of Chen's legacy is the IWF Fuzhou Training Centre, of which he is director, which he hopes will be used in future by more foreign teams invited by the Chinese Weightlifting Association (CWA).

He wants to keep cooperating with the IWF in operating the centre, where he hopes to establish an international weightlifting school at which talented young lifters from all over the world would train and study.

He believes he led China's men's team longer than anybody before or since and said: "This is the period when the men's team achieved the most in medals and world records - and it was the period when what we called 'the Chinese system' was established."

Other renowned coaches, such as the Bulgarian Ivan Abadjiev and the Russians Arkady Vorobyov and Aleksey Medvedev, worked with teams that, like others at the time, used steroids to stay competitive.

Only one male Chinese lifter ever tested positive during Chen's entire time as head coach.

He is even more proud of the fact that Chinese lifters have avoided serious injury under his guidance.

Chen rose to prominence after Fujian failed badly at national level in 1993, leading sports administrators to consider cutting funding for weightlifting.

Instead they appointed Chen as Fujian's head coach after he promised glory at the next National Games.

Chen scouted out a potential new training base at a disused naval radar observatory on Chuanshi Island, a 40-minute boat ride from the mainland of Fuzhou.

It was extremely basic, in need of repair, inaccessible...just what Chen wanted for a fresh start.

"Everyone must be prepared to overcome all difficulties," he said.

He asked for military assistance and in June 1995 the army's Haiphong 11 Brigade provided two landing craft and two trucks to haul the weightlifting equipment, and bedding, up to the top of the steep hill where the team would be based, in an old barracks.

The electricity was turned on and, after a week of collecting rain in plastic sheets and basins, the water supply followed.

There was one colour television, no entertainment, one shop on the whole island, one public telephone down at the dockside, none of the trappings of city life - the ideal surroundings for Chen to focus the minds of his team of about 40 weightlifters and coaches on hard work and committed training.

Chen Wenbin at China's island training base in the 1990s ©CWF
Chen Wenbin at China's island training base in the 1990s ©CWF

Now, as then, most of China's best weightlifters are from rural areas, usually from a poor background.

"Those from a wealthy background reach a certain level then stop, they don't work as hard," said Chen.

"Coming from a poor background is important because training is very hard, very tough and can also be very boring.

"We need people who can cope with that."

The athletes and coaches would take turns to help out the lone chef in the kitchen, dig pits to make training areas, repair walls, plant trees, and eventually help to lay a concrete road up the hill, replacing a rocky track that was too steep and slippery for vehicles when it rained.

Doors and windows were badly damaged by typhoons, living conditions were spartan, and when more lifters came to train, some would have to sleep in home-made tented areas. 

Chen was hard on any transgressors. A youth world champion who did not run as fast or train as hard as others was kicked out of the team, as were three members who left camp to drink beer one night.

He punished anybody who was late for training, and banned drinking, smoking and "falling in love".

The training regime on Chuanshi Island began to work: after 1996 it would produce world champions, Olympic champions and world record holders. Fujian won six successive men's national championships.

Three of Fujian's Olympic champions trained at Chanshui Island - Shi Zhiyong, the 2004 men's 62kg winner, Zhang Guozheng, the current head coach of China's women's team and the 2004 men's 69kg champion, and Zhang Xiangxiang, the winner in 2008 in the men’s 62kg.

The other two Fujian Olympic champions were based at the Fuzhou centre, Lin Qingfeng, the 2012 winner in the men's 69kg, and Deng Wei, the 2016 winner in the women's 63kg.


Chen was was determined from the outset not to copy existing training patterns or to base his work "on the footprints of others".

When he became head coach of Fujian - which, remember, has produced more Olympic champions than any European nation this century - he changed the hours of training, with two shorter and more intense sessions in the afternoon, added rest periods during sessions, and adjusted the intensity and density of training.

Lifters have a massage before and after training sessions, and they always have a team doctor on hand to deal with minor ailments.

After their lifting exertions they step away from the barbell for exercises that have nothing to do with lifting but will improve specific muscles.

"There must be new ideas, new methods," Chen said.

