Powerlifting has a Nazi problem, and it can no longer hide it.
It’s easy to think that the culture of powerlifting has changed. Go to most meets or gyms and you’ll usually see a good number of women and minorities involved in some capacity. In fact, from 2014 to 2017 the number of female-identifying powerlifting competitors more than doubled, and women now make up 1/3 of the sport. Minorities act as referees, coaches, and state chairs for most of the major powerlifting and strongman federations. Yet the mere presence of women and minorities does not automatically translate to an inclusive culture.
Powerlifting is a majority white sport that has been markedly slower than many other sports to adapt in any way to the concerns of minority participants, let alone actively welcome these participants. For example, while USA Weightlifting explicitly allows for religious headwear to be worn while competing, many of the major American powerlifting federations still expressly do not allow this or have wavered on including it in their rulebooks, instead treating each individual lifter as their own special case. This creates situations in which minority lifters must advocate, often through several levels of leadership, for the ability to do things essential to their culture or religion - for observant Jewish athletes, this means not competing on Saturdays, for example.
Regardless, the explosive growth of powerlifting has meant that far more people, and different types of people, are involved in the sport than ever before. On a superficial level, this appears positive, and in some respects, it is. On another level, it has thrown nascent issues of race, class, and gender into stark relief. Among these issues is the growing visibility of active white supremacist participation and support within the powerlifting community. According to both federal law enforcement and the Southern Poverty Law Center, white supremacist ideology, and its corresponding actions, are increasingly popular in the United States. This is reflected within the microcosm of the powerlifting world.
The majority of religiously motivated hate crimes reported to the FBI are committed against individuals or institutions perceived to be Jewish. These crimes are often downplayed as “just” being property destruction or vandalism (spray painting a swastika onto the side of a synagogue, for example) -- but the database includes thousands of increasingly violent crimes, up to and including murder, with the recent events in Charlottesville acting as a stark reminder. As active Nazism and violent anti-semitism have been growing in visibility across the United States, they have also become more apparent within the insular powerlifting community.
This prejudice ranges from the fairly common, relatively anonymous -- a gym being a hostile atmosphere due to members using racial slurs, for example -- to the highly visible and personal -- multiple major figures within the sport being “outed” for having Nazi-related tattoos, company owners using their gyms to host the activities of white supremacist groups, top-ranked lifters espousing opinions like “Hitler was brilliant,” and more.
Incidents like this are becoming increasingly public and problematic as more minorities become involved in the sport. Minorities tend to be more well-versed in the language of hate, and therefore more readily able to identify coded verbiage or symbols (“88/SS” or the totenkopf or death’s head), or recognize the names and themes of known hate organizations (ie: Wolves of Vinland) that the white majority may not be aware of. Some white people who identify as allies, or individuals who have experienced different types of discrimination themselves, may also feel an increasing need to hold racists and antisemites accountable for their harmful and divisive actions.
Increasing incidents of social media "call-outs" seek to spread awareness of problematic behaviors and individuals, but there has been a limited response from the leadership of powerlifting sport organizations to problematic individuals and actions.
Why has powerlifting, as a community, been so reluctant to address the glaring issues of white supremacy within its ranks? Several factors account for this. The first, and perhaps most prominent, is that the majority of the powerlifting community, including the majority of leadership committees for all major competitive federations in the United States, is still comprised of white people. Simply put, this community does not see virulent anti-semitism and Nazism as a problem because, as of yet, it has never directly affected them. At a group level, they have never been threatened with violence, or experienced violence, merely for existing.
On some level, they even benefit from it (as with other forms of racism or xenophobia), as it enables them to remain in positions of power, to dictate policy and practice, and to get the jobs and status that they desire. On this level, minorities form an imagined underclass that the majority uses for downward comparison, scapegoating, and blame.
There is no interest in directly challenging these so-called “extreme” views, because ultimately, a direct challenge could negatively affect those in positions of power and result in a loss of power.
