The heroines who sparked a sporting revolution

Women’s weightlifting was not included in the Olympic programme until 2000, and then only after a concerted campaign by a handful of determined lobbyists. Brian Oliver looks back at the brief history of women’s place in a sport deemed to be ‘for men only’ and analyses where it stands today

Early next month, women and girls will compete for the first time in an official weightlifting competition in Iran, bringing down one of the remaining barriers to global gender equality in a sport that had the words ‘for men only’ in its rule book for nearly ninety years. It is another milestone on a journey begun more than thirty years ago by a small, dedicated group of Americans who helped open the doors for the so-called weaker sex; the growth of women’s weightlifting has been the biggest good news story in the sport since then.

Yet there is still work to be done: ‘for men only’ still applies in some Islamic nations, though none as large or significant in weightlifting history as Iran; and there are too few female coaches, technical officials and leaders in the sport. Even so, weightlifting was put on the Olympic programme for women before wrestling and boxing, and at Tokyo 2020 there will be an equal split of the medals for the first time.

  Ali Moradi, president of the Iranian Weightlifting Federation, said an inspiration for his country’s women was the hijab-wearing, 18-year-old Sara Ahmed’s bronze-medal performance for Egypt at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016. “That was the big push, when Sara Ahmed was the first Arab woman to win an Olympic medal, and we wanted to do it,” said Moradi, who hopes to see Iranian women competing in Tokyo.

When Ahmed competed in Anaheim last December, winning the 69kg clean-and-jerk gold after failing in the snatch at the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Championships, another pioneer of the sport was in the audience – one without whom, arguably, women’s weightlifting might have had a far longer wait for Olympic recognition.

Every female weightlifter owes a debt to Judy Glenney, who with magazine owner Mabel Rader, and former USA Weightlifting president Murray Levin spearheaded the campaign for women to compete.

The historic decision to admit women was made by the IWF in 1983, but Glenney and her team of campaigners had been at work long before then. Glenney, a United States national champion, a coach, and the first woman to referee at an IWF competition, worked with Rader to promote the cause of women weightlifters at a time when many men were hostile to the idea.

When the battle started in the late 1970s there were no female members of the International Olympic Committee, and the Olympic sports that forbade women included cycling, hockey, shooting, table tennis, sailing, judo, and three that would not gain recognition until the twenty-first century: weightlifting (2000), wrestling (2004) and boxing (2012). And until Rader was in her forties, women were not allowed to run farther than 400 metres in the Olympic Games because they were deemed (by men) too weak for the exertion of running two laps.

Rader, who founded Iron Man magazine with her husband Peary in 1936, and was one of the best-known figures in strength sports for more than half a century, celebrated her one hundredth birthday last June. Glenney, who is married to a pastor in Vancouver, Washington, and teaches Bible study classes, is a slim, unassuming figure who was always a fierce opponent to those who deemed women ‘weak’ and unwanted in weightlifting. The point was emphasised by Aniko Nemeth-Mora, the IWF’s director of international relations, who started working for the governing body at about the same time as Glenney and Rader took up the women’s cause.

The key dates are: 1980, when USA Weightlifting first welcomed women into the fold; 1983, when the IWF changed their ‘men-only’ rule; 1986, when the Pannonia Cup in Budapest was the first IWF event for women; 1987, when Murray Levin helped to make a success of the first Women’s World Championships in Daytona Beach, Florida; 1991, when women and men competed together for the first time at the World Championships; 2000, when Glenney’s dream of women taking part at the Olympic Games was finally realised; and more recently, 2011, when the IWF changed their rules on clothing in an attempt to encourage more women from the Islamic world to compete.

Two ultimatums by the pathfinder women, one before they were recognised and another at their first World Championships, showed their mettle. “The women were led by Judy Glenney and they came over quite strongly, in a very male-oriented sport, that they wanted to be recognised,” said Nemeth-Mora, who for many of her early years at the IWF was the only woman in a man’s world.

Tamas Ajan, now president of the IWF, and then general secretary, was more supportive of the women’s cause than the then president, the Austrian Gottfried Schodl, who “was like the Russians in that he wanted nothing to do with the idea” in Levin’s words. Ajan led the negotiations with Glenney over female recognition and, said Nemeth-Mora, “they gave an ultimatum, they said, ‘OK, if you don’t accept us under the auspices of the IWF we’re going to form our own federation’. Of course, Tamas and others had the common sense to see that it would be better to welcome them, which happened ‘in principle’ at the IWF Congress in Moscow in November 1983.”

