By the Numbers: 2017 World Weightlifting Championships Analysis

The absence of ten dominating countries had interesting effects on the overall field.

Weightlifting attempt percentages

The 2017 Worlds are now history. With 10 of the sport’s superpowers absent, there were bound to be some interesting side stories. I covered some of the Highlights 2017 World Weightlifting Championships previously, but now I would like to look at the stats behind the stories. There were 358 athletes who competed in Los Angeles; 202 men and 156 women spread over eight bodyweight categories each, including the new 90kg women’s category.

The 2017 Worlds are now history. With 10 of the sport’s superpowers absent, there were bound to be some interesting side stories. I covered some of the Highlights 2017 World Weightlifting Championships previously, but now I would like to look at the stats behind the stories. There were 358 athletes who competed in Los Angeles; 202 men and 156 women spread over eight bodyweight categories each, including the new 90kg women’s category. Let’s look at some ratios that may tell a story or two, starting with the ratio of the two lifts to one another.

Snatch to Jerk Ratio

In decades past, the ideal ratio of snatch to clean and jerk was around 78%, give or take a percent or so. Looking at all of the competitors, we see that the average this year is up slightly, to 80.5%. This continues a trend that started some years ago.

An extra 2% might not sound like much, but it will add 5kg on a 200 total. That still may not sound like much, but it has to be remembered that competitions are extremely tight. This extra margin can mean the difference between medalling and being an also-ran. If a lifter’s snatch lags, it means a major deficit that has to be overcome in the jerk. That will not always be possible, since the days of one-lift specialists are over. One has to be good at both, or else they are just handicapping themselves in a tight competition. Here is what the various sex-bodyweight categories did:

Snatch-to-Jerk Percetanges

Cat Women Cat Men
48kg 79.1 56kg 79.4
43kg 78.5 62kg 81.1
58kg 79.9 69kg 81.3
63kg 80.7 77kg 80.7
69kg 78.5 85kg 80.3
75kg 79.4 94kg 81.4
90kg 79.8 105kg 81.5
90+ 79.0 105+ 81.2
Avg 79.4 Avg 80.9

This all points to the constant need to perfect technique, especially in the snatch. The snatch is more important now, due to the change in the final placing rules. Lifters can no longer win on lighter bodyweight; they have to lift more, or at least lift the same amount, sooner. The better one’s snatch, the less one will need to jerk in order to make a certain total. Anyone who snatched less that still wants to win will have to jerk more. That situation is psychologically more difficult for any lifter. It’s better to have a nice cushion going into the more demanding clean and jerk.

How the Snatch Fell Behind

Of special interest is the new world record 220kg snatch made by super heavy Lasha Talakhadze of Georgia. Compared with his 257kg clean and jerk, he scores 85.6%, very high for any category, but especially a super. Back in the heyday of the immortal Vasily Alexeev, now a solid four decades ago, he did 187.5kg and 256kg, both world records at the time. The snatch has moved a full 32.5 kilos, while the jerk has stagnated.

This leads us to question the apparent asymmetric progress. Some can be explained by the lack of attention given to the snatch before 1972. Back then, there were three events in a weightlifting competition: the clean and press, the snatch, and the clean and jerk. It was very economical for Alexeev and others to concentrate on the press and jerk in training, since one would follow in the other’s slipstream. The snatch took a lot of work to produce less improvement. Since the press was eliminated, the big men can no longer rely on starting the contest with a big press. Today, you have to make do with a big snatch to start, so that lift had to be improved for anyone to stay in the running. That is the “numerator reason” for the ratio improvement.

Now let’s look at the “denominator reason.” Lasha won with room to spare, only jerking 257kg. Few doubted that he could have done more, if need be. He had the contest wrapped up with apparently conservative attempts. If he could have put up a 265kg jerk, that would have given him an 83% ratio, closer to the modern standard.

This directs us to look at Lasha’s height. While I do not have an exact height for him, he appears to be taller than many supers. Taller lifters (i.e., high height-to-weight ratios) tend to do relatively better in the snatch, due to torque-driven leverage. More compact lifters will not snatch so much, in most cases. So while Talakhadze looks good for more in the jerk, I am not sure he will do as well as a stockier lifter would. As the world has renewed hope for seeing that elusive 600lb jerk, it is not at all certain that the big Georgian will be the one to eventually do it.

Successful Attempts

Coaches always advise lifters to total first, and then to get as many successful lifts in as possible. Too many lifters seem to think they might as well start high. Though some risk-takers are successful with this approach, the result is often either a bomb-out, or only two successful lifts. Once a lifter has missed a lift, he or she is over a barrel. They have to try the same lift again, while the memory of failing with it is still fresh. Even if their second attempt is successful, they now only have one lift left to make up any deficits.

