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Celebrating women in weightlifting: a journey of success!

Forty years ago, in Moscow (RUS), the IWF Executive Board took a decision that would change the face of weightlifting: the acknowledgment that our International Federation needed to rule also on women competing in the sport. This was naturally the consequence of the increasing activity of female athletes around the world, who were missing a formal and institutional recognition of their pioneering role. On this International Women’s Day, we recall the path of success since those early days in 1983 and the extraordinary progress since then for all women that chose weightlifting as their beloved sport.

Three years after that historic meeting in the Russian capital, Budapest hosts the first international tournament for female lifters: in Hungary, 23 athletes from five nations set the tone in what was until then a male-dominated sport. In 1987, the first World Championships with women’s participation took place and around 100 athletes from 22 countries proudly showed their strength in Florida (USA).

The end of a stigma

Ursula Papandrea is the IWF First Vice-President, the highest-placed woman in the structure of our International Federation. Athlete, and then coach, the US official was a privileged witness of this evolution. In the 1980s, when I started in the sport, there was a stigma attached to women lifting weights and so many ridiculous ideas of how it would impact our bodies. Of course, we now know that lifting weights has so many incredible health benefits that it has become common to the workout routines for men and women, old and young. When I was competing in the 1990s, we were often ridiculed and not taken seriously,” she recalls.

However, the train was moving and nothing could stop it. In 1995, the first World Women’s Junior Championships – 75 lifters from 17 nations – is held in Warsaw (POL), and one year later, the news everyone was waiting for: the IOC approves the entry of women’s weightlifting at the Olympics, starting from Sydney 2000 (men could compete in the Games since its first edition, in 1896).

In less than 15 years, the growth of women’s weightlifting was worth its entry into the Olympic arena. In Australia, for this inaugural edition, 85 competitors from 47 nations were present. Seven bodyweight categories were on the programme and the gold medals went to China (four), Colombia, Mexico, and the USA with one title apiece.

The Olympics, a turning point

Women’s weightlifting had a difficult time gaining acceptance. But things have drastically changed in the last 30 years. Inclusion in the Olympic Games in 2000 was the singular most impactful decision to legitimise and support women’s weightlifting,” considers the IWF First Vice-President. Of course, it has taken decades to achieve true respect and reverence for women in the sport but now women have as many fans and athletes as men, sometimes more. Women weightlifters are, as all women are, impacted by the general inequities in society on the whole, but as a sport, the support has continued to grow. The numbers keep going up, in both athletes and kilos,” she adds.

If the Olympics came a bit late for Papandrea, that was not the case for Hidilyn Diaz, from the Philippines, gold medallist in Tokyo 2020, in the 55kg category. The challenge we have in women’s weightlifting is the perception that the sport is for men only. Women are supposedly too weak to lift and too fragile to be a champion,” she says. Also a member of the IWF Athletes Commission, Diaz is a living proof that this is not the case any longer. “Women are excelling and are well represented in the sport! Their role will also be more notorious in leadership positions, or as technical officials and coaches,” she admits.

After the Games in Sydney, two more milestones in this successful road: the first World Youth titles for women in 2009 and the entry, in 2010, in the first edition of the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore.

A gender-balanced sport

Presently, at the world and Olympic level, the participation is gender-balanced: at the last IWF World Championships in Bogota (COL), in December 2022, 265 women were in attendance (there were 263 men), while the quota for the Paris 2024 is strictly the same for both male and female competitors: 60 in each gender.

Women weightlifters are strong athletes physically and mentally. This is now being celebrated as it should have always been. The growth and development in countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran, which have traditionally had a very conservative approach towards women’s participation, is an indicator that the sport has become accepted and acceptable in all corners of the earth. I would predict that as long as weightlifting is an Olympic sport, it will continue to grow,” underlines Papandrea.

From a more institutional perspective, the IWF First Vice-President admits that there is still room for improvement. In the political arena, we have the most work to do. We have increased representation in decision-making bodies, but we still need to develop a programme to create a pipeline of national and international leaders. It’s just a matter of time,” she concludes.

This optimism is also shared by the IWF President Mohammed Jalood. “The strengthening of women’s weightlifting around the world has been a long road, but quite a successful one. I would like to highlight two dates in this trajectory, 1987 and 2000, when respectively the IWF World Championships and the Olympic Games opened their door to women’s participation. This was a consequence of the development of the sport among our female stars, but it also further boosted the participation of women in weightlifting,” he considers. “Today, we are a perfectly gender-balanced sport and we are very proud of this achievement. We are also committed and determined to get a better gender representation in the governance and structure of the IWF. On this commemorative day, I wish all the best to our lifters, especially to our female competitors in the five continents!” concludes Mr Jalood.

By Pedro Adrega, IWF Communications