Sarah Davies wants weightlifters to be treated less as robots and more as personalities when they are on the platform ©Getty Images

The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) Athletes' Commission will talk about ways of making weightlifting faster and more entertaining for viewers and spectators at a meeting on Monday (January 17).

Weightlifters should be treated less as robots and more as personalities when they are on the platform, said Sarah Davies, the chair of the Athletes' Commission.

The sport needs to modernise, innovate, and work hard to attract new followers, Davies said - but at the same time it should hold on to its traditional Olympic format and core values.

Davies, from Britain, says an open debate about bringing in new formats and changing the way the sport is presented "is exactly what weightlifting has needed for years".

She suggested playing athletes' favourite music during competitions, and said that using enthusiastic presenters to introduce them to the audience rather than "monotone commentary by people who don’t sound excited" would be a big step forward.

"When the people presenting the sport invest in you it makes anyone watching and listening also invest in that lifter - and that makes it entertaining.

"Weightlifters aren't just robots on that stage, they're real people with a personality. 

"If somebody appears more personable you're more likely to engage.

"Look at social media - the weightlifters with biggest followings are not necessarily the best lifters, they're the ones who best engage with the public, who show they’re a real person."

Davies' comments come a week after high-ranking officials from China and Norway, both future hosts of the IWF World Championships, said the sport desperately needed to modernise.

Zhou Jinqiang, President of the Chinese Weightlifting Association, spoke of his plans to turn this year's World Championships into a "carnival for weightlifting" and highlighted the need for better broadcasting of competitions and a stronger focus on realising the sport's commercial potential.

Chinese Weightlifting Association President Zhou Jinqiang is eager to modernise weightlifting ©CWA
Chinese Weightlifting Association President Zhou Jinqiang is eager to modernise weightlifting ©CWA

Stian Grimseth, his counterpart from Norway, said: "We have a fantastic sport but we need to review everything we do if we want to make it commercially successful.

"All the drama and excitement behind the walls in the warm-up area - it's so extremely interesting and we need to introduce it to the spectators in the hall, to the people watching on television, to all the forms of media now available. 

"What we are showing to the public is only 10, 15, 20 per cent of the game when we need to show and explain all of it."

Grimseth said the walls separating the platform from the back-room area should come down to bring more drama into the sport, and Davies agrees.

"It’s 100 per cent a growth sport and we need to be building for the future," she said.

Davies spent some time with Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President, at the Tokyo Olympic Games six months ago, at a private meeting and then in the auditorium as Bach sat with her to watch a session.

While there was no formal or detailed reference to innovation it was "sort of understood that it was part of the discussion", Davies said.

"He was asking the questions - why is this person doing that, why have they decided on that weight - and that tells you that what happens in the back room, the tactics and the background, needs to be seen more.

"I’m sure bringing it all out into the open is something he and the IOC would welcome - it would help to take the level of engagement up to another level.

"The IOC have things they want us to improve on but they also care about engagement in the Olympic Games and that's why they've put other sports in place that are more engaging to a newer audience.

"We need to look at our longevity in the Olympic Movement not just for 2024 and 2028 but beyond that.

Weightlifting has been left off the provisional Olympic programme for Los Angeles 2028  ©Getty Images
Weightlifting has been left off the provisional Olympic programme for Los Angeles 2028 ©Getty Images

"To quote my own dad, who comes to watch me compete, 'It’s all right but it's pretty boring apart from the six minutes I'm there to watch you.'

"Which is true because you can't see what's going on. 

"There is excitement to be had by seeing the changes going on behind the scenes.

"We need to be able to communicate that behind-the-scenes excitement to the audience, to the general consumer who doesn't know much about weightlifting. 

"That’s massively important.

"Athletes don't want it to become too much of a stage show.

"They’re still focused on their performance and it's dangerous if you don't focus, but it's finding the right balance where you perform to your potential but are aware that we need to engage more with an audience outside the purist weightlifting community.