Contrast this with the lifter who starts somewhat more conservatively, but is successful. Their second attempt will then go much easier, while they bask in the glow of success. A third attempt at a PR will then have a better chance of success. Does this approach actually work? Here is what happened at the worlds:

Attempt Sucesses on Both Lifts

Snatch Clean & Jerk
1st 2nd 3rd 1st 2nd 3rd
Women 74.5 61.4 37.4 80.0 69.2 41.3
Men 68.4 49.2 35.5 68.3 50.8 26.1
Both 71.2 54.8 36.4 75.5 62.1 37.6

The stats above show this clearly. All is what would be expected. A large percentage of lifters make their first attempt. They need to get on the board first, before they can think of placing. Second attempts are less successful, barely over half. By the time the third attempt rolls around, lifters are taking a shot at a PR, or close to it. This, combined with the stress of world competition, results in a lot of misses. Others will miss while gambling on making up deficits. This is especially true in the clean and jerk. The contest is nearly over, so more risks must be taken if the previous lifts didn`t go as planned.

There were 942 lifts attempted in the entire competition. 460 of them (52%) were successful. This proves the adage that half of all lifts will be failures. Things get more interesting when we break them down by sex. We find that women attempted 438 lifts and made 266 of them (60.7%), while the men made 224 out of 504 attempts (44.4%). It would appear that the male fields, being deeper, resulted in the men having to take more risks in their attempt choices. They would be tempted to start higher, and so would miss more often. Women could take things a tiny bit easier.

How Much Did the Suspensions Affect Results?

With ten leading countries absent, it was inevitable that medals would be won with significantly lower totals, at least in some categories. I wanted to know what the winners’ totals were, as a percentage of the world records. I also thought it would be interesting to look at the 10th place finishers, as an indicator of the competitiveness of the field as a whole. In normal years, winners would be close to the 100% level, but in 2017, they showed the following results:

Percentage of World Records – 1st and 10th Places

Cat World Record 1st Place % 10th Place %
48kg 217 194 89.4 169 77.9
43kg 233 210 90.1 183 78.5
58kg 252 240 95.2 194 77.0
63kg 262 237 90.5 204 77.9
69kg 276 239 86.6 215 77.9
75kg 296 258 87.2 222 75.0
90kg 283 258 91.2 222 78.4
90+ 348 265 76.1 228 65.5
Avg 88.3 76.0
Cat World Record 1st Place % 10th Place %
56kg 304 279 91.8 232 76.3
62kg 333 300 90.1 284 85.3
69kg 359 326 90.8 305 85.0
77kg 380 361 95.0 337 88.7
85kg 396 378 95.5 341 86.1
94kg 417 417 100.0 353 84.7
105kg 437 437 92.4 386 88.3
105+ 477 477 100.0 414 86.8
Avg 94.4 85.1

We see that the female winners averaged 88.3% of the world records, while the 10th place finishers hit only 76%. Men fared better, with their winners averaging 94.4%. These are significant differences. Some of those who won in LA cannot hope to duplicate their placings when the sanctioned nations return. Needless to say, this leaves aside the drug issue, but that is a whole other speculative discussion.

The Bomb Squad

In weightlifting, you get to attempt three snatches and three clean and jerks. You either are successful in lifting the weight to the referees’ satisfaction, or you aren’t (a “miss”). Three misses on one of the lifts eliminates you from the competition. This is called “bombing out” by the lifting community. This of course is something lifters want to avoid, but it is also something that will happen every so often.

While lifters try to start their three attempts low enough to ensure success, success does not always happen. Lifters may have an off day, resulting in a miss even at a lighter weight. At other times, a lifter will be overconfident and start too high, then suffer three misses. Finally, some lifters may be in a position where some risks have to be taken, perhaps in order to qualify for another, more important event (e.g., Olympic Trials). The lifter has to start high, and then often misses, but this is seen as a necessary risk.

In a world championship, there will always be a number of bombers. In Los Angeles, 26 men (14.8%) bombed, while 19 women (13.9%) failed to total. These percentages are a bit high, but not unusual at Worlds. Opportunities are seen by some, so risks have to be taken. The result is often disappointment, but that is part of the game.

As an aside, powerlifting has far fewer bombers. This is due to the speed and precision needed for the Olympic lifts, compared to the power lifts. When pulling off the platform, it is easy to get outside the groove and end up with a miss. As noted, half of all attempts do indeed miss. Powerlifting moves at a slower, more deliberate speed, a speed where corrections can often me made in mid-lift, hence fewer misses and fewer bomb-outs.

All in all, there were not too many surprises this year, even with the multiple absences. Lifting behavior is the same world over, often transcending national culture. At the same time, the future of weightlifting is a bit uncertain. Until that distant shore is reached, we can only take one year at a time. Before we know it, it will be time for the 2018 Worlds, and it will all start again. 2017’s winners have to start all over again in their quest for glory. With all the suspensions, they cannot even be sure who their competitors will be. That makes everything difficult for them, but for us superannuated lifters, that will make it all the more exciting.