He wanted more scientific support, which led to the recruitment of Cao Wenyuan as a specialist analyst. He also wanted his lifters to be clean, and to avoid injury.

Cao, who studied in Budapest more than 50 years ago with the IWF President, Tamás Aján, and sat on the IWF Science and Research Committee in the 1990s, has been described as "the lifeblood of Chinese weightlifting, a lasting partner" for his analytical research work with the national team.

The track up to the the training centre on Chanshui Island ©CWF
The track up to the the training centre on Chanshui Island ©CWF

He and his colleagues developed the Weightlifting Technique Diagnosing System, which is more advanced than any other in the world for on-the-spot measurement of a lifter's every movement, the speed, trajectory and height of lift and the displacement front and back.

Chen worked on refining technique with elite lifters and teenagers, some of whom were analysed by Cao's system in Fuzhou on the World Cup platform.

Cao is now planning to use the analytic system with lifters as young as 10.

Ma Wenguang, the former IWF general secretary who was President of the CWA, once said: "Master Cao has been working hard and contributing to China's weightlifting, behind the scenes, for half his life."

"Our system is mostly focused on perfecting technique - we want to be precise," said Chen.

"That's why we wanted a diagnostic system, to help with precision, and with injury prevention - it is why Cao Wenyuan is so important to us."

The scientific analysis, rather than a coach's gut instinct or the athlete's preference, will be used in deciding, for example, whether a lifter is better off using a split jerk or the less popular power jerk or push jerk favoured by the likes of Li Dayin and Lu Xiaojun.

"In our provincial and national teams around 20 per cent use the power jerk, and we do have quite a lot doing it who perform well at world level," said Chen.

"The coach will decide, and here again we will benefit from data analysis.

"The choice of technique may depend on having really good balance, and the coach can measure that.

"In the past a coach would use his or her own eye - now we can use our sophisticated analysis system too."

Until Cao, who was deputy director of China's National Institute of Sports Science, teamed up with Chen in the 1990s there was no such analytic assistance.

"For 30 years, weightlifting was dominated by the Soviet system, whose characteristics were a high volume of training," said Chen.

"In the 1980s and 1990s there was a move towards the Bulgarian system, which was more intense, with more maximum lifts in training.

"In the 90s coaches tried to adopt the Bulgarian system in China and failed - it was not working and they did not know why.

"They found out at Sydney 2000 [from which the entire Bulgaria team was expelled in a doping scandal] - you had to be doping to do it.

The dream team of Chen Wenbin, right, and master scientist Cao Wenyuan ©CWF
The dream team of Chen Wenbin, right, and master scientist Cao Wenyuan ©CWF

"There was then a great focus in China to avoid doping, and our administration has always been serious about that."

Asked about the Beijing 2008 retrospective violations, which cost Chinese women three gold medals, Chen said: "There are so many coaches, and there will always be an exception, one will try to take a risk.

"We have different measures to protect athletes, and there is more and more internal testing."

Zhou Jinqiang, President of the CWA, said China has in place a registration system similar to the global whereabouts database managed by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

"Weightlifters can improve without doping - we have shown that," said Chen.

"If there is a Chinese system it is based on a reasonable combination of the Soviet and Bulgarian systems, using the physics of both, and on scientific analysis."

The horrors of injuries to weightlifters were laid bare by the Russian lifter Yuri Vlasov, a 1960 Olympic champion, in an interview for the Lift Up Olympic weightlifting website in the 1980s.

"I wasn't just ill, I was dying," Vlasov said.

"First, I lost senses in my legs - the result of the spine injury on the platform.

"The pain forced me to squat every half-an-hour as if I was trying to tie my shoelaces.

"Then, later on, the brain spasms began ­- the doctors said there is no cure for that.

"Then, it was diabetes.

"Then I was coming down with one flu after another - it was a torture.

"I lived with fever all the time and couldn't sleep more than two hours a day.

"I didn't want to live."

Vlasov survived, but Chen is well aware of the long-term effects of serious injury and strongly believes that weightlifting training should have lifelong health benefits.

He was determined to find ways to make sure Chinese lifters did not suffer as Vlasov did.

