Weightlifting and Military Service

Leading a few USA Weightlifting coaching courses recently at military facilities caused me to reflect on the topic of lifting while in the U.S. Armed Forces. In years past, when mandatory national service, i.e. selective service (the draft), was in place, most American males acknowledged they would be “in the Army now” for at least two years. After a lifter received his “Greetings” notification there was no assurance that training would be possible, due either to location or job responsibilities.

But numerous USA lifters have stood atop the international podium and served in the U.S. Armed Forces.

  • John Davis, the first eight-time World Champion (no World’s 1939-1945) was drafted and served during World War II.
  • Tommy Kono, the second eight-time World Champion, served in the Army for two years. He received special consideration to prepare for the 1952 Olympics.
  • Norbert Schemansky, the first person to win medals in four separate Olympic Games, served in the Army during World War II.
  • Stan Stanczyk, five-time World Champion, served three years in the Army during World War II.
  • Jim Bradford, World and Olympic silver medalist (+105kg), served in the Army during the Korean War 1952-54.
  • Dr. Peter George, World Champion and three-time Olympian, served four years in the Army.
  • Walter Imahara, a top 60kg lifter in the early and mid-1960s, as well as a leader in the masters program for years, was an Army lieutenant.
  • Roger Sadecki, often seen today at national and world events as a technical official, was a top 82.5kg lifter throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, while serving as a U.S. Air Force officer.
  • Lee James, 1976 Olympic silver medalist, served in the Army (airborne) during his rise as America’s top 82.5 and 90kg lifter.
  • Tom Gough was an active duty Marine while competing at the 1996 Olympics.
  • The U.S. Air Force finished in fourth place as a team at the 1968 Nationals. For several years some of our finest lifters, including Homer Brannum, John Thrush, Peter Rawluk, and Tom Hirtz represented USAF on the platform.

You get the picture, right? Outstanding results are possible while serving in the military, but we might not agree that it’s very probable.

More Recent Times
Every four years, about 12 months out from the next Olympic Games, we hear of previously unknown athletes aiming to make the U.S. team in Weightlifting. In 1988, I was invited to address the U.S. All-Service Powerlifting Championships (now the USA Powerlifting Military Powerlifting Championships). The topic: how to convert from powerlifting to weightlifting.

Along with the then Southern California LWC president, Ed Benevente, I conducted a two-hour clinic on weightlifting. I spared no details on the unlikely chance of converting from one sport to the other, especially with the Games in Seoul only a few months away. Even so, within a week I was contacted about having a very good Navy 52kg powerlifter convert and gain access to Team USA. Needless to say, the enthusiasm waned after I outlined what was needed to qualify for our team.

International Military Sports Competition
Organized international military sports competition has been in place since 1946. Largely unknown, the International Military Sports Council, or perhaps more familiarly, CISM (Conseil International du Sport Militaire) exists for the express purpose of “friendship through sport.”

While I believe international military powerlifting competition has been in place for many years, until recently I had never seen a reference for weightlifting. Two or three years ago I noted a CISM championship event listed on the International Weightlifting Federation’s annual calendar. But returning to the site a few weeks later I found the event had been removed from the calendar.

In my opinion, powerlifting presents fewer challenges than weightlifting in terms of general acceptance and participation. Taking up our sport, especially beyond one’s formative junior years, is a daunting experience. It may be unrealistic to expect much enthusiasm within the ranks for learning weightlifting, especially in light of international competition results. However, the recent increase in popularity of and familiarity with weightlifting may reverse this thinking. Maybe within a few years it will be practical to have international military weightlifting competitions. Certainly we see much greater interest among our servicemen and servicewomen today to train as weightlifters.

What It May Take
The military basically views athletic competition, especially a presence at the Olympics, as good public relations. Kono mentions this in his second book, Championship Weightlifting. The Marines certainly made good use of Billy Mills, who, as a lieutenant, won the 10,000 meters in Tokyo in 1964. Keep in mind that this attempted public relations campaign tends to work best when the U.S. military is not actively engaged in some form of international conflict. There’s usually plenty of interest in promoting performances in athletics (track and field), boxing, wrestling, triathlon, and modern pentathlon as long as bullets are not flying.

In some instances, such as Lee James or Tom Gough, promising (read, a likely shoe-in for the Olympic Team) lifters have received TDY (temporary duty) orders to facilitate one’s likelihood of success. In James’ case, he was assigned duty near York, PA. I worked some U.S. Marine Corps connections to get Gough “recruiting” duty in the Colorado Springs area so he could continue training at the Olympic Training Center.

Administratively, the U.S. Armed Forces are represented within the U.S. Olympic Committee. At one U.S. Olympic Committee meeting I attended as USA Weightlifting’s executive director in the 1980s, there was serious consideration given to the utilization of existing military bases as mini-training centers for various sports.

Both the Army (https://www.armymwr.com/wcap/about.aspx) and the Air Force (https://www.myairforcelife.com/sports/WorldClassAthletes.aspx) currently have some form of “world-class athlete” program. Neither the Navy nor the Marine Corps has similar programs, although they both have systems in place to encourage their personnel to pursue Olympic dreams. These programs provide, at least for a limited duration and where appropriate, the stationing of promising personnel in Colorado Springs, either at Fort Carson or at the U.S. Air Force Academy. For sports requiring special facilities and/or coaching, attempts are made to place personnel elsewhere.

Over the years numerous reports have chronicled foreign elite athletes as members of their respective military services. The Soviet Union’s famous Vasily Alexeev, another eight-time World and Olympic champion, was reported to hold a position in the Red Army. This same group’s ice hockey team was made famous in their loss to the “Miracle on Ice” Team USA at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games. It was often written that many Bloc-country athletes were full-time professionals in sport, holding only a symbolic position in the military. This may have been a reasonable means of getting around the amateur eligibility rules of the past.

We are no longer restricted by amateur eligibility rules. No doubt some elite weightlifters today maintain a position in their military. Whether they actually execute any time in uniform, or this is mainly a ceremonial position that provides a career after competition, no one seems to know.

But at least in the United States, and under the current conditions, it seems unlikely that military service will enhance one’s chances of winning a medal on the platform.

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