Thank Norbert Shemansky for Your Weightlifting Category

The rationalization of the body weight categories didn’t exist before Norbert Schemansky.

I have recently written about the deaths of three legendary sportsmen, namely Tommy Kono, Muhammad Ali, and Gordie Howe. Sadly, the Grim Reaper has recently claimed a couple more sporting immortals. One of them was Arnold Palmer, the man who brought golf to the masses. Like Ali and Howe, Palmer had no apparent connections to the iron game. But like the others he did indirectly influence his competitors to become the pioneers of weight training in their sports. Most notably in golf, that was Gary Player. Player was smaller than the average golfer, though unusually talented. At one point he decided that he needed more strength in order to make up for his size deficit. Player succeeded with this experiment, eventually accomplishing a rare lifetime Grand Slam. Today weight training is now de rigueur in golf as it is in many other sports.

The other death was that of Detroit weightlifter Norbert Schemansky at the age of 92. “Ski” was one of the most fabled lifters ever to compete for the USA. I will not go into great detail of his many accomplishments since they are well documented by many others. While the iron fraternity mourns his passing, I think it is very important to note the influence he has had on the sport as a whole.

All weightlifters have Norbert Schemansky to thank for the opportunity to compete in more rational classes. (Source: Precision CrossFit)

The “Old Professor”

Due to his receding hairline and horn-rimmed glasses, Ski picked up the nickname of “The Old Professor.” Adding to that impression was the fact that at 180cm (5’11”) and a body weight of about 90kg he certainly did not look like your typical weightlifter. He was the prototype of the muscle-less wonder. No one would guess that this thin, scholarly-looking man was one of the best weightlifters in the world. The thin part would change over the years, but his fame forever remained unheralded in his own country.

Ski was a veteran of WWII, where he fought in the storied Battle of the Bulge. Upon returning to civilian life, he immediately resumed training and soon made his presence felt on the national and international stage. Despite his lanky build, he soon built up a collection of silver medals at the world championships. John Davis, the man who always beat Ski, was also a small heavyweight, but was much shorter and therefore built like a more typical weightlifter.

It must be remembered that in the 1940s, the heaviest body weight category with a limit was the 82.5kg class; anyone heavier than that had to lift with the heavyweights. This put Norbert Schemansky at a disadvantage, as he always had difficulty gaining weight in those years. As the 1940s turned into the 1950s and the world started to recover from the effects of the war, more and more countries returned to or took up weightlifting. This led the IWF to re-examine its body weight categories. The result was that in 1951 the 90 kg category was adopted. This fit Schemansky perfectly. No longer would Ski have to compete at a disadvantage. He immediately dominated the new category, winning world and Olympic golds.

A Heavyweight Arms Race

However, by 1954 that weight limit was getting harder to make. Years of heavy training will eventually put meat on the bones of even a scrawny man. Aging also helps. Ski was then 30 years old, and we all know how much easier it is to gain weight when the birthdays pile up. By the time of the 1954 world championships, Norbert weighed around 102kg, all of it functional. This paid off as he easily won the heavyweight title with new world records.

Unfortunately, Ski was severely injured soon after. This kept him out of action for several years. At the same time, a 360lb monster named Paul Anderson arrived on the scene, and easily defeated Ski’s records even with coarse technique. This development set the stage for more debate about the body weight categories. People were amazed at the huge weights that Anderson was lifting, but still remembered the great performance of Schemansky in 1954. Now people were wondering how an athlete even as great as like Schemansky could compete against Anderson and other monsters now populating the heavyweight division.

This debate continued until 1968 without being resolved. In the intervening years, Ski made his storied comeback, claiming bronze at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics. By that time, he had gained even more weight. He was now very thick and best of all, most of it was functional and well-proportioned body weight. But even at 120kg he was still small compared to the 140kg Soviets.

By this time another Polish-American began his assault on the record books. Bob Bednarski (known as “Little Ski”) would do this weighing only 110kg or so. This renewed the demands for the inclusion of a 110kg category. Though Big Ski’s 1954 performances had started the debate, it was Little Ski’s performances that finally led to the addition of the 110kg class in 1969. This came a little late for Big Ski, even though he was still competing at a high level. He was now too heavy for the 110s but still not heavy enough for the supers.

More Classes and Masters Competition

As an aside, for political reasons, the IWF had to add a 52kg category. So even small lifters indirectly benefitted from Ski’s inspiration. In 1977 they also added a 100kg category. Would all this have occurred if a lanky man from Detroit had not become the first man to regularly hit 400lb jerks? Lifting fans today still like to speculate as to how many world titles Schemansky (and Davis) would have won if those categories had existed during their heydays. Probably many. The American team could have come home with three or four gold medals instead of just one.

In addition to these new body weight categories Norbert Schemansky was probably responsible for the advent of “Master” age categories in weightlifting. Ski won an Olympic medal at age 40 and continued to compete at a high national level for several years after that. When Bill Clark of Missouri organized his first Masters event back in the 1960s, he was undoubtedly inspired by the recent feats of Norbert Schemansky at an age well past normal athletic dotage.

So in addition to the many championships he won, Norbert Schemansky’s life must also be celebrated for both the rationalization of the body weight categories, and giving lifters the opportunity to continue their careers into old age. None of that existed before him.

Parity for Weightlifting Women

The IWF recently announced that it will institute the 90kg category for the second time in history. After much discussion, it was decided to add an eighth body weight category for women, thus achieving parity with the men. After more discussion, it was decided that the category’s upper limit would be at 90kg. The highest category with a limit had been 75kg. That limit had been controversial right from the start of separate categories for women. Most considered it too low. After all, men had 105 kg as their highest limited category. This situation harkened back to what Ski had to deal with in the 1950s. Women had to either weigh less than 75kg or else compete with athletes weighing 50kg more than them. At the same time, many medal winners were only a few kilos over the 75kg limit. In short, the category was just too wide.

It was not easy determining the best breaking point. Women are, on average, 5 inches shorter than men. Body composition differs as well. In smaller elite lifters, women often have twice the body fat levels of similar weighted men. So it is not simply a matter of taking the men’s categories and extrapolating, as was the practice in the early days of women’s lifting. Things get more complex when dealing with superheavyweights. Fat levels are often much higher, so a fair and appropriate increment for a new category is more difficult to determine.

Height is another matter. With shorter average heights, we find that only 2% or so of all women are over 175cm (5’9”). This is where most female supers should be, but the numbers are so small that a new category may not get enough competitors, especially good ones. But if any supers are much below that height, a lot will end up being surplus. So it is difficult finding the right balance. Future reassessments of the categories are quite possible.

Complexities and arguments aside, weightlifters in all classes and at any age have Norbert Schemansky to thank for the opportunity to compete in more rational classes. Now quit using your age and weight as excuses and get back in the gym.

More on women’s lifting:

Growth on the Platform: Female Olympic Talent

Coaches, for your athletes:

Weightlifting: Sport or Training Modality?