The words ‘for men only’ were formally deleted at a meeting before the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, the year when there were national women’s championships in India, Canada, the United States, Australia, China and Britain, all recorded in World Weightlifting magazine, where Nemeth-Mora has been a senior editor since it started in 1981. The Americans, thanks to Glenney and the support of Levin, had held their first national championships two years before the IWF’s Moscow decision.

“While most men were sceptical, Murray Levin was very much in favour of helping the women – he was an open-minded person, a pioneer and was one of the first who saw potential in women’s weightlifting,” said Nemeth-Mora. Others came to agree with him: when women started to lift in front of the doubting Thomases’s eyes “their opinion changed 180 degrees”.

That first IWF event for women, the Pannonia Cup held over three days in March 1986, was, according to Nemeth-Mora, “a mind-changing event for me, the first time I saw truly serious women’s weightlifting”. Appropriately, given their subsequent dominance of the sport, China won the first women’s contest staged, the 44kg: Wei Xia lifted 55kg in the snatch and 70kg in the clean and jerk for a total of 125kg.

“The Chinese amazed everybody with their technique,” said Nemeth-Mora. “They had some precedent there, as women’s weightlifting had been practised in various provinces in China, together with the men. Maybe their strength was the result of a political trend. They were looking for a void to fill, and they realised that in women’s weightlifting they could be very successful. Women were involved from the very beginning in training with men, systematic training. In the United States and Britain, the women had to fight to get the correct coaching – in China they already had it.”

Levin was not surprised by China’s success, and even used it as a reason for backing women’s weightlifting in the United States. He first learnt about their women’s programme at the 1978 World Championships – men only, of course – which he organised in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. “I became friendly with two of the Chinese delegates, and one morning I was asking them if they had women’s weightlifting, and they said, ‘Yes, we have 100,000 women lifting weights’. I said, ‘That’s impossible, they must be body-builders’, but they said, ‘No, we have weightlifting coaches for women and girls, they do it at school, at college, but it’s not an Olympic sport so we can’t let them out of the country, we keep it quiet’. They said, ‘Trust us, some day it will be an Olympic sport, and then you’re going to find out about China’. Well, of course, we know now.

“This gave me the idea that we had to let the women in, so I made up my mind that when the day came the USA would be first. Women were already in track and field, swimming, gymnastics – we had to do it. In 1980, I said. ‘Let’s make the first step, let them in legally, run a national competition’. We [USAW] had to have a vote. The vote was 5-5. I had the casting vote. I said I wanted them in and that changed our sport forever. And Mabel Rader was right outside the door for that vote – she was promoting the women in her magazine.”

After the Pannonia Cup a woman, Canada’s Marie Leclerc, appeared on the front cover of World Weightlifting for the first time, and a report of the event was headlined, ‘Women’s weightlifting won the battle’.

The second women’s ultimatum was in Florida at the first World Championships 18 months later. “Women’s participation accelerated very quickly, and at Daytona Beach there were 100 competitors from 23 nations,” said Nemeth-Mora. “My strongest memories of the start of women’s weightlifting are from that competition. It was like nothing I had experienced in weightlifting before, though I had been at the IWF since 1976. The women were so enthusiastic, so determined, and there was such a fantastic feeling of togetherness, of commonality – they were not fighting against each other but for each other, cheering each other.

“One of the journalists, a male of course, initiated a ‘Miss World Championships’ competition, with voting, like a pageant, to decide who was the prettiest competitor. It was not unusual at the time, they had it in other sports. Tamas had a delegation come to him in his room, some of the women participants, with a petition. They said, ‘We are not here to show we are pretty women, we are here to be recognised as athletes, as sportswomen, as weightlifters. If this competition for Miss Daytona Beach goes ahead, we will boycott the World Championships’.

“It was an eye-opener for everybody that these women meant business, that they wanted to fight to be recognised as weightlifters, and from that moment on there was never any question about it. They wanted to be taken seriously, and they were. It’s a pity that many men did not realise back then that women would do good for the sport, as athletes and also in leadership. Today it’s OK, but it took much longer for women to be accepted as leaders than it did for women to be accepted as weightlifters. I know I am not the first to say it, but everything in society needs the woman’s touch, the woman’s approach.”

