In all areas of athletic endeavor, as it is in any profession, vocation, groups with specific interests or among those of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, there are individuals judged to be “nice” or “not nice,” “considerate” or “not considerate,” and “helpful” or “unhelpful.” Obviously within any group some will be liked and others won’t be dependent upon their behavior and attitude towards a number of variables. I was taught that being part of a specific athletic endeavor, profession, vocation, groups with specific interests, and/or various racial or ethnic backgrounds is never a basis for passing judgment on a person. Instead, my father’s credo was “Take each individual as they are, if they’re an asshole, they’re an asshole, it has nothing to do with being white, Black, Hispanic, Asian, or where they’re from. They’re just an asshole.” This has allowed me to go through many decades of life without prejudice related to almost everything people display prejudice about.
There is I believe an assumption about certain athletes or certain sports, that ascribe an “attitude” or “way about them” to the uninitiated. Due only to participation in their chosen activities, bodybuilders are viewed as narcissistic; competitive shooters are compulsive and studious; powerlifters are cocky. Of course these are broad generalizations and prejudices but also serve to raise the broader questions; “Does one need to have a certain attitude or approach to be successful in a given sport?” “Does success in any sport mold certain attitudes?” Powerlifting began as an afterthought relative to the established sport of Olympic weightlifting. One of the “givens” in the late 1950s to early ‘60s was that the vast majority of men (and it was a man’s activity then) who engaged in any aspect of “lifting weights” was strong, strong relative to the average person on the street and strong among others of similar size. Weightlifters and bodybuilders were dependent upon the same exercises as the means to set their muscular foundations as so many of my TITAN SUPPORT SYSTEM articles have stressed or mentioned. They all did barbell squats, deadlifts, press, bench press, rowing of some sort, shrugs, and/or cleans. Most did dips and chins and this included the lifters until the early 1960s when “specialization” became the norm. Most of the Olympic lifting contests would be followed by a bodybuilding contest with many of the same men competing in both. Men looked strong and were strong for the most part.
Specialization for one sport or the other brought changes, especially with a greater segment of the general population becoming aware of “physical fitness” and the benefits of regular exercise. Among the strong men in most gyms, some were attracted not to bodybuilding and not to Olympic weightlifting but to “just being strong.” From this group rose the popularity of Odd Lift Contests, impromptu or organized meets that established competition which almost always included the bench press, squat, deadlift, curl, upright row, or some combination of these five movements. In some areas of the country there may have been popularity of a specific movement that would be included in their grouping of competitive exercises but over time, this grew into “powerlifting.” Competition, again impromptu or organized locally, became yet another branch of “lifting weights” and over more time, an organized sport under the auspices of the Amateur Athletic Union which governed and controlled all non-professional sports in the United States. By this time, there were some definite pre-judgments made with “Olympic lifters are real athletes, bodybuilders are narcissists, and powerlifters do what they do because they aren’t good enough to do either weightlifting or bodybuilding” being usual. The bias against powerlifters was quite significant. While those who dabbled in powerlifting with an occasional foray into competition were still seen as “real” weightlifters or “real” bodybuilders as their primary sports, those who had chosen powerlifting as their specific choice of iron game sport involvement were definitely looked down upon as not athletic enough to do the Olympic lifts or not able to develop a physique that would allow them into bodybuilding competition.
Heaping indignity further upon those who entered the realm of powerlifting were the magazines serving as the voice of the sports, at times referring to powerlifters as “hairy, fat, uncouth, and non-athletic men” who had turned to their sport after realizing a lack of success in the other better established areas of training or competition. As was my usual way of getting things done when I needed information and of course very much in keeping with the only way one could gather information about real strength training or powerlifting in the 1960s, I traveled to find it. Many of my TITAN SUPPORT SYSTEM blogs have served to remind our readers that I would, as a young teenager, hitchhike to York, PA, locate local warehouses and garages where men training with very heavy weights were said to be congregating, and of course, I would ask an awful lot of questions at the handful of storefront gyms on Long Island and around the boroughs of New York City. Weight training in any form and especially powerlifting as a specific activity was still very much a cult-like endeavor where most of the participants, even in the highly populated and far-flung square mileage of the New York metropolitan area, knew each other or knew of each other.
At a contest I met Pittsburgh area iron worker Bob Weaver, “Big Bob” to his friends at approximately 5’10”
and 350 pounds. He lifted huge weights in and out of competition, had a very basic approach to training, told me he made his own equipment, and with both of us having an iron working background, we got along well on the afternoon we spoke at length. To this day I recall reading the insulting words of an author l do not remember and have to believe that the finger pointing at those powerlifters described as “hairy, fat, uncouth, and non-athletic men” was in fact meant for super strong individuals like Weaver, Don Cundy, and Jim Williams as examples, but few men could have been as pleasant and quick to share whatever training information he had as Weaver was with me, and there was nothing “hairy, fat, uncouth, or non-athletic” about him!
There was a drumbeat that stated that little if any athletic ability was needed to bench press, squat, or deadlift, the order of the competitive lifts in that era, as there was no technical skill involved, unlike Olympic weightlifting. Many articles made the broad generalization that all powerlifters were “fat slobs, unconcerned with their physiques or physical appearance.” Of course this overlooked the lean and almost always muscular lighter lifters but was part of the overriding negative attitude displayed towards powerlifting and its participants. The joke of course was on weightlifting and bodybuilding. By definition, more individuals will train to improve appearance, thus classifying them as “bodybuilders” even if they
have never even seen a competition, than those who lift to elevate more poundage. Through the 1970s and into the ‘80s however, powerlifting participation exceeded that of weightlifting in the United States and despite fracturing into innumerable organizations, still has more registered lifters than Olympic lifting. Powerlifting went through its difficult early stages and even into the mid-1970s, had lifting officials and the sport’s leaders using magazine articles to encourage powerlifting competitors to avoid wearing “offensive slogans or logos” on their shirts in contests or while training. Branded by some as “The Hells Angels Of Organized Sports,” powerlifting, while overcoming the initial “they’re not real athletes” label, still struggled to overcome a bias that participants were for the most part, “biker types,” bar brawlers, and blue collar ruffians.
Of course those of us involved in the sport understand that like any other sport, all “types” are attracted to powerlifting, all vocations are represented, all ethnic, racial, and religious groups present it seems at any and every contest. There are in fact “cocky” powerlifters just as there are “studious” or “narcissistic” powerlifters with every personality type imaginable pursuing the quest to lift more weight. We have overcome the very real prejudice that negatively affected the sport in its first fifteen to twenty years of existence and the diversity of participants is one of the qualities that make it so positive. The prevailing attitude among lifters, if it can be called that, is one that reflects helpfulness, willingness to share, and support for fellow lifters.