The Pursuit of Excellence: Drug Use in Olympic Weightlifting

Dresdin Archibald


Edmonton, Canada

Olympic Weightlifting, Strength and Conditioning

I started this series of articles with a more general description of doping myths. I will conclude it with a more specific discussion of my sport of Olympic weightlifting. Weightlifters are no less likely to resort to the previously mentioned myths than other athletes. However, there are some myths that are specific to our sport.


The Myth That Only Foreign Lifters Use Steroids

American hegemony in weightlifting fell at about the same time as the use of anabolic steroids in the sport became commonplace. First Russia, then Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria all surpassed the United States. This happened despite the fact that anabolic steroids were developed by CIDA Laboratories in the U.S. In essence, foreigners took an American invention and beat us at our own game. In a highly competitive world with advanced communication technology, this situation is inevitable.



Yury Zakharevich

Yury Zakharevich, world-champion Olympic weightlifter for the Soviet Union.


This loss of hegemony led to the common assumption that only foreign lifters would use drugs. But this faulty assumption ignores human nature. If an effective method of achieving a goal exists, people will take advantage of it if they think they will get away with it. The temptations are too great, even when there is little-to-no monetary incentive, as was the case for most of weightlifting’s history. Pride and bragging rights are temptation enough.


As drug testing became routine, there was hope that the East Europeans would finally be caught and that U.S. lifters would again be on top. This did not happen for a number of reasons. First, the caliber of the U.S. weightlifting program was simply nowhere near that of Eastern Europe. Second, the drug tests were apparently not that difficult to frustrate. Testing or not, the East Europeans continued to dominate.


The Myth of a Level Playing Field

This led to another myth that the East had better drugs (despite the far greater amount of biomedical research done in the U.S.) and that those drugs could not be detected with the current tests. This led to speculation as to what would happen if the outcome of drug testing could result in a level playing field. Could the U.S. possibly regain the dominance they once held back in the 1940s and early 1950s? Many wondered, and a few even assumed that it would if only everyone stopped using drugs.


If an infallible drug test could be developed that lead to the elimination of all drug use in sports, the assumption on this side of the Atlantic was that our lifters would again become world champions. The basis for this assumption rests on the fact that our tested athletes were already lifting at levels just below the current drug levels. Eliminate the users and America goes to the top.



"The institution of Draconian drug testing may give a country a short period of dominance, but it cannot be relied upon for longevity."

The major problem with this prediction is that it assumes other countries are absolutely incapable of lifting big weights without drugs. It might even assume that weightlifting would die in those countries without drugs. I do not believe this would be the case. Weightlifting already has greater cultural acceptance in those countries than it does in the U.S. There is no reason to believe that some long-established weightlifting programs would be shut down in the absence of drugs. It is more likely that an absolute end to drug use would be as welcome in these countries as it is in ours.


Even if all the drug users were forced to retire and it took a few years for a new clean generation to assert itself, the U.S. would probably only prevail for a short period of time. I think we would see a situation similar to what we saw when women’s weightlifting was instituted. Women from the Western world were the early leaders in the sport, but eventually yielded as the Chinese and others introduced the sport to their women.


Weightlifting Is Bigger Than Doping

Due to these factors, it safe to assume that other countries would continue their weightlifting programs in the absence of drugs, and that new countries would take up the sport as has been the case in recent years.



Weightlifting would still be part of the Olympics and all of the major Continental Games. Those medals are still prestigious and countries still want to win them in any sport. Weightlifting has been especially attractive as it is a relatively inexpensive sport to institute, especially in emerging nations. The price of a set of Olympic weights is small compared to equipment and resources needed for many other sports. And since weight training is vital to almost all other sports, much of the infrastructure already exists. If you already have people lifting weights for athletics, it is easy to have others use the weights for weightlifting.


John Bergman

John Bergman, super heavyweight lifter for the United States.


It is also relatively easy to produce a champion weightlifter compared to other sports. Our best seventeen-year-old athletes are lifting close to senior world records. By implication, those lifters could not have been at it for very long. With determination, a country could develop a fine lifting team in only a few years. Compare this to soccer, where it would take a generation to be able to compete with the Brazilians, Germans, and others.



The assumption that all the world’s best are using drugs is faulty. Examine performances over the last thirty years. Despite the occasional small increase in a world record here and there, the men’s records have been more or less static. (Women’s have not due to their relatively recent introduction to the sport). A steady increase in the records occurred up until about 1983, when more sophisticated testing equipment was available. Thereafter, the records began to slow down.


This does not mean that drugs were not used by the elite in those years. Usage might have been necessary just to maintain their status. However, it does seem that a chilling effect had occurred. The records were no longer increasing by leaps and bounds, and that change took place abruptly. I am sure there is still drug usage in Olympic weightlifting, but if you want to beat the tests, you have to be very sophisticated.


Cheaters Never Prosper

To be dominant in any sport, including weightlifting, a country must devote adequate resources for a sufficient amount of time. It also helps for a sport to be well established and engrained in the country’s culture. This will ensure a never-ending supply of recruits, which will help to maintain dominance over a number of years.


The institution of Draconian drug testing may give a country a short period of dominance, but it cannot be relied upon for longevity. After all, drugs were not a part of weightlifting many decades ago. The victories went to those countries that devoted a lot of time, effort, and money to improving their sport, not to those that found better ways to cheat.


Now get back to the gym.


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Photos courtesy of Breaking Muscle/Bruce Klemens.

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