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Pedro Meloni: The Future of Weightlifting Events in a Pandemic (Podcast)

Today we’re talking to Pedro Meloni, Events & Sponsorships Director at USA Weightlifting. Prior to his role with USA Weightlifting, Pedro was the Weightlifting and Powerlifting Sport Manager for the 2016 Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games. In our conversation, we cover Pedro’s most memorable moments from the 2016 Games, including barely-in-time equipment deliveries and a weightlifting session that triggered international uproar. We also talk about the challenges facing organizations like USA Weightlifting to organize virtual and in-person events during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Watch excerpts from our conversation below:

On this episode of The BarBend Podcast, host David Tao talks to Pedro Meloni about:

  • Pedro’s role with USA Weightlifting and the planning that goes into national weightlifting competitions (2:40)
  • What USAW looks for when picking a city for competition (5:18)
  • The role of volunteers and local weightlifting clubs in national competition (9:00)
  • How Pedro became the lead organizer for weightlifting at the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games (15:30)
  • The most harrowing moments from the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games (including a middle-of-the-night equipment delivery) (19:18)
  • The men’s superheavyweight session at the Rio Olympics, and the session that almost caused international uproar (23:30)
  • Scheduling and managing weightlifting events during a pandemic (28:40)

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

Rio was a fun and exciting experience because of that. We had so much going on. It ended up being great. People really enjoyed. But those moments, it was 100 percent adrenaline all the time.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend Podcast,” where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches, and minds from around the world of the strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao. This podcast is presented by barbend.com.

 

Today I’m talking to Pedro Meloni, Events and Sponsorships Director at USA Weightlifting. Quick disclosure, BarBend is the official media partner of USA Weightlifting. Prior to his role at the USAW, Pedro was the Weightlifting and Powerlifting Sport Manager for the 2016 Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games.

 

In our conversation, we cover Pedro’s most memorable moments from the 2016 Games, including barely-in-time equipment deliveries in the middle of the night and a weightlifting session that triggered international uproar. We also talk about the challenges facing organizations like USA Weightlifting to organize virtual and in-person events during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

 

I do want to take a second to say we’re incredibly thankful that you listen to this podcast. If you haven’t already, be sure to leave a rating and review of the BarBend podcast in your app of choice. I’d also recommend subscribing to the BarBend newsletter to stay up to date on all things strength. Go to barbend.com/newsletter to start becoming the smartest person in your gym today. Now let’s get to it.

 

Pedro Meloni, thanks so much for joining us. I got to ask it. I’m very familiar with the incredible work you do. I’m a little bit biased because I see you in action a lot in a normal year, but for folks who might not be super familiar with your role at USA Weightlifting, give us a sense of what your normal responsibilities are.

 

I know a lot has changed in 2020 with a pandemic for event organizers, but give us a sense of what you would normally do in a calendar year for events.

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

What a year, right?

 

It’s a great year to be an event organizer, not a lot of hurdles. Just a quick one. I’ve never canceled an event in my life, and this year we’re at number four already.

David TaoDavid Tao

Bet that broke a really impressive streak, too.

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

Yeah, right. [laughs] Basically, my job at USA Weightlifting is making sure that we have a destination for our events roughly 18 to 12 months before that. Hosting the events, making sure that they run smoothly. That our sponsors are taken care of, and we are reaching what we need to reach in terms of the assets that we discussed with them. All this kind of stuff.

 

Making sure that we look good to USA Weightlifting members and they have a pleasant time at a competition.

David TaoDavid Tao

Now, one thing that I know I always wondered about, actually before we started working together, before BarBend and USA Weightlifting started working together. It might be something that people listening are wondering about.

 

How does USA Weightlifting pick event sites? Every time a new event site is announced on social media, I see so many people asking, “When are you coming to XYZ city? Why don’t you ever do it in this city?” How does that actually happen?

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

We have monthly talks to most of the destinations in the US. There is a marketplace where we meet those destinations, the CVBs, the sports commissions, and they come to us and we come to them with deals and proposals, and what we want to do, and this and that. We look for signing interesting deals.

 

Also, considering that we’re an NGB, our job is not necessarily to make a lot of profit for an event. Of course, we don’t want to be in the red. We want to rotate those events across the country. That’s why you see Juniors on the West, and then moving to the East, and then a little bit of the Mid-West.

 

You’re going to see those kinds of movements, right? There is this marketplace that we negotiate with, with destinations. As a matter of fact, there’s one going on right now that was supposed to be in a huge marketplace, huge gathering in Kansas City that now moved completely online.

