The ‘LeBron James of weightlifting’ knows the sport’s Olympic future is murky

CJ Cummings surely has better days ahead, though whether they will involve the Olympics is an open question and a matter beyond his sinew-straining grip.

The youngest competitor in Wednesday’s men’s 73kg weightlifting final, the 23-time American record holder and two-time youth world champion turned 21 last month and could be poised to peak in Paris, assuming his sport is not dropped like so much dead weight.

Weightlifting is a classic Olympic event: athletes have hoisted heavy objects since the first Games in 1896. But in the era of surfing, skateboarding, BMX and sport climbing, perhaps traditional is a more polite way of saying dated.

And few, if any, sports are more tainted; manufacturers of anabolic steroids could hardly have wished for more loyal customers down the years. More than a quarter of all doping offences ever recorded at the Olympics have been in weightlifting, according to AFP, with 49 athletes stripped of their medals.

Citing “extreme concern” at the standard of the sport’s governance and anti-doping measures that appear to be growing softer rather than more stringent – not to mention the rampant corruption – the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, warned in February that weightlifting’s future is in doubt without reforms.

The sport has provisional status for 2024 and earlier this month the IOC voted to reduce the number of weightlifting contests in Paris. In Rio there were 260 competitors but in Paris there will be a mere 120.

If the feats of strength at London 2012 seemed superhuman – well, they were. When samples from the men’s 94kg event were reexamined in 2016, six lifters tested positive for banned substances, including all three medallists. The results were revised in September and Saeid Mohammadpour of Iran, who originally finished fifth, was awarded gold.

Tomasz Zielinski of Poland, previously back in ninth, was moved up to bronze. Zielinski’s belated feel-good story was somewhat undermined, though, given that a month earlier he was sent home from Rio for failing a drugs test. As was his brother, Adrian.

The outlook is cloudy but American weightlifting is enjoying a renaissance despite a setback in Tokyo for Cummings, its biggest name. The team of four men and four women in Japan is the largest US Olympic weightlifting contingent since 1996.

The Wall Street Journal anointed Cummings, who hails from the pretty coastal South Carolina town of Beaufort, the LeBron James of weightlifting in 2015. His adolescent strength was so prodigious that a university research laboratory searched for the source of his power when he was 14, ESPN reported, concluding that his technique was unusually consistent and efficient and his short femurs and bowed legs helped him pull the bar up quickly.

Cummings looked uneasy under the bright lights on Wednesday in the cavernous auditorium and languished far from medal contention after the snatch round. On his first attempt he paused, bent over, pursed his lips and raised the 145kg bar over his shoulders but no higher. Eyeballs bulging with effort, he tried again: a clean lift, just about, after a jury review. On his third attempt he opted for 150kg but almost immediately dropped the bar behind his back.

The clean and jerk segment started more promisingly, with Cummings lifting 180kg, but an extra 10kg were beyond him on his second try. He attempted an Olympic-record 198kg on his third and final effort in a bid for the bronze but barely scooped the bar off the floor.

The next man up, Shi Zhiyong of China, did manage that weight. Added to his Olympic record snatch, the 27-year-old won gold with a world-record total of 364kg, far ahead of the Venezuelan, Julio Mayora, who did a back-flip to celebrate his silver. Cummings was ninth.

“I’m bummed out, it was a horrible performance but I’ve just got to learn and grow from it,” he said. “I had some success at a young age but this is a whole different league, this is the big boy league, I’ll just have to train harder and get better.”

The Americans are due some success. Sarah Robles claimed a bronze in the women’s +75kg category in Rio 2016, becoming the first American weightlifter to win an Olympic medal for 16 years. The men have not stood on the podium since Los Angeles ’84.

Even during the sport’s post-war US heyday it was hard for lifters to muscle their way into the mainstream. Before Norbert Schemansky stood for election to the Michigan House of Representatives in the 1960s with the slogan, “Down with junks, drunks and punks”, he set 15 world records and between 1948 and 1964 became the first American to win medals at four Olympics.

Schemansky was arguably the world’s strongest man at his peak, able to clean and jerk more than 400lbs, but enjoyed more respect in the Soviet Union than his home country, where he was sacked from his manufacturing job when he asked for time off to go training. When he returned from Helsinki with a gold medal the only person who recognised him at the airport was a porter who mispronounced his name.

No doubt a brighter fate awaits Cummings. “I think this is just the beginning for USA weightlifting,” he said. “If Paris happens, it happens; if not, I’ve just got to go to the next thing.”