Brian Oliver

In a year of landmark achievements in women's weightlifting, there was one occurrence that might have escaped the attention of those who focus only on results.

It was the publication a few weeks ago of a book called Uplifting Dreams, a very readable account of one woman's struggle to gain acceptance for herself and for women generally in a sport that was, at the time, for men only.

It is written by Judy Glenney, who with her fellow American Murray Levin was a pioneer for women's weightlifting in the 1970s and 1980s.

Without them, there would have been no women competing alongside men for world and Olympic medals, or at least not as soon as 1991 and 2000, respectively.

Women are, in most countries, welcome in weightlifting now, and a quick look at what has happened in 2019 might suggest that all is well in terms of gender equality, an important feature of the Olympic Charter.

The first athlete of either gender to pass the 5,000-point mark in Olympic qualifying was China’s Deng Wei, who has set 17 world records in 14 months and would be a worthy winner of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) female weightlifter of the year award.

Deng faces a strong challenge from Kate Nye, the junior and senior world champion at 71 kilograms who has a good chance of becoming the first United States lifter to win the award, male or female.

Judy Glenney's book documents women in the predominantly-male world of weightlifting ©Judy Glenney
Judy Glenney's book documents women in the predominantly-male world of weightlifting ©Judy Glenney

Progress made in the Middle East region has been arguably more significant than any individual achievements.

For the first time, Iran sent a female team to the IWF World Championships, in Thailand in September, and Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti women won medals for the first time ever, at the Gulf and West Asian Championships and the recent Arab Championships.

All of that is great news for weightlifting, but before anybody gets carried away they might want to ask: why has it taken so long?

China and the United States took women’s weightlifting seriously way back in the 1980s, Colombia’s many medals this century have been shared by men and women, and in entry numbers Russia, Canada, Italy, Ukraine and Britain are all well balanced, or slightly biased towards females.

Some of the others are stuck in the dark ages when it comes to gender equality, and by no means all of them are from the Islamic world.

For example Georgia, home of super-heavyweight hero Lasha Talakhadze, seems never to have engaged with women’s weightlifting.

The total number of male entries by Georgia in the youth, junior and senior IWF World Championships this century, according to statistics provided by North Yard Analytics in the US, is 108; for women it is seven.

The numbers for Cuba are nearly as imbalanced, 63 males to five females - which makes Ludia Montero’s silver medal at the IWF World Championships another major highlight of 2019.

That was the first World Championships medal won by a woman from Cuba, a country where boxing is still a men-only sport and where, says Montero, "people will tell you, for no reason, that weights deform women's bodies, that they make you lose femininity and beauty".

Ursula Papandrea chairs the IWF Women's Commission ©YouTube
Ursula Papandrea chairs the IWF Women's Commission ©YouTube

The North Yard statistics show that in Europe, surprisingly, Germany and Czech Republic have a strong bias in favour of men, along with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Albania.

Whether for cultural or practical reasons, many African countries simply do not engage with women’s weightlifting.

There is so much more to be done, and Ursula Garza Papandrea, chair of the IWF Women’s Commission and a great admirer of Glenney, is on the case.

Papandrea, President of USA Weightlifting, has been working on a plan for years, and even before she was elected as Women’s Commission chair in 2017 she had meetings with Sally Roberts, who has done so much to encourage girls into wrestling in the US and beyond.

Roberts, a US Army combat veteran and twice a world medallist in her sport, founded the successful Wrestle Like a Girl programme to "empower girls and women through the sport of wrestling to become leaders in life".

For Papandrea the cultural challenges in certain parts of the world are clear: the main practical problems are lack of money, facilities and equipment, and a severe shortage of female coaches.

Last February Papandrea and her fellow IWF Executive Board member Karoliina Lundahl, from Finland, ran a "train the trainers" course - supported by equipment manufacturer Eleiko - in Sweden at which 14 women earned the eligibility to teach the IWF level one and two courses.

In February 2020 Papandrea is planning to organise coaching courses in Uzbekistan, two cities in Iraq, and Dubai.

In the more distant future she hopes to host training camps in Africa, which "may be a more daunting task due to the sheer size of the continent and the lack of activity in most countries".

Deng Wei became the first weightlifter, male or female, to pass the 5,000-point mark in Olympic qualification ©Getty Images
Deng Wei became the first weightlifter, male or female, to pass the 5,000-point mark in Olympic qualification ©Getty Images

Last year Papandrea played a role in the launch of a women’s development programme in Iran, where weightlifting had previously been a men-only sport.

It is already a success: last month, at the Naim Suleymanoglu Olympic qualifying tournament in Turkey, Elham Hosseini became Iran’s first female medallist in international competition.

Results can clearly be achieved but, says Papandrea: "The most important part will be support from the IWF and these discussions still need to take place.

"The will from these host countries (Uzbekistan, Iraq, UAE) is strong, though.

"The mission as I see it is to increase women's participation from athlete to coach and team leaders.

"The intended result is to create more women leaders on all levels in the sport worldwide, from member federation to continental and IWF Executive Boards."

Achieving true gender equality, not just in competition entries but in terms of opportunities available in all nations, is the next big challenge nearly half a century on from Glenney and Levin's efforts, and they know better than anyone that it is likely to take decades.

The work is underway, though, and if 2019 was a good year for women’s weightlifting, 2020 and beyond will hopefully be even better.