 

This week I’m actually talking to…I like to say that I’m speed dating with 50 different cities. It’s like 10 minutes of conversation, talking about what is USA Weightlifting, how many [indecipherable 5:09] do we need, what’s the kind of space that we need? So all those things are met before we sign a deal with the city.

David TaoDavid Tao

What are some of those factors that USA Weightlifting looks for specifically when picking a city? What does the city need to have or what would you like it to have?

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

For us, David, and you know that, weightlifting’s fairly simple when it comes to specifics. We need a flat space, a big flat space, and we look for our events like 40,000 square feet for the competition space in a concrete or a carpeted strong floor.

 

9 times out of 10 we look for a hotel that is attached to the venue because that makes things much easier for all of us. It’s not all the time that we manage to get it, but that’s what we look for.

 

Of course, before signing the deal with the city, I will contact the local gym or a local USA Weightlifting club that agrees on being the host for that event and act as the event director. That event director will basically help us with the bodies, with the volunteers that will help us running that event.

 

The process is we receive the deal from the city. We receive the package from the city with what they’re offering, and what’s the hotel prices. What are the venue prices, and a myriad of things.

 

Then I’ll reach out to the city and say, “Hey, David, I just got a call from New York City. They want to host Nationals in New York. Do you have a club that is like…Are you interested in this and this and that? Those are the requirements and in terms of bodies,” and then we move the conversation from there.

David TaoDavid Tao

What are the cities getting from this? What are they hoping that you bring?

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

Basically, they’re looking for economic impact.

 

Last American Open Series 2, the one in Albuquerque — that’s the number that is freshest in my mind — generated an economic going back of $3 million to Albuquerque in that situation. They’re looking for that.

 

They’re looking for what they call in the industry, they’re looking for heads in beds. They’re looking at people staying at their hotels or city hotels. There are people flying in, people would stay in the hotels, eating at their restaurants. People that wouldn’t be normally there in that city. That generates business for that city, so that’s why they’re eager to bring us.

 

Again, as an NGB, 80 percent of our attendees are usually out-of-staters. That is also very meaningful for the cities because people are traveling. They’re staying three, four days and generating business for the city. That’s an important part.

 

That’s why after every competition, we send our attendees, we send our participants a survey with, “How many nights did you stay? How much did you pay a day? How much money did you spend in a day with meals and all that?”

 

I understand that for a coach that goes like 10 times a year, 8 times a year to our events, that’s probably a little bit boring, but it’s a very important tool for us as well. It’s all the time the same questions so we have the correct metrics to help us negotiate with the cities in the future.

David TaoDavid Tao

How does this process change when USA Weightlifting is hosting an international event? For example, one of the first events that, I think, we ever worked on together where we were in the same place for a long time was, I believe, the 2017 Pan Ams, which were in South Florida.

 

How does this process shift? How does your role change when USA Weightlifting is hosting be it a continental championship, or even an international championship, or a world championship of some sort?

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

 Yeah, that changes dramatically. Let’s pick it up from 2017 because we had Pan Ams and we had the World Championships in Anaheim.

 

For the Pan Ams, we basically didn’t have a lot of influence from South Miami or from Miami Beach, the CVB. They didn’t play a very important role in that one. It was us negotiating directly with the venue. That was the only venue that we could find that would meet the requirements of the Pan American Federation.

 

You remember that competition. For Pan Ams, it was nice. For the American Open Series 2, it was super tight. We had to play a little bit of a miracle on that one to work.

 

That process changes like this because it is an election that happens in the Pan Am Federation that they receive the proposals from the national federations, and they vote on those proposals.

 

The US was awarded that event in 2017. It brings its own challenges, for sure, but the part that stays the same is that we will then approach — in that occasion it was team [indecipherable 11:00] with Danny — we approached him to say, “Hey, can you guys help us running this event? Can you guys provide the bodies?”

 

Of course, they’re a super important part of the organization. When I say they’re providing the bodies, it may look like they’re just people there, but no, they’re important people that will help us running that event. Our core staff is very small, so they helped us out with that one.

 

In Anaheim, it was a little bit different because Visit Anaheim was super involved in the whole process, and they helped us preparing the proposal that was going to the IWF. The same thing — the executive board of the IWF will sit down and vote on the proposals that they receive.

 

I remember that initially, Anaheim had lost it for Youth Worlds. They lost it for North Korea, an event that ended up not happening. You remember that one.

