The New Weightlifting Categories: An Early Assessment

The rules are now set and lifters will just have to adjust to the new conditions as they always have.

In July of 2018, the International Weightlifting Federation announced the new bodyweight categories that the sport would compete for in the years to come. This came as a result of a desire to erase all old records which many felt were drug-tainted, but also because of developments ”upstairs” within the International Olympic Committee.

In July of 2018, the International Weightlifting Federation announced the new bodyweight categories that the sport would compete for in the years to come. This came as a result of a desire to erase all old records which many felt were drug-tainted, but also because of developments ”upstairs” within the International Olympic Committee.

The Categorization of Athletes

The IOC seemed to have an agenda with two motives and, as expected, weightlifting was again cut, this time to 98 athletes of each sex. The cut was bad enough but we were also told that they had to be spread over only seven categories each. This was very disappointing, especially after we had lobbied so hard to get an eighth women’s category.

The International Olympic Committee no sooner had allowed an eighth women’s 90kg category, matching the men, then they dropped weightlifting to seven categories each. The IWF then decided that this further drop would not be workable outside the Olympics.

It was then decided that they may as well return to the ten category format, this time with both sexes. The IOC would decide which seven categories would be on the Olympic schedule while the IWF could run their many championships as they wished. Note the chart below.

Here we see the new categories and also the absolute and percentage change (a delta for you math nerds) with each category jump. Also note that for youth athletes (U18), each sex has another category added to the lower end while the upper two categories are merged. The categories selected to sit out the Olympics are also noted.

There were a number of constraints that the planners had to work under. They could not use any category limits previously used by that sex (64 had been used by men but not women). All upper limits had to be in full kilo multiples, no fractions. As before, in order to avoid comparisons between men and women they tried to avoid using the same limits for each sex. But once again, they settled for one exception, that being at 55kg (last time it was at 69kg).

The first World Championships held under the new weight categories have recently ended. Every lifting fan was wondering how this would work out since the new limits were somewhat controversial. Some liked or hated the new categories solely on how it would affect their lifter, without thinking about the long-term future of the sport.

Others had more legitimate concerns, but for the same reason. I think it is useful to note the observations collected during the first six months of the new categories. This is not much time to see what will happen in the long run but it will give some hints I think.

It seems that the IWF and its athletes will have to resign themselves to a de-emphasis on the Olympics. On the other hand, they will welcome the two new categories and the chance to win more hardware they bring. Some lifters like the narrower categories but others, especially those in the heavier categories, are disappointed about the lack of heavier limits in the upper ones.

The 55kg category was probably added to balance out the extra heavier category (102kg). Adding the 55kg category will placate the Asian competitors, but some still question its need. The lowest categories have attracted criticism in past for their lower number of entries in some events. In addition, it was noticed that many of the old 52kg and 56kg lifters were taller than those in the next higher category.

From 55kg we go to 61kg, a reasonable jump. Same with another six kilograms to the 67kg category. But then they go up six more to 73kg then an eight-kilo jump to 81kg. I think it would have been better to go up in two seven kilo jumps than 6 and 8. Eight more to 89kg is fine, but then we only have seven to get to 96kg.

At the other end of the spectrum, it seems that there is one more category that is needed. We have only a 6-kilo jump from 96kg to 102kg. At this weight, this will hardly make a significant difference in performance potential. We then have seven kilos more to the 109kg category—again not too significant a jump.

The obvious alternative is to make ever-larger jumps in each increment, due of course to the law of diminishing returns with regard to bodyweight gain. They could have stretched things out, ending with 120kg or even 125kg as the highest limit. This would certainly make life easier for a lot of the bigger lifters, but I am not sure that would be good for the sport. Apart from the odd superstar, it might only result in a number of high body fat categories with little in the way of performance differential.

Things are even more mysterious with the women’s categories. We start at 45, a full 3 kilos lower than before. Then we go up 4 kilos, again a reasonable jump at this end. Next, it’s up 6 kilos to 55kg. Kind of a big jump for women at this level. The next jump is only 4 kilos to 59kg. This makes no sense. Next is another 6 kilos to 64kg.

This is more reasonable, then 7 to 71kg, again reasonable. But then we go up only 5 kilos for the next two jumps to 76kg and 81kg. Not enough at this level. After that, we still have only 6 kilos to get to 87kg, the highest category, a drop of 3 kilos from what we had before (after great effort).

We now seem to be top-heavy in categories. The mean height of most of the male population is somewhere between 5’7” (Asians) and 5’9” (most others), five inches less for women, all with a standard deviation of 3 inches. This means that most of the world, when muscled up to elite lifter level, will be crowded in the higher categories (89kg and above for men, 71kg for women).

However, weightlifting seems to be a haven sport for shorter athletes. Height is desired in most sports while short people have far fewer choices. This results in the middle categories being very crowded. Taller people who might become lifters will often choose the more popular and/or remunerative sports.

On the other hand, the general public, most of whom are of average or more height, prefer to watch the larger athletes lift equally large weights. This is not lost on the sponsors as well. So, even though most of the world is taller, most lifters are shorter.

The Next Olympics

It is currently thought that since three categories will not be contested in Tokyo this will then force athletes to avoid those said categories. This seems reasonable since the Games are the major motivator for all elite athletes. The tweeners now have to reassess their careers.

They will have to adjust their bodyweight, retire, or concentrate on the Worlds. Some can grow, a few might shrink, but many will not be able to do either one and remain successful. For lesser athletes, this consideration will not arise. However, the IWF has added an interesting change to their IWF rules, as follows: IWF (Senior) World Championships are held every year with ten (10) bodyweight categories, except in years with the Summer Olympic Games. In the year of the Summer Olympic Games, IWF (Senior) World Championships can be held with at least three (3) non-Olympic bodyweight categories per gender to be included.

The addition of a World Championship during Olympic years is new. Some years ago the Olympics were also considered the Worlds that year but not anymore. This change will be welcome as it will be a sort of consolation for the tweeners.

Interestingly though, the rule’s use of “at least” opens the door for inclusion of the Olympic ones as well. With only 196 Olympic slots open, and 600-700 qualifiers, there will still be many worthy athletes that will be forced to take a two-year gap between Worlds. Another point to remember here is that if the various continental games also start dropping categories this will leave lifters with even fewer high-level competitions.

With only one Worlds after only four months to get re-adjusted to the new categories, it is perhaps too early to tell what future direction things will take. But the rules are now set and these are the categories for now. Lifters will just have to adjust to the new conditions as they always have.