Brian Oliver

Next weekend more than 300 weightlifters will take part in an online competition in the United States, American Open Series 3.

"I think it is the largest ‘live’ electronic competition in any sport," says Phil Andrews, who holds senior roles at three of the organisations that have done so much to promote online contests during the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), the Pan American Weightlifting Federation (PAWF) and USA Weightlifting.

AO3, as it is known, will also be the first online competition to use two platforms simultaneously.

"It’s the only way to finish the competition over two days with that many athletes," says Andrews.

During September planning will begin for another online competition that could draw a large entry - the Youth World Cup, a global event that will be hosted virtually by Peru, original host nation for the 2020 IWF Youth World Championships.

The Youth World Championships were cancelled, the sport’s latest victim of a pandemic that has knocked 33 events off the IWF calendar since early March, when the last "live" international lift was made.

As the gap between the last live lift and the next grows ever longer - it will be at least 258 days - weightlifting’s online formats become ever more important.

The IWF technology team, led by Zoltán Veres, worked with the PAWF to stage a successful online competition in mid-July - the first such event on the international calendar - then made some improvements for the next virtual event organised by Uzbekistan last weekend.

Nobody thinks online weightlifting is a substitute for the real thing, and because of challenges with anti-doping and officiating - most notably with weigh-ins - results do not count in Olympic qualifying or for records.

But imagine if it did not exist, if a weightlifter’s life was just training and more training with no competition in sight.

Elite teenagers for whom 258 days is a very long time might easily become disillusioned if there was no chance of competing.

"For weightlifting promotion it’s great, a unique chance for young athletes to compete against rivals from other countries," says Milan Mihajlović, a member of the IWF Technical Committee and President of the Serbian Weightlifting Federation.

Weightlifters from around the world have been taking part in online competitions to help fill the void left by COVID-19, including athletes from 30 countries in an event organised by Uzbekistan ©ITG
Weightlifters from around the world have been taking part in online competitions to help fill the void left by COVID-19, including athletes from 30 countries in an event organised by Uzbekistan ©ITG

"The concept of online tournaments to keep lifters motivated during this pandemic is a good one," says Paul Coffa, general secretary of the Oceania Weightlifting Federation, which has been staging online email competitions far longer than other continents.

Nicu Vlad, chair of the IWF Technical Committee, is due to address all Oceania nations in an online seminar tomorrow.

He says the IWF’s experience of staging the Pan American and Uzbekistan events will lead to further improvements for the Youth World Cup.

There has been plenty to complain about, for those who like to complain, in some of the early efforts: poor picture quality from some parts of the world; not enough information on the scoreboard and not enough sights of it for the viewer; athletes missing lifts through time-outs because they and their coaches have not read the rules; lifeless announcing and atmosphere when the maestro, Richard Mason, has been absent.

But the first effort by the PAWF was admirable given the time constraints, and attracted entries from 15 nations.

Uzbekistan was another big step up, with 30 nations represented, because of improvements in presentation and because the quality of some of the lifting was sensational.

"It’s amazing what we have been able to achieve as a team - it’s a pretty cool thing to be involved in," says Bowen Stuart, technology and communications manager at the Australian Weightlifting Federation and a key member of Veres’ team.

As time goes by there will be further technological improvements and ever better presentation. And when the pandemic is over, online weightlifting may well be here to stay.

Bowen describes online competitions as "weightlifting’s Twenty20 - short, sharp, bang, bang, bang" - a comparison to the shortened version of cricket which has proved so popular in recent years.

Sessions last about an hour, with none of the "dead time" between lifts that can suck some of the life out of a live event.

The two priorities are making it work for the athlete and making it engaging for the viewer.

Athletes have had to adapt to a different format of "rounds" where the order of lifting is predetermined, which removes some of the tactical variables, but makes things more manageable for all involved.

The online weightlifting competitions even have their own virtual medal ceremony ©ITG
The online weightlifting competitions even have their own virtual medal ceremony ©ITG

A big challenge for the American Open team is using the traditional progressive format, lightest to heaviest with short-notice changes.

In a single nation that may work well enough but it is too soon to do it worldwide so the "rounds" are likely to return for the Youth World Cup.

Formats, presentation, picture quality and so on can all be improved but there are two challenges facing the IWF that appear more daunting.

First there is verifying the weigh-in.

"With regards to bodyweights, we just have to trust that coaches and lifters are telling the truth," says Coffa.

"If they do lie about it, when normal competitions resume it will be obvious from their performances if they have misled with the bodyweights."

Refereeing the lifts remotely has gone better than some predicted, and with so many qualified officials available there does not appear to be a significant problem.

The other big challenge is doping, or rather testing.

If all athletes from any given nation lifted at the same place as, for example, China’s team did from their national training centre in the Uzbekistan Cup, in-competition testing would be a lot easier.

While there are so many travel restrictions and quarantine regulations in various countries, though, it is a big challenge.

"Doping is something else completely," says Coffa.

"How can you be tested if your country does not allow anybody to come in because of lockdowns?

"Lifters from many countries, if they wanted to during this pandemic period, could do anything."

Online competitions at the moment do not qualify as Olympic qualifying events but could that change if the coronavirus pandemic continues into next year? ©ITG
Online competitions at the moment do not qualify as Olympic qualifying events but could that change if the coronavirus pandemic continues into next year? ©ITG

The 308 entrants for the American Open will be subject to testing.

Random athletes will be chosen and testers will turn up at their home or their gym to do their work.

"That’s doable in one country but doing it for 193 countries is a different matter," says Andrews.

That’s not to say it cannot be done – and certainly if there is an end to the pandemic, and if online competitions remain a part of weightlifting’s future, you can be sure it will be done.

"When the coronavirus finishes, the IWF should continue with these online events," says Mihajlović.

"I don’t think virtual competitions will go away after COVID, but I don’t think they’ll replace the real thing either," says Stuart.

What if COVID does not "go away" in time for live qualifying competitions to take place before Olympic qualifying ends on April 30, or if its effects still prevent many nations sending teams to other parts of the world?

Some athletes might be free to rack up more qualifying points while others are forced to stay at home. Is that fair?

Might it be possible to have official competitions online?

"Of course I hope we return to in-person competition sooner rather than later," says Andrews, "but yes, it’s possible.

"We have to figure a way of getting across the bridges of anti-doping and the issues around the weigh-in. They are solvable issues.

"It’s possible, but we’re not there yet."

Theoretically, would it be better to go ahead with a person-to-person live competition knowing that, say, one in five nations could not compete because of COVID-19, or to take the whole thing online and make it count for qualifying?

"It’s a question that philosophically we’re going to have to answer, but I’m not sure we have an answer yet," says Andrews.

"We have to look at things event by event.

"If in-person events are possible on a continental or regional level because there are sufficient travel possibilities and safety precautions then great, go ahead.

"In the future, it may be possible to put together online events to the level needed for Olympic Qualification, but we aren’t there yet and the approved procedure shows like-for-like events taking place between December and April to decide who will appear in weightlifting in Tokyo."