 

You see there’s Youth Worlds in Anaheim Disneyland or in North Korea, and the board voted at that occasion, North Korea. Then, of course, we ended up hosting Worlds in Anaheim still in ’17.

David TaoDavid Tao

When it comes to these international events and you have athletes from all these different countries coming in, I’m curious, specifically when it comes to the events that you have run in the United States international events, how involved are you?

 

How involved is your team at USA weightlifting as the event organizers or hosts? How involved are you with the visa application process for a lot of international athletes? Especially from countries where it might not be super easy or accessible for their athletes, and their coaches, and their teams, to even get to the United States in the first place?

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

That’s a big, big part of it. Usually and thankfully the one that takes the lead on that one, that’s Phil.

David TaoDavid Tao

Phil Andrews?

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

Yeah, Phil Andrews has a contract with the US OPC and the person that pushes the department, that pushes all that information through the consulates, and all that. That is a process that lasts…We start sending emails like a year out and more than that.

 

Unfortunately, many times what happens is that people just wait too long before they start acting. They’re informed in advance. What ends up happening is that us pushing our partners at the US OPC, and consulates and embassies, asking them. “Please, process this request as soon as you can.”

 

Either people, they never apply and they say it’s just too difficult, or they simply take forever to do it. That is a huge, huge thing.

 

We were fortunate that in Anaheim, and during the Pan Ams, we reached 100 percent of the ones that applied and we managed to get them into the country. Of course, not without hurdles, not without hassle. I remember that for the Iranian team, if you remember in 2017, they were like, “Are they coming? Are they not?” Finally they made it, so that was good.

 

It’s increasingly difficult. That’s one of the reasons that we stepped back a little bit from hosting international events, especially world events in the…Well, we were doing it in 2020, but now, of course, we won’t [laughs] because of obvious reasons.

David TaoDavid Tao

Well, I want to go back in time a little bit. I want to talk about the 2016 Rio Olympics where you played a vital role. You were the man when it came to organizing weightlifting.

 

Also, it’s important to note, powerlifting at the Paralympic Games which occurred after the Olympic Games…I got to give a special shout out, and this is a disclosure, BarBend is not only the official media partner of USA Weightlifting. We also work very closely with World Para Powerlifting, so I get to pick your brain on both ends.

 

That is so incredibly massive. You organized weightlifting and powerlifting at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

That’s right.

David TaoDavid Tao

How did you come into that role? How did that land on your desk? If someone presented that to me, Pedro, we’re different people, I’d probably run for the hills. It’s just such an undertaking.

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

[laughs] It was a fun one, to be honest. It was good. It was a nice four-year period getting to that point. Today, I think it’s day minus one, too. It was supposed to be day minus one to Tokyo.

 

I can only imagine what my colleagues are [indecipherable 16:02] in Tokyo right now when they were supposed to start competitions tomorrow or after tomorrow. We’re probably just [indecipherable 16:11] .

 

It’s interesting. It was pretty cool in Rio as well. What happens is that I was working in a university in Brazil, teaching. We had this National Training Center. There was a weightlifting training center. I was working with them for the best three to four years in an admin role, too.

 

I did a little bit of coaching with athletes that ended up [indecipherable 16:41] with the Pan Ams in 2015, so we’re [indecipherable 16:45] in the Pan Ams 2015.

 

I remember it was before London. I think it was December 2011. The Rio 2016 Organizing Committee just opened the spots to sport managers for all disciplines and said, “I’ll apply and see what happens.”

 

After a six months process leading to London, I finally got the position and flew to London. I managed to do some observation programs in London, and that led to Rio.

 

Working with the weightlifting guys and powerlifting guys was a real pleasure. They were very competent people and that made it super easy.

 

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s over a four-year planning process. Basically, four and a half years you were on the job leading up to the Rio Olympics. How big was your team? How did it grow over time as you got closer and closer to the Rio Games?

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

 I was by myself until three months to the test event.

David TaoDavid Tao

The test event, just to give folks an idea of…I was observing this because this was early in the days of BarBend we were covering it. Just to give folks an idea of how far out is the test event?

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

The test event was January. The powerlifting test event was January 2016. The weightlifting test event was April 2016?

David TaoDavid Tao

Sounds about right.

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

Until October 2015, I was by myself. Then I was joined by Luis Leite, who was our service manager. He is IPC. He’s a World Powerlifting Level 1 technical official, so that was super helpful. Then I was joined by Eduardo Villanova, who is now with the Tokyo team. I think that by January 2016 he joined the team as well. Then we added nine more people 30 days before the games.

