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Raising the Bar

Elisha Chauhan speaks to the key stakeholders of the 2015 IWF (International Weightlifting Federation) World Weightlifting Championships to find out how host city Houston plans to turn one of the original Olympic sports into a modern day spectacle.

The Lone Star State will be at the centre of the weightlifting universe next month as the sport’s World Championships descends on Texas.

Houston is expecting to host the largest ever edition of the IWF (International Weightlifting Federation) flagship event, with the local organising committee (LOC) expecting around 700 athletes, up from last year’s 526 athletes. Both 2014 and 2015 Championships are qualifiers for next year’s summer Olympics in Rio.

It was the organisational skills of the local Harris County-Houston Sports Authority (HCHSA), in conjunction with national governing body USA Weightlifting, which won Houston the hosting rights over Thai city – and 2007 World Championships host – Chiang Mai back in 2011, according to IWF president Tamas Ajan.

Beginning on November 20, the nine-day event will be held in the George R. Brown Convention Center (see below), which is connected via a glass skywalk to the athlete and officials hotel during the event.

In addition to securing a downtown location and cutting out the need for athlete transportation, the LOC will also be turning the event into a family-friendly show in true American style.

“People in the United States are used to having entertainment put on during sports events,” Houston Sports chief executive Janis Burke told SportBusiness International.

“The entertainment aspect of it is important for the sport in order for it to grow. When you look at the NBA (National Basketball Association) or NFL (National Football League), they are very serious business models about both competition and the fan experience.”

Viva Americana

Each day of the Championships will also have a theme such as charity, local hero, cultural and Olympian days, which will be put into practice via music, guest speakers and videos in between the different weight sessions and 10-minute breaks.

The Americanisation of the event also lends itself to the competition equipment, with the weights and stands all coloured in the red, white and blue of the United States flag. Given that the US measures in tonnes rather than the imperial kilograms that the IWF weights are categorised in, announcements or visuals will be carried out during the event so that the spectators easily understand the athlete is lifting the weight of a refrigerator, for example.

The themed days are also hoped to encourage ticket sales as the community will be at the heart of the non-competition activities. Despite this, Burke insisted that the gravitas of the Championships will remain.

People in the United States are used to having entertainment put on during sports events

“We’re trying to give the best of both worlds, but this is a serious competition and we want to make sure we do everything possible for the athletes to be able to focus,” she said.

Kicking off the show will be world famous performing arts act Cirque du Soleil for the opening ceremony that takes place on a Thursday night – a week before Thanksgiving holiday on November 26 – with the closing ceremony held on the following Saturday evening.

Tickets don’t come cheap though, with special admission for the whole Championships setting spectators back $800 and general admission $240 – Burke, however, said the prices were set at a competitive rate.

“There are tickets as low as $30 for a whole day of sessions, so we think that’s pretty reasonable given that you cannot get any sports tickets for less than that in the US,” she said. “We’re already north of 2,000 tickets sold [in early September], so we’re excited about what the attendance will look like. We’re hoping to sell out all of the sessions.”

Despite the venue only accommodating 2,700 spectators, Houston Sports is targeting general sports fans to make up the majority of ticket holders, rather than existing weightlifting fans and the family and friends of the athletes. This is in a bid to further grow the sport in the United States, with USA Weightlifting boasting one of the fastest growing memberships out of all national sports governing bodies in the country, according to Burke.

She attributes the resurgence of interest in the sport down to the popularity and success of fitness company CrossFit, which has also been hosting its own annual CrossFit Games since 2007 that include weightlifting as one of the sports.

Houston Sports has also played its part in promoting the sport in the lead up to the World Championships at a grassroots level, which is important given that USA Weightlifting is looking for a new generation of medallists. No American athlete has stepped onto the event’s podium for a decade, when Cheryl Haworth won a bronze medal at the 2005 Championships in Doha, Qatar.

“We hosted an Olympic day with 150 children with weightlifting as the focus. We taught them the correct technique to lift using very light plastic weights. We’re also going to donate some of the equipment from that day to the local community centre that has after-school sports programmes,” said Burke.

George R. Brown Convention Center

Opened in 1987, the George R. Brown Convention Center was named after the co-owner of construction company Brown & Root a few years after the Houstonian died. Last year the business – under KBR (Kellogg Brown & Root) – amassed revenues of $6.4bn.

The 3,600-seat venue will be limited to a 2,700 capacity to accommodate the centre stage for the IWF World Weightlifting Championships.

“It’s a good intimate venue as the stage will be in the centre of the room,” David Robertson, director of operations for the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, told SportBusiness International.

“We’ve hosted many sporting events at the venue before, including the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) Junior Olympic Games Sport Stacking Championships, the 2011 National Senior Games (formerly the Senior Olympics) where we brought in about 16 tennis courts and eight basketball courts for the latter. The Convention Center also played host to the 2006 NBA All Star celebrity game.”

The Center also houses the training hall for the event, which will be the largest of its kind in the Championships’ history, meaning that all the accommodation and competition venues will be in the same place.

“Due to the fact that the event is held around the Thanksgiving holiday, there will only be very small meeting room events before and after the Championships, so there won’t be any tight turnaround times,” added Robertson.

 

To continue reading the Event Focus on the IWF World Weightlifting Championships, please click the links below:

1. Pulling Position: Elisha Chauhan spoke to a rights-holder and a sponsor about the commercial attractiveness of the IWF World Weightlifting Championships.

2. Marketing Muscle: Executives from the Lagardere sports agency reveal how they will be creating a Texas feel to the World Weightlifting Championships in its broadcasting production and distribution around the world.

3. Power Struggle: European Weightlifting Federation (EWF) president Antonio Urso flexes his political muscles, following his fallout with the sport’s international governance.

4. Pumping Iron: President Tamas Ajan speaks about the growth of his IWF (International Weightlifting Federation) World Championships, as well as his crackdown on the sport’s biggest setback, doping.

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