"Those injuries created a lot of problems for lifters after retirement, they influenced the rest of their lives," he said.

"Over a period of 20 years when I was a national team coach, we had almost no serious injuries to national team lifters.

"I cannot stress enough the importance of avoiding injury.

Athens 2004 Olympic champion Shi Zhiyong trains at Chuanshi Island ©CWF
Athens 2004 Olympic champion Shi Zhiyong trains at Chuanshi Island ©CWF

"In China the rhythm of the training is very important - the volume and intensity are very distinctive.

"Human strength won't be improved much in future - we are almost at the limit.

"Improvement in weightlifting performance will depend more on science, technique, rehabilitation, and protection from injury."


Starting young is another key element of the Chinese system.

In Fujian province alone, Chen said, there are 2,000 to 3,000 children training regularly after school, aged from 10 upwards.

"At each school children train after lessons," he said.

"They are given one piece of bread and a carton of milk - there are 40 to 50 lifters per school.

"It is very important to work on technique with the young starters, to try to perfect technique when they are young."

The best children will go to specialist sports schools, where they will try to make the provincial team and eventually the national team.

Fujian also has about 100 coaches, full-time and part-time, of whom 30 to 40 per cent are female; and a full-time team of 70 to 80 lifters.

How much all this costs is anybody's guess, as China does not disclose the level of state investment in Olympic sport.

The salary paid to full-time athletes is not believed to be high, though winning gold medals, especially at the Olympic Games, can make weightlifters wealthy.

The sports industry in China was reported by Forbes last year to be growing much faster that the general economy, and the country believes there are many benefits to be gained from investing heavily in Olympic sport.

The precise number of serious weightlifters in China goes up and down and is not known, but it is in the tens of thousands, mostly from rural areas.

Table-tennis, badminton, football and basketball are way more popular as participation sports but weightlifting holds up well in terms of television viewers for national championships and the National Games, said CWA President Zhou.

"You won't find Olympic champions in Beijing and Shanghai" is a commonly held view. What you will find in those cities, though, is a growing number of young people for whom fitness is an important part of their lifestyle.

The CWA has a very strong bedrock of coaches and potential lifters in rural areas ­- "especially in remote areas, weightlifting is an important way to change your life," said Zhou ­- but it also wants to recruit young people from the cities to raise awareness of the sport.

The CWA has staged competitions in shopping malls to reach a new audience, and the London 2012 silver medallist Wu Jingbiao is playing his part.

While the man who beat him in London, the North Korean Om Yon Chol, is hoping to be on the podium again at Tokyo 2020, Wu has set up his own weightlifting club.

"He has done a lot of sessions for white-collar workers to learn about weightlifting in Beijing and Shanghai," said  Zhou.

"There have been so many changes in the new technology age in the 21st century, there are so many sports and games for kids to choose from.

"We are planning for the future, trying to exert more influence in the mass fitness movement, thinking of ways to combine fitness and weightlifting to help with development."

Wu is not the only Olympic medallist helping with planning, coaching and management - it seems nearly all of China's champions are still involved in the sport.

Yang Xia, China's first female gold medallist in 2000, is now a senior sports administrator ©CWF
Yang Xia, China's first female gold medallist in 2000, is now a senior sports administrator ©CWF

Olympic gold medallist Shi Zhiyong is working on an exercise routine to help children with their posture, Wu has his mission in the cities, Zhang Guozheng is head coach of the national women's team and many more have senior roles in coaching and sports administration.

Yang Xia, China's first-ever female Olympic gold medallist in weightlifting, at Sydney 2000, said: "I came from nothing to be an Olympic champion.

"The reason China is so good is step-by-step progress, training hard at every level - it took me seven years in the province team to make the national team."

Yang retired in 2002 and wanted to "give something back to the sport". She is now head of the Hunan Provincial Weightlifting Administration Centre.

A future in coaching or administration may lie ahead for Deng Wei, a winner at Rio 2016 and China's biggest favourite for another Olympic title at Tokyo 2020.

Asked why China was so much better than everyone else, Deng simplified the "Chinese system" to this: "We have more people, so we have more children in the sport.

"We start young, and all the way through we have very, very good coaches."