 

The whole concept is that you do all the planning. Then, when it comes to executing the event, then you build yourself a team. You’ll have your [indecipherable 19:07] coordinator. You’ll have your sports information coordinator. You’ll have your equipment coordinator, and all those roles that are so important at the Olympic Games.

David TaoDavid Tao

Were there any moments that stick out to you for weightlifting or powerlifting at the 2016 Rio Olympics and Paralympics, where, as an event organizer, you felt especially challenged?

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

For sure, man.

 

There were many, many moments. Rio was a fun and exciting experience because of that. We had so much going on. It ended up being great. People really enjoyed. But those moments, it was 100 percent adrenaline all the time.

 

Just to give you this example. Our sport equipment left China, it was provided by ZKC Barbell, and got into Rio 16 hours before the start of the training. It left China. It went around the world. I remember clearly how we were tracking it.

 

I remember that it was a vessel that left China, made a stop in I think it was Malaysia. Then it went to California, to [indecipherable 20:43] , to Florida. From Florida, took another vessel to the port in Southern Brazil, and then took a truck to Rio. I was like, “My God.” [laughs] There’s so many variables.

 

We got it 16 hours before the start of training. We had to set it up, 50 platforms for the training. The funniest part of it is that we got the truck there, it’s 4:00 AM in the morning, it’s me and Eduardo waiting to the equipment to arrive. The equipment arrives in two 53-footer trucks. Two big trailers. We can’t open it because [laughs] they’re locked.

 

The guy can’t break the lock because he doesn’t have the equipment. It’s 4:00 AM in the morning. There are no shops open or anything that we could buy a bolt [laughs] cutter or something like this. We’re just looking it and joking like this can’t be happening. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

How did you get them open? How did you rob your own equipment, so to speak?

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

That’s exactly. [laughs] I took off to go to a shop, knocking on the guy’s door 6:00 AM in the morning. This is Rio 6:00 AM in the morning. The guy is getting to work at maybe 6:30, 7:00. We were lucky that I found the guy. Edu was like with a hammer and trying to break the lock.

 

It was a nightmare, but we made it. We made it. It was all fine. Training started on time and we were happy.

David TaoDavid Tao

Was this guy, the locksmith you hired, or whoever you hired, was he a little skeptical? This seems sketchy. Just a few guys standing outside these trucks. It’s 4:00 AM, like, “Oh, no, it’s our stuff inside, I promise you. I’m organizing weightlifting and powerlifting at the Olympics.”

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

I always had a Rio shirt on because that would help. “No, I’m here with these guys. Here’s my badge,” and all that. The guy goes, “OK, OK. I’ll meet you guys there.” [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

What about during the events themselves? The 2016 Rio Olympics in weightlifting and Paralympics in Para Powerlifting were…I mean a lot happened. There were records broken. There was controversy, there were come-from-behind victories. Any of those moments stand out on the field of play as a situation where you had to step in or step up as an event manager?

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

For sure the one with the Behdad Salimi at the super heavyweights, right?

David TaoDavid Tao

Super heavyweight category, yeah.

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

Correct. That was an interesting one. First of all, there’s this unwritten rule that you cannot touch the athletes. What was happening is that the athlete was refusing to go away from the field of play, and that was disrupting the competition.

 

If you go back to the technical rules and regulations of weightlifting, there’s no information there that the athlete needs to leave the field of play to give way to another athlete, although it’s obvious for everybody that this needs to happen.

 

The same goes to the coaches. The coaches were freely moving around. People say, “The technical controller should have stopped.” Yes, the technical controller should have stopped. Unless it’s a 160 kilo athlete, and how is the technical controller supposed to stop that athlete from doing whatever he wants?

 

It’s a complicated situation for the TC. I’m not saying that the athlete should do it. He shouldn’t, but once he decides to do it…he’s a super heavyweight in weightlifting. Without touching that athlete, how are you able to convince him to change his mind? That was a challenging experience.

 

We had a crowd that was absolutely in flames in terms of they were very, very upset with the result. Unfortunately for them, it was a No Lift. It was correctly overturned by the jury. I think the videos they show it very clearly. We had a crowd that was inflamed. We had to call security.

 

We actually had to call the whole security from the Rio center complex to that pavilion. The Rio center was for one hour…boxing, badminton, table tennis, and the training halls, they were with no security for a couple of hours because of our request.

