By Madalyn Howitt
There will be no Canadian Paralympians participating in powerlifting at the Tokyo Games, but Ottawa viewers who tune in to the event may be interested to know that the competition does have a connection to the capital, albeit from behind the scenes.
Dillon Richardson grew up in Nepean and has worked for the International Powerlifting Federation in Germany for four years as its performance and development manager, focusing primarily on education initiatives. Part of his duties also include helping to organize and set up powerlifting competitions, including those at the Paralympics.
“I’m super excited to be at such a high-level event like the Paralympics and be involved in putting it together,” said Richardson, on video call from his hotel room in Tokyo. “We’re responsible for getting all weightlifting stuff out, getting all our equipment and everything set up, helping with rehearsals and preparing for the event, and then taking everything down at the end.”
It’s a huge undertaking in the best of years, but during this one it’s been a unique experience to say the least.
“Logistically, the journey has been a bit complicated, but everybody jokes that the Olympics are kind of a test run for the Paralympics,” laughed Richardson. “There are all these things going on in the background that people don’t see on TV. When one event is happening, we’re already preparing for the second group, so we’re pretty tired after events,” he went on.
He noted though that the federation was able to host a test event at the exact same Tokyo venue back in 2019, so the staff feel that they have a good handle on preparations.
While Richardson himself doesn’t have a background in powerlifting, he said it’s been a joy to learn so much about the sport and what makes it different from Olympic weightlifting.
“Able-bodied powerlifting is more about just getting the weight up, but in Paralympic powerlifting the rules are super strict — it has to be a very beautiful lift with perfect technique,” he explained. In powerlifting, athletes use only their upper bodies to lift weights using the bench press technique and must hold the bar motionless on their chest before pressing it upwards and locking their elbows. Each competitor gets three tries, and it is not unusual for athletes to lift over three times their body weight.
It’s also one of the fastest growing sports at the Games, with over 100 countries now vying for qualification spots. In particular, the sport has made important strides forward in gender parity.
“Traditionally, a strength sport like this has the stigma of being male dominated, but [in powerlifting] we already we have gender parity the same number of medal events, which is really nice to showcase to the world,” said Richardson.
“It’s a very beautiful sport. Athletes who participate are gaining more strength and therefore more independence,” he added. This is especially true for women powerlifters, as statistics show women with disabilities are at a higher risk for abuse, said Richardson.
She Can Lift for example, an initiative by World Para Powerlifting in 2018 that Richardson was a part of, aimed to increase the number of women involved in the sport by targeting and training female coaches and technical officials around the world.
Richardson also enjoys the strong sense of community at competitions. “People with disabilities make up 15 per cent of the world’s population, but at Paralympic events able-bodied people are the minority, so it’s quite beautiful in the sense of developing friendships and [athletes] feeling a sense of belonging,” said Richardson, adding that he finds powerlifters often stick around days after their events end to show support for their fellow competitors.
He would like to see more awareness and support for powerlifting in his home country.
“We’re a sport that so it’s subjective — it’s a judged sport, and the funding system in Canada is very tough,” he added, noting how Paralympic sports like swimming and athletics tend to attract more funding than powerlifting, which has a stronger base in Europe and West Asia.
Richardson feels though that the momentum from Canada’s strong performance in weightlifting at the Olympics (like Maude Charron’s gold medal win in the 64kg event) will help draw more attention to powerlifting in Canada and help propel more athletes towards the Paralympic podium.
Until then, Richardson is happy to watch events unfold from backstage and support each athlete, regardless of who they’re competing for.
“Because there’s no Canadians,” he explained, “I get to cheer for everybody.”