"We shouldn’t lose the traditional format but you can make weightlifting more entertaining for example by getting rid of the walls in the warm-up room, by having cameras that constantly show you what's going on on the change table.

"You can keep the Olympic competition at the top level of Olympic Games and World Championships, but at the same time have other events running that aren't weightlifting in its traditional form, something different that a new audience can engage with.

"That could maybe be a team thing, something like the Bundesliga in Germany, run at a faster pace so you never have athletes waiting to follow themselves.

"We could develop a new points system for scoring, change the scoreboard itself that shows if this person makes this lift it puts them in this position - that would be awesome.

"There are ways it can be done to keep everybody happy and at the same time move the sport forward.

"We should look at other sports, see how they do it.

"It’s difficult with strength sports because there's the athlete’s recovery time to factor in but it would be great to see some changes before Paris (the 2024 Olympic Games) to build for the future, improve the engagement, a sign that we’re ready to move on."

Olympic champion Lu Xiaojun sits on the IWF Athletes' Commission and has a large following  ©Getty Images
Olympic champion Lu Xiaojun sits on the IWF Athletes' Commission and has a large following ©Getty Images

In China, the United States, Israel, Austria and elsewhere, low-key competitions have been staged in unusual venues such as parks, shopping malls and on the beach, but nothing like that has ever been done under the auspices of the IWF.

The IWF Marketing Commission had not held a single meeting since it was created after the last elections nearly five years ago.

And while a number of former weightlifters have enjoyed commercial success via social media and their own promotional and coaching skills, the IWF has been distracted by bigger problems such as doping and corruption.

Dmitry Klokov from Russia, Oleksiy Torokhtiy from Ukraine and Lu Xiaojun, who became the oldest ever Olympic weightlifting champion last year and who still competes for China, all have a strong commercial presence, fit for the 21st century.

Lu is on the IWF Athletes' Commission and Davies said, "It will be interesting to talk to him about it next week [at the virtual meeting].

"He does bring good ideas to the table - he’s clearly a very talented man, with a very good support network around him.

"There are others from before his time, look at Klokov and the empire he has built in weightlifting. 

"The market’s there, it has to be tapped into.

"It's a good move from China to suggest changes - weightlifting is such a big sport there.

"If the general weightlifting population is going to listen to any nation it's likely to be China, because they’re successful in competition and they also they have a lot of pulling power."

Persuading the IWF to innovate and change in the near future will not be easy, but after the Athletes' Commission meeting, Davies would like to see the subject on the agenda for the IWF Executive Board, on which she also sits.

Weightlifting could learn from how other strength sports are marketed, believes Sarah Davies ©Getty Images
Weightlifting could learn from how other strength sports are marketed, believes Sarah Davies ©Getty Images

A lot of growth has been attributed to CrossFit, the "competitive fitness" sport that took off globally after its launch in the United States in the early years of this century, and which generates billions of dollars in revenue.

"CrossFit has done massive things for the strength industry and we didn’t take advantage of the wave of growth in the way some other sports have," said Davies.

She cites the British "Strongest Man" contest as an example.

"It’s gone from a car park in Doncaster to selling out Wembley. 

"They’ve taken advantage of the growth in strength sport, and weightlifting needs to work out where we fit in that growth."

Both CrossFit and the "Giants Live" strength series offer huge prize money, unlike weightlifting - though Zhou suggested that China would put up cash prizes for athletes at the World Championships this year.

"The IWF World Cup in China [in Tianjin just over two years ago] is the only one I’ve ever competed at for prize money," said Davies, 29, whose career is seven years and counting.

"It’s not going to make that much difference in terms of performance, but prize money might encourage people to compete more frequently and attract good lifters to all sorts of events."

There is a long way to go before any new ideas can be put into action but Davies - like both Zhou and Grimseth - believes there is no time to waste, even though plans could be disrupted by the IWF elections in June, when a new leadership will be voted in.

There will also be Athletes' Commission elections, but Davies said, "It’s time now, with the elections in place, to do something.

"Let's use our time productively rather than just waiting out our days."