Boys as young as eight are signing up to be groomed as world-class weightlifting champions. Roddy Mackenzie reports.
Easterhouse Amateur Weightlifting Club is more than pulling its weight when it comes to getting young people involved in sport. The club has taken the initiative and gone out to local schools to sign up members.
Weightlifting is not a sport you would readily associate with primary children, but Easterhouse has members as young as eight. As well as looking to groom future Commonwealth or Olympic medallists, the club is catering for the more recreational user. But the accent is on youth.
A remarkable 239 children from four local primaries were involved in a combined "lift a million pounds" challenge for the BBC Children in Need charity appeal in November and last month Easterhouse hosted the Scottish Schoolboys' Championships.
In 16 years the club's membership has risen to almost 1,000, but over the past 18 months the numbers have risen five-fold. Most of this is because the club actively goes into schools and recruits members. It is now the biggest weightlifting club in Britain.
Last year the club recorded 28,000 visits from its members and since June 1999 there have been more than 16,000 visits, so it is clear the club is used regularly.
"There are 1,000 members of the club but only 50 of those are adults, so there is a strong emphasis on developing young lifters," says Alex Richardson, senior coach at the club. "We have lifters as young as eight, but they do not lift weights before they are 12.
"What we do to get youngsters interested is gladiator games, but we hide weightlifting techniques within them, so they are learning repetitions all the time. It is all skill-based from eight to 10 and we teach them the sport's fundamentals, such as the correct footwork."
Easterhouse employs seven playleaders in addition to seven coaches. Mr Richardson, who is also coach of the Scotland squad for the Under-18 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh next summer, believes it is important to interest kids as young as possibl.
"The youngsters who are at the club do not lift weights between the age of nine and 12; it is just a case of developing their skill and technique and working with plastic bars," he explains. "From 12 to 13 they are allowed to lift weights but only up to a third of their bodyweight. After the age of 13 they are permitted to lift weights freely.
"We have one 14-year-old at the club, William McLean, who is the British champion in his age group, but we knew from an early age that he would be good as he was given the right foundations to build on.
"Some of the 10-year-olds we have at the club are more technically gifted than he was at that age and they will become even better.
"We have eight of the Scotland Under-18 squad at the club and I firmly believe that some of our lifters could be representing Scotland at the senior 2002 Commonwealth Games at the age of 15-16."
Weightlifting has attracted bad publicity in the past for its associations - fairly or unfairly - with steroids. One of Scotland's most prominent lifters of recent years, Alan Ogilvie, was suspended for taking drugs. But Mr Richardson vehemently defends his sport and points out that Ogilvie's suspension was the only one to hit his sport in the past 10 years.
"There is a lot of random testing in weightlifting and many of our lifters are tested randomly 20 times a year," he says. "If you work it out, there have probably been between 5,000 and 6,000 tests at this club over the last 16 years and there has not been a single positive test. One of our lifters was tested twice in one day.
"If youngsters are taught the proper lifting techniques from an early age, then steroids are not going to help them lift any heavier weights when they get older."
Mr Richardson argues that weightlifting has helped the teenagers of Easterhouse and taken many of them off the streets. "The sport teaches a youngster self-respect and respect for others, as well as improving their fitness. It means they're not involved in drugs and teaches them how to look after their bodies."