 

We had the National Force at the field of play in touching distance, arm’s length, from a very angry crowd. We had the Victory Ceremony going on, so we were concerned about any kind of things that could disrupt the Victory Ceremony. It was a close coordination with the National Force.

 

That moment, I believe it was one of the biggest ones, talking to the guys from the National Force, talking to the major that was leading them to say, “Here’s what we need to happen.”

 

Of course, they know absolutely their job and what they need to do, but they don’t necessarily know what needs to happen for us to make sure that the field of play is not damaged or that we’ll have Victory Ceremony with no issues.

 

I was always concerned, and that was the moment I felt that things could go wrong. As you can imagine, we have someone from the National Guard over there and they have firearms on them. If someone tries to touch it…All those little things that can happen and they would escalate so quickly, and what we could do. That was a very, very interesting part.

David TaoDavid Tao

Have the rules, regulations, or procedures around international competition changed at all because of that situation? I’m curious.

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

No, not really. What it says is that you have three warm-up passes for your coaches. It doesn’t say anything on where they should stay with those passes. In theory, according to the game’s accreditation system, the team officials were in that corridor. They are technically in the clear. They shouldn’t be there because of courtesy and then the sport etiquette.

 

According to the rule book and the game zoning, they are in what we call Blue area. They have the correct accreditation. Of course, we don’t want this to happen and this shouldn’t happen. They were punished by the International Federation after that, but no changes in the rule book due to that situation.

David TaoDavid Tao

Another series of challenges I know you’re facing these days are as an event organizer during a global pandemic. You had an impressive streak of not having to cancel events over the course of your career. Then 2020 hit like a freight train.

 

Obviously there’s nothing you can do to stop the pandemic, unless you’re hiding a few epidemiology degrees, which I wouldn’t be completely surprised at. You’re a man of many talents.

 

What do you think will have to change, if anything, about large-scale weightlifting events moving forward from here? I know the USA Weightlifting has already moved the AO Series 3 online to be a remote competition. I know the Pan American Federation recently hosted the first international online weightlifting competition.

 

Do you foresee weightlifting events in person at large scale coming back before the Tokyo Olympics next year? If so, what’s going to change about them?

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

 I definitely see the events coming back. Of course, we need to adapt ourselves to the new situation, to what a lot of people are calling the new normal. I don’t know if that’s how it’s going to be from this point on. It’s definitely the one that we’ll have to deal at this moment.

 

The biggest thing is not having a lot of people at the same time at the same moment. We released a guide that the events department wrote it, and was shared with our medical commission and they put their inputs on it as well. That is pretty much how we envision things moving forward.

 

You need to have the barbell being cleaned at all times between attempts. Lifters basically will have to wear masks unless they’re competing. Less people in the warm up area. Controls before people arrive to the area of the event, to the competition area, to the warm-up area, to the training hall.

 

All of those kind of stuffs. Reduce the amount of spectators at this moment and all that. I do believe it’s possible to go back to an in-person model of events. That’s our hope. That’s what we want to achieve. It’s just that we need to be very conscious and very smart about the timing to do it properly.

 

When we canceled Nationals, when we canceled Youth Nationals and we moved the AO series to a remote live competition, we’re not only looking at the situation in Lombard, Winston-Salem, and Las Vegas. We’re looking at the situation nationally.

 

How is the impact of the pandemic and on lifters in New York, California, Florida, Washington, or whatever they are in the country? We are an NGB. We need to make sure that we’re looking at the membership as a whole on that.

 

Again, I believe, yes, we’ll go back to events in person. I am looking forward for Atlanta. I hope that it is in a situation that we’re able to put that event on. Of course, we will take the new correct measures and health measures that are put in place right now.

David TaoDavid Tao

Excellent. Pedro, I really appreciate your time and for joining us on the BarBend Podcast and for giving insight into the world of organizing weightlifting events. It’s something that I for too long took for granted. I think a lot of spectators take for granted the challenges you face.

 

I was going to say behind the curtain, but you’re not necessarily behind the curtain. You’re running everywhere all at once. Where is the best place for people to keep up to date with the work you’re doing and events, be they in person or virtual, coming up on USA Weightlifting’s calendar?

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

Reach out to USA’s Weightlifting website, the events section over there. We always keep our calendar updated with news on where we’re going next. What are the next cities that will host a USA Weightlifting future events and USA Weightlifting’ social media as well. Keep an eye on that one.

David TaoDavid Tao

Awesome