Related to this, powerlifting overlaps with many noted white supremacist groups (Operation Werewolf, 1%ers, etc) in the glorification of hypermasculine ideals. Physical strength is seen as an avatar of corresponding cultural and sexual supremacy, with physically weaker men derided as “unmanly,” and female lifters reduced to their value as sexual partners. Animal imagery is common, with wolves and lions being particular favorites among both groups (interesting choices, as both species are highly cooperative and fairly egalitarian). In contrast, a common antisemitic trope is to portray Jews as physically small, frail, and weak, or to equate them with smaller, more negatively portrayed animal species like rats and cockroaches. The white man’s cultivation of “intimidating” physical strength is posited in direct opposition to this, and powerlifting offers a perfect outlet for the perpetuation of this toxic worldview. In fact, several powerlifting gyms have become informal or even formal gathering spaces for these groups.
Further, antisemitism is also generally mitigated with regard to deliberately misleading assertions of the minority “status” of Jews. Two views are at play here: either the minority status of Jews is disregarded entirely and therefore no hate crime has been committed and no racism has occurred because Jews are “also white”, or Jews are seen as “privileged” minorities. The “privileged” view has its roots in ancient antisemitic canards like “Jews control Wall Street/the media/the world economy/the world itself.” Both of these approaches allow white people to effectively ignore even the most explicit Nazi views as either the fantasist ravings of an “outlier” and not “real” prejudice. The first leans on white exceptionalism, allowing white people to simply say they “aren’t like that” and move on with no consequence. The second asserts that antisemitism cannot hurt Jews because Jews are more powerful than white people already.
Nazism and its associated ideologies do indeed hurt both Jews and other minorities, though. In New York City alone, hate crimes against Jews doubled in the last year. We often think of hate crime as “not serious,” because it includes property crimes like vandalism. However, even vandalism can have serious psychological consequences. Repeated bomb threats, or actual bombings, of workplaces, schools, community centers, and synagogues, can make those places of terror and trauma, rather than the places of productivity, hope, and healing that they are allowed to be for non-Jews.
Verbally or otherwise (i.e. clothing logos, music, visible tattoos) espousing Nazi sympathies can create a hostile and unwelcoming environment for participants. The threat of violence is very real to those who may have personally experienced it before, or had a family member experience it.
As a community, powerlifting often boasts about the increasing number of minority participants (particularly female participants), but good statistics don’t exist to indicate how many minority participants never enter the sport in the first place or leave the sport prematurely. If a minority participant “counts” as a new first-time competitor, but leaves the sport after their first meet, is that really a win? Is that really diversity? Is the face that we want to present to potential newcomers to the sport really one that not only tolerates, but actively celebrates hate groups?
Unfortunately, up to this point, the powerlifting community’s answer to these questions has been an unequivocal “yes.” The views of major athletes are excused for any number of reasons, and most of these people have retained their high status in the sport and in their particular organizations. Indeed, most of them have retained the majority of their sponsors and their own businesses.
As long as the community is willing to look the other way simply because these people are physically strong, this will continue to happen.
Direct action can be taken to combat this issue, both individually and collectively. As important as it is to negatively react to the behavior of white supremacists, it is equally important to support the behavior of individuals working to create a more positive future for the sport. Seek out and support businesses and gyms that are truly and vocally inclusive and anti-racist, through word of mouth, social media attention, and purchasing power. If you see or hear racist or antisemitic behavior, speak up. Support organizations outside of the powerlifting world working against racism and hate.
Above all, read more than you write.
Become educated about issues that matter to you and that interest you, from a variety of sources. Demand that white supremacists, antisemites, racists, and abusive individuals be held accountable for their actions by their chosen federations and by the community as a whole.
To put it simply, powerlifting is currently at a crossroads. Its leaders and role models can take an active role in addressing the rot at the core of the sport -- sponsors can pull out, customers can leave Nazi-owned or attended gyms and not buy from businesses owned by or supporting Nazis, federations can ban lifters and publicly state that these views will not be tolerated… or the community can continue to look the other way, satisfied that an outraged comment on Instagram is enough, and that physical strength is somehow a marker of positive moral character. The current powerlifting community is actively invested in defending white supremacy. Is that the community we want for the future as well?
This op-ed was written by Haley, who has chosen not to include her last name due to personal safety concerns.
We publish our pieces in the voices, styles, and structures of each writer and they do not necessarily represent the perspectives and experiences of everyone in Women's Strength Coalition. It is our intention to use the blog to highlight the experiences of our coalition members and draw attention to issues, questions, and events of meaning in our community.