China's amateur weightlifters fight 'short, fat' stigma

·2-min read

In a Shanghai basement gym, amateur weightlifters strain under two loads: the steel bars and plates that they lift, and a stigma rooted in the Chinese belief that the sport leaves its practitioners stunted and fat.

Even as China once again dominates weightlifting at the Tokyo Olympics, amateurs back home face misunderstanding.

"You see athletes with big butts, big legs, red faces, lifting on the platforms at the Olympic Games," said Gabriella Qu, founder of Venus Weightlifting in Shanghai.

"That's the moment people say, 'That's not very nice. That's not the image I want to put on myself.'"

Especially for women practitioners in China -- where physical beauty is typically equated with slender fragility -- weightlifting is strongly looked down upon.

Xu Weiya, 28, who was inspired to start lifting by her husband, a competitive amateur weightlifter, said her parents had "a lot of comments" about her new hobby.

- 'Not for you' -

"My mother said to me, weightlifting athletes are all short and buff, so this sport is not for you," Xu said, citing a commonly held belief that "girls shouldn't do this type of exercise."

Qu, 32, a weightlifter and coach herself, says she opened Venus Weightlifting in 2015 partly to help address such misconceptions by increasing awareness of the sport as a form of healthy exercise.

China -- currently racking up its usual pile of weightlifting gold medals in Tokyo -- is a superpower in the sport, its athletes often selected for body type and groomed from a young age by a rigorous state-run sporting program.

But the sport's availability to the "normal person" remains limited, with relatively few venues, Qu said.

"What most people know about weightlifting comes mainly from watching the Olympics," said Lu Siyao, 28, Xu's husband.

"These athletes are chosen especially for their body types," Lu said, adding that at elite levels more muscle mass per square inch on a person's frame usually wins the day.

But that leaves many spectators to judge the sport only through its top-tier competitors, he said.

"But for us amateurs, our bodies are already set in this way," he adds.

"No matter how much we train, we cannot shrink ourselves or make our legs shorter."

Still, many at Venus Weightlifting hope China's Olympic glory will eventually foster a sense of pride and make people more open to the sport.

Asked if she worries about the negative stereotypes, Xu, one of many female weightlifters at Venus, says she prefers to ignore traditional social expectations.

"Weightlifting does not make us short and fat. We can only become more healthy and more fit from it," she said.

"And we should realise that beauty does not come only in one form."

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