Levin, too, has very fond memories of the first World Championships. He had been campaigning for women at IWF meetings, became friendly with Ajan, and after securing sponsors in 1985 he asked for, and got, the rights to host the first Women’s World Championships. “Tamas supported the women, but he thought it would fail. I said, ‘No, they will come, there are women in other parts of the world that aren’t telling you about it, in Mexico, in China, and you have to give them a chance’. He gave me the rights to do this.

“It was incredible, China took seven of the eight classes and Karyn Marshall won the other – the first gold won by an American since 1969 was won by a woman! My enemies had to eat that. After the championships we had a big party, it was wild, the women finally had their own meeting. They grabbed Schodl and said, ‘We’re going to have a world championships next year and every year’. Some of my board members came up to me after and said, ‘I owe you an apology, you were right. I expected this to be a big flop’. But I made so many enemies, especially of coaches who could see that money would be siphoned towards women’s competitions, that in 1988, after 13 years as president, they voted me out [as USAW president]. That was mostly because of the women.

“But I used to say that if I did nothing else for the sport but that, helping the women, it would have been worthwhile. When the women came in it was like a breath of fresh air. They looked good, they trained harder than the men, the smaller women were glamorous, it changed everything. The idea was not mine originally, though – it was Mabel Rader. Mabel and Judy Glenney, they were real pioneers, always fighting to get the women in.”

There had been another battle with the men in those early years of women’s competition, over the rule that athletes should be naked for weigh-ins. “There were 35 women around the country who wanted recognition and they said, ‘We don’t give a damn, you want to weigh us in nude, weigh us in nude’,” explained Levin. “We had some lecherous officials who couldn’t wait to see them nude, and I said, ‘We’re gonna get sued’.”

Glenney also recalled the problem, which applied to men, too, when she was officiating. “It happened to me. I refereed in Hungary at the Pannonia Cup, and because I was a referee and the males were lifting they had to weigh-in naked. It was awkward. We had some very unfortunate situations, a number of men would take advantage of the women lifters, of these regulations. These poor women, some of them teenagers, out of their country for the first time – it was a real, real problem. There were instances when we had to get pretty tough with those guys and say, ‘No’.”

It was always tough for Glenney, taking on the men, asking for money, respect, recognition.

Right back at the start, for the first United States nationals in 1981, Glenney worked hard on persuading coaches to put in extra work with the athletes before the competition. “If we just had women out there floundering around on the platform and not really knowing how to snatch, how to clean and jerk, this would not speak very well at all to the [USA] federation. We established that they had to have competed before, so they knew how a meet was run. We had 24-25 lifters, representation from coast to coast, not just one group from one place – New York, California, the Mid-West, New Mexico, a really broad range, which I thought was wonderful.”

Was there any media coverage? “Heavens no. Mabel wrote it up in her magazine, though. Oh gosh, I can’t remember in my time any mainstream media coverage at all.”

And, looking back, how does it feel now? “I never wanted it to be a sideshow. I wanted to show, number one, that women can be strong; number two, that they can learn the technique and do it correctly; and number three, they can still look like a woman. We have broken most of those stereotypes about women’s weightlifting, what it was supposed to do to your body, other perspectives – we have done those things very well. But there is still a male ego, there are some men who think this is a sport for men only, and I am not surprised that in some places they are keeping women down.

“Overall, I think everything is good now. I realised my dream, which was to get women’s weightlifting into the Olympics. I am the first to say it was a team effort – there were so many people supporting me in my dream.”

Just before role model Sara Ahmed went out to compete in Anaheim, Glenney spoke with Ursula Papandrea, another pioneer from the United States who is president of USAW and the first female vice-president of the IWF. “I was telling Ursula that my big satisfaction was when I sat as an official at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and I saw women on the podium getting their medals. That was my dream. And winning medals, that was their dream.

“I knew I wasn’t the only oddball out there, I knew there had to have been many more women that liked this sport, testing their strength, challenging themselves in this way – there just had to be. That’s what kept driving me. I knew they were out there waiting for this opportunity.”

Papandrea is planning to go to Iran in March, to help teach local women about lifting, coaching and officiating. Maybe she should give them a little history lesson, too.

A version of this article first appeared on the sports website


Brian Oliver is a long-standing and respected sports journalist who has written about weightlifting for Reuters, the New York Times, the Observer and He first became interested in the sport when working as media manager for weightlifting at London 2012 and Glasgow 2014. A former sports editor at the Observer, he is author of The Commonwealth Games: Extraordinary Stories behind the Medals. Brian’s latest articles

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