Powerlifting Watch: the need for an ecumenical space for a multi-federation Sport


Powerlifting is a multi-federation sport. That means it has multiple governing or sanctioning bodies. While this is an inevitable trend (and, as I argue, a healthy one) in non-Olympic sports, the existence of a neutral, ecumenical space is important to preserve the sport itself, to promote critical decision making by members of the community and to inform the public. In Powerlifting, this ecumenical space is the virtual portal Powerlifting Watch.

Let us review the concepts involved in defining “sport”, proceed to the nature of governing bodies, the phenomenon of multi-federation organization and Powerlifting Watch’s role in our sport.


Game, Sport and modern Sport

As in many areas of the social realm, it is hard to carve niches of consensus into the discussion about sport. If we are not careful, we’ll soon find ourselves in a sports Babel. By “sport”, “game”, “rule” and “organization”, five people might be referring to entirely, non-translatable things.

Guttman (2007, p. 1-3) defines sport in the context of play, game and contest. “Play” would be a universal human expression of autotelic activity. By that, he means it is governed by its own purposes. Play can be spontaneous or organized. One example of spontaneous play would be the act of throwing pebbles into a lake. Organized play, determined by codes or rules, would be crossword puzzles, playing house, marble, memory cards or basketball. Guttman defines organized play as “game”. Games may be competitive or non-competitive. Playing house or crossword puzzles would be non-competitive games, while memory cards, marble and basketball would be competitive games. Competitive games are called “contests”. The author divides contests into those that require physical abilities and those that don’t. “Sport” would be a contest that requires physical ability. In Guttman’s model, memory cards (as well as chess) would not be sports, while marble and basketball would.

While the model is interesting and useful, it leaves unanswered questions and unadressed issues. The first problem, which I am sure the reader has spotted right away, is the classification of chess as a non-sport activity. According to Guttman, it isn’t. According to the International Olympic Committee, it is and it will be included in the 2016 games. In the public opinion, the IOC’s veredict wins.

There is second, less obvious, but even more interesting case concerning our discussion. What about marble? It is played according to rules (usually negotiated each time by kids), it depends on physical ability and it is competitive. The winner is usually rewarded, taking marbles from his contenders. Is marble a sport or not? Guttman would probably say “yes”, but common sense and most historians and sociologists of sport would say “no” (Allison 1986). Unlike basketball, marble was not institutionalized.

The more radical scholars claim that if it is not institutionalized, then it is not sport, period. That would exclude all the forunners of what we know today as discus throw, hammer throw, running and other practices about which we have ancient record, even in the Pan-Helenic games.

Methodological stringency and precision suggest we refer to “modern sport” as institutionalized game.

All the issues involved in the present debate on the nature, state of the art and federation conflict belong to the context of modern sport, fully institutionalized and taking place in a complex economic reality. The problems resulting from these contradictions – representation, participatory democracy and sports governance, professionalization, the amateur sports, financial support and the social role of high performance athletics – belong to this scenario, and not to its historical predecessors.

Like institutionalization, the professionalization of Sport is a XIXth and XXth century phenomenon.

There is nothing wrong with professionalization. Many scholars have shown, through careful historical investigation, how professionalization led to the democratization of access to the sports. If before it had been the privilege of aristocrats and the bourgeoisie – the “amateurs”, who could practice the sport for “love” with no expectation of financial reward due to their family’s economic status – these sports attracted more and more athletes from the working classes when they became professional, thus, paid.

Sports federations, or “governing bodies”, are the organizative setting where all the political and economical interests that format modern sport operate. Neither good or bad, federations are a constitutive element of modern sport. Just like their origin has a documented history, their dynamics might be analyzed according to the forces in action. The existence of only one federation in Olympic sport (political monopoly) has an origin and a control mechanism. The multiple federation phenomenon in other sports obeys equally analyzable dynamics.

Neutrality has been ruled out of the scientific ethos a couple of decades ago: everyone, including (and, perhaps, chiefly) scientist have agendas. I have mine. My thesis is that historical determinants led to the emergence of sports governing structures (federations) of a monopolistic nature until 1950-1980, whereas other factors, related to a new economic and political reality, proper to contemporary globalization, contribute to the diversification and differentiation of organizational forms. None is inherently good or bad: both contain elements of perversity and relative benefits to this or that social actor in the sports scenario. If there are “sides” to be taken, mine is the well-being of and respect towards the athlete and sports practitioner, his or her rights to be an active part in decision-making, as well as defending the beneficial social and cultural role of sports in our society (regardless if it is high performance or community based). Therefore, if the authoritarian monopolistic political rule by federation leaders is undesirable and against the “higher interests of humanity”, the return to primitive lawless structures where local bosses rule is even worse.

The dilemma faced by all of us can only be solved with transparency. We must bravely face dissatisfaction and the problems identified by athletes in all parts of the world.

Let the dirty laundry come: we will wash it with the soap of intelligence, education, ethics and common sense.


Modern sport and the birth of Sports Governing Bodies

The “modern sport” we are talking about was born in the XIXth century, in England, with the institutionalization of football and other sports. This format has since been spreading out to other physical practices and games up to now.

