Tokyo 2020 announcer Sally Van de Water, left, and United states Olympian Fred Lowe, right, officiating at one of the record 147 sessions in Columbus ©Lifting Life

American weightlifters of all ages and sizes helped to set a host of world records in Columbus, Ohio - not in terms of kilos lifted but in sheer numbers.

The Arnold Weightlifting Championships, which finished on Sunday, was by some distance the biggest weightlifting competition in the history of the sport.

It featured 1,866 athletes, seven competition platforms, 147 sessions in five days, 144 technical officials and record numbers of announcers, loaders and barbells.

None of it would have been possible without the efforts of USA Weightlifting’s management team, its sponsors, its burgeoning number of athletes and - perhaps most important of all - its enormous army of volunteers.

"As it’s the world’s first seven-platform meet and the biggest event since COVID-19, a lot of people wanted to be a part of it," said Phil Andrews, chief executive of USA Weightlifting.

While referees were paid a small sum for their duties at every session, it was not enough to pay their hotel bill, never mind the cost of travelling to Columbus from all over the country, and their living expenses.

"They do it for the love of the sport, and we couldn’t survive without them," said Andrews.

"When we went to six platforms there was a discussion about how many technical officials we’d need, but we were fairly confident we could pull it off.

"It has taken a huge amount of organisation but we have the numbers - more than any other national federation I believe - and the quality."

Three-time Olympic gold medallist and USAW’s technical director Pyrros Dimas was among the many officials at the Arnold Weightlifting Championships ©USAW
Three-time Olympic gold medallist and USAW’s technical director Pyrros Dimas was among the many officials at the Arnold Weightlifting Championships ©USAW

Sally Van de Water, an announcer at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games who was joint competition director in Columbus with Joanna Jones, said: "It can cost a lot of money to become a referee, thousands of dollars.

"It’s why it took me 10 years to qualify - I couldn’t afford to fly to national meets.

"But we do it because we love weightlifting, and when you come to an event like this it’s great - there’s a real buzz of excitement here."

While Andrews was speaking to insidethegames all seven competition platforms - there were 69 in all, including training hall and warm-up areas - were simultaneously in use.

Such was the demand for officials that Pyrros Dimas, the triple Olympic champion who is also USA Weightlifting (USAW) technical director, was called into action, as was performance director Mike Gattone, while Andrews was the announcer at several sessions.

"We’ve been stretched pretty thin at times," said Van de Water, who would wake at 4.30am, arrive at the venue at 5.30 and clock off around 10pm.

"We were short of referees and drafted in Pyrros and Mike to help.

"Mike went to one platform and Pyrros was centre referee for the 89kg H Group. 

"He’s a good sport, always so gracious."

H Groups are unusual in weightlifting, but this event took things to another level.

Bigger competitions might go from A Group to D Group if they have a lot of entries in one weight category, usually with up to a dozen athletes in each group.

At the Celeste Center in Columbus the women’s 64kg went all the way down to an O Group, with 194 entries.

Pedro Meloni, USAW's director of events and sponsorship who was weightlifting competition manager at Rio 2016, with Sally Van de Water ©USAW
Pedro Meloni, USAW's director of events and sponsorship who was weightlifting competition manager at Rio 2016, with Sally Van de Water ©USAW

That is more than many federations will have at their national championships, and it is a number that was put into perspective by another prominent volunteer, Fred Lowe, who represented the United States at three Olympic Games and was a multiple national champion during the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

"I can well remember competing at the 1971 US Nationals in York, Pennsylvania when there were 59 guys there," Lowe said.

There were no women in the sport at that time and weightlifting was a different world.

"This thing is so different."

It is part of The Arnold Sports festival, set up by Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1989 and held in Columbus since then.

The Hollywood star had watched the 1971 International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Championships in Columbus and promised to set up a strength event.

It features body-building, Strong Man, powerlifting, gymnastics, and fencing in a total of 35 sports.

Mark Cannella, president of Columbus Weightlifting and an elite coach, got a weightlifting competition on to the schedule in 2003 and since 2018 it has been part of the American Open Series, which has broadened to North American this year in a partnership with Canada.

All of which combined draws hundreds of vendor stalls and 80,000 spectators to The Arnold.

"The energy level is tremendous because there’s so much activity going on," said Lowe, who was in Las Vegas in 2018 when USAW set the previous world record of 1,561 athletes at the American Open Series 3.

"Weightlifting has really taken off in recent years and this is  a great way to give it exposure.

"We’ve adopted some ideas from other sports, for example there’s music going on pretty much all the time.

A packed audience at The Arnold Weightlifting Championships in Columbus ©USAW
A packed audience at The Arnold Weightlifting Championships in Columbus ©USAW

"Some people from my generation don’t like these meets when there are so many entries, so much noise but to me it’s remarkable.

"The effort is gigantic and it’s so well run, the competition secretaries do a miraculous job.

"This is all volunteer work but there’s a big difference now in terms of people in the sport understanding what it takes for it all to happen.

"Also, people now really understand the good weightlifting does for you, physically and psychologically. 

"They are committing to it and it’s wonderful to see."

There is a worldwide discussion going on about how weightlifting should adapt to attract more interest, how it should use innovative ways of presenting itself to a 21st-century world.

Lowe, who first lifted in 1965 and "has given his life to weightlifting" according to Andrews, has no problem with ideas such as bringing the crowd closer to the action, and making the warm-up part of the show.

At the US Nationals in June and July the warm-up will indeed be "part of the spectator experience" according to Andrews.

"That means parents will be able to see not just six lifts when their son or daughter is out on the platform, but 20, 25, 30 lifts - every warm-up.

"And it will be the same for spectators following their favourite athlete, whether that be CJ Cummings, Kate Nye, Mattie Rogers, Mary Theisen-Lappen or whoever - it will make it immersive for them."

Having Cannella in Columbus helped to get weightlifting on to the schedule at The Arnold, and it has helped that USAW’s equipment sponsor, Rogue Fitness, is also based in the city.

"With the sheer number of platforms, bars - for youths and seniors - and weights needed, we couldn’t pull this off without Rogue," said Andrews.

There was one other significant record set in Columbus - not a world record but a national record for Theisen Lappen out on the main show platform.

Her clean and jerk of 163kg, beating Sarah Robles’s 162kg, was the most-ever lifted by an American female weightlifter - and because of the sheer size of the event she was cheered on by several thousand spectators.