One example from football and rugby is of a game whose origins go back to the XIVth century, with no written rules. Practiced by the populace, somewhat rough in nature, it remained so, like so many other pre-industrial games until around 1750, when it was incorporated by English schools. The game went through a process of normatization and disciplinary structuring, similar to other student activities under the bureaucratic power of schools. Since 1840, these games, now properly disciplined, underwent a turbulent period of conflicts over rules, at the same time that independent clubs were formed.

The result was the separation between rugby and football. In a heated public discussion covered by the press at the time, the involved parties created the Football Association (FA), in 1863, and the Rugby Football Union (RFU), in 1871. The conflicts over rules evolved and resulted in the first expressions of sports governing bodies (Dunning et al 2004, p. 47).


Governance and the Olympic Games

The emergence of leagues and federations by sport was soon followed by the Olympic Games of the Modern Era.

The Modern Era Olympic Games started as Baron de Coubertin and associates’ brainchild. They envisioned an international activity, recurrent every four years, where national pride would be manifest in the form of sports feats. The driving force behind their initiative was the French humiliation in 1871, in the franco-prussian war. Since its first version, in 1896, until today, the games were marked by national rivalry, contained and regulated by an organizative bureaucracy that became more and more complex. Since 1908, National Olympic Committees were involved in organizing the events, which were rapidly structured at the national level.

The International Olympic Committee works with two sports governing structures: the National Olympic Committees and the International Federation by sport. The IOC has the power to approve a certain sports modality as an Olympic Sport, thus enthroning one International Federation as its official representative. From then on, the organization of actual competitive events is the responsibility of both structures (Senn 1999).


The political and economic interests catalyzed by the Olympic games resulted in a dramatic concentration of power in the hands of International Federations and National Olympic Commitees. Such power concentration only increased after the Second World War, when the Olympics were converted into the stage of political and ideological dispute, the sports counterpart of the Cold War. The principle of “everything goes”, when the number of Olympic medals was at stake, grew dangerously.

Another decisive factor for the concentration of power and relevance in these governing bodies was the growth of the sports industry, lead by the equipment and entertainment industries, particularly the television broadcasting of the games.

With the requirement of unified International Federations by sport, with affiliated national organisms, the sports became standardized. At the same time, the absolute monopoly of political and economic rights over each sport’s activities was endowed to these organizations. Such monopoly manifests itself both in the authority to negotiate with government organisms, as in the manipulation of broadcasting and image rights, as well as other economically relevant actions (Andreff & Szymanski 2006, p. 228-249).


Federations, Power and the athlete

There’s an uncomfortable feeling reported by many athletes who compete inside the federation systems that “this thing is not really mine”. The phenomenon has been (very little) studies by sociologists and anthropologists.

We have reviewed how federations, or sports governing bodies, are organizative forms assumed along the institutionalization of sport. When we speak about “institutionalization”, we usually refer to characteristic patterns of recognized social relations, well codified and established, which define a legitimate form of engaging in a certain activity. Institutionalization, therefore, concerns procedural and relationship rules between social agents.

In sport, this meant making sure a certain number of rules were largely accepted as “the right form to play” what was, before institutionalization, a game (Gruneau 1999, p.34). This increasingly formalized and systematized structure progressively alienates individual practitioners. As in society at larte, the “State” (governance organization) become self-sustaining and self-reproducing. It becomes the stage of a power play for agents invested with legitimacy for their roles, with less and less control by the “citizen” (the athlete).


The future of organization in sport

It is hard to predict anything about the future of modern sports governance. Some trends may be identified, though.

Andreff e Szymanski report that the growth of institutionalized Sport during the past decades has been significant. However, in terms of world trends, a general expansion, diversification and differentiation prevail as dominant features. Originally, to practice a sport it was necessary to be part of a club or school, and, therefore, affiliated to a federation. Studies done in France show the changes since then.

In 1950, 2 million people were affiliated to federations. In 1960, 3 million, in 1983, 10 million and in 2005, 14 million. A survey done in the year 2000, however, has shown that 36 million people between 15-75 years old practiced some type of sport. Another study showed that 54% of the French population practiced some type of sports activity with no connection to any federation (Andreff & Szymanski 2006).

The trends analyzed by Andreff e Szymanski are easily observed in sports where different varieties of its practice are developed. Each one has their own adepts and adopts their own organizational form.

Kung-fu/wushu has five federations struggling for hegemony (table 1). Karate has five. Boxing has seven. Jiu-jitsu has three. Powerlifting has more than thirty (most of them quite small and little recognized). As the rules and procedures vary more and more, the circulation of practitioners increases. With the political flexibility the actual management of non-olympic sports allow for today, the athlete has increasingly adopted the attitude of a modern consumer. He/she values the diversity of options, may try a number of them and offers no exclusive allegiance to any, although he/she usually prefers one or two over the rest. Reasons go from comfort and cost (closer to home, for example), regional affinity (even being International, it has a “face”), meeting friends at meets, and, of course, the general performance level and referee consistency.


Table 1: examples of multi-federation sports

Sport Federations


Boxing World Boxing Association http://www.wbanews.com/International boxing association http://www.aiba.org/World Boxing Federation http://www.worldboxingfederation.net/International Boxing Federation http://www.ibf-usba-boxing.com/

World Boxing Council http://www.wbcboxing.com/

World Boxing Organization http://www.wboboxing.com/

World Boxing Union http://www.wbu.cc/


Kung fu International Kung Fu Federation internationalkungfu.com/International Federation of Shaolin Kungfuwww.shaolin.ru/Server/About.htmWorld Traditional Kung-Fu Federation http://www.worldkung-fu.com/Choy Li Fut Kung Fu – Plum Blossom International Federation http://plumblossom.net/ChoyLiFut/

International Wushu Federation http://www.iwuf.org



Karate World Traditional Karate Organization – http://www.wtko.org/World Karate Federation (WKF) http://www.wkf.net/International Federation of Karate (IFK)   http://www.uskyokushin.com/International Seibukan Karate Association  http://www.seibukan.org/

International Karate Organization  http://www.kyokushin-kai-kan.com/

Ju Jitsu International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federationwww.ibjjf.org/Ju-Jitsu International Federation – Homewww.jjif.info/World Ju Jitsu Federation – http://www.dgtgroup.co.uk/hosted/wjjf/ 



In the consumer model of athlete-federation relationship, equipment quality, organization, general performance level, refereeing consistency and other general aspects of the competition environment are commodities. The federation is the corporation providing them. The issue of representative participation and democracy cease to make sense. As consumers, athletes are free to choose whatever combination they want and they act according to a contract between service providers and themselves.

In powerlifting, the corporate model is increasingly substituting the “pseudo-olympic” representative model, where one organization claims the right to represent (non-democraticallly) the sport in the IOC, in government relations or in society. This model is prevalent in the United States, Canada and Western Europe. It is slowly making its way into other regions. Whether it will become the world wide dominant model or how long it will co-exist with older, “pseudo-olympic” forms of organization is unpredictable. There are too many variables in this equation, including the political culture of each society that will influence how acceptable pluralistic democracy and corporate models are acceptable, or how willing this society is to cope with more authoritarian forms of organization, having, for example, a history of past military dictatorships.


The need for an ecumenical space: Powerlifting Watch

Regardless of the course the history of our sport will take, it seems that athletes’ behavior has shown their need and willingness to keep a neutral ground for the exchange of ideas and information. Given the previous analysis, one could ask why such space is needed. The chief reason is decision-making.

Many studies about the process of decision making show that it’s quality is optimized by the necessary and sufficient availability of information, besides the tools for manipulating such content. That requires an information and communication platform that displays information in a sufficiently neutral and user-friendly way and makes it possible for all users to have access to it.

Another reason athletes value an ecumenical unified space for information sharing is to have standards by which to judge performance. With a 30-plus number of federations, being a World Champion or holding a world record means different things than if the sport had one or a small number of organizations, since the standards by which to evaluate one’s own performance are scattered.

With a neutral organization comparing “comparable” numbers, it makes it easier for the lifter to understand his/her own level, performance evolution, etc.

Powerlifting Watch has been playing this role for many years. The website was created by Jon Hall in 2005 by Jon Hall. Jon was interested in gathering information about the sport and compiled historical material on it. In 2010, he stepped down from PLW. As he announced his decision, he emphasized that he had “great faith that Powerlifting Watch’s new owner, Eric Talmant, will continue to honor the site’s mission to be an inclusive and federation-neutral resource for the entire powerlifting community.”

Today, PLW is owned by Dave Bates and Johnny Vasquez, who have been keeping the portal an ecumenical space for powerlifting. According to Bates, PLW has an average of 8 million hits and 95,000 unique visitors a month. These numbers confirm the claim that PLW remains a recognized information and discussion environment for all lifters.

Some of the features most cherished by athletes all over the world is the compilation of “all time historical records” by Johnny Vasquez. To this day, it remains the only way any lifter can measure his or her accomplishments in the context of all lifting done in history. The federation-independent ranking is also greatly valued, as well as the detailed information about all available sanctioning bodies in the sport.

The bottom line in this article’s argument is that lifters trust these indicators and the information published by PLW. A lot could be written about trust, but one thing is certain: in the difficult exercise of plural democracy and multi-federation athleticism, trust in a neutral organization is what binds all lifting activity into the fluid powerlifting identity.



Bibliographical references

Guttmann, A. 2007. Sports: The First Five Millennia. University of Massachusetts Press.

Dunning, E. Et al. 2004. Sport Histories: Figurational Studies in the Development of Modern Sport. Routledge.

Gruneau, R.S. 1999. Class, Sports, and Social Development. Human Kinects.

Andreff, W. & Szymanskim, S. 2006. Handbook on the Economics of Sport. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Senn, A. 1999. Power, Politics, and the Olympic Games: a history of the power brokers, events, and controversies that shaped the Games. Human Kinetics.

Allison, Lincoln, ed. 1986. The Politics of Sport. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1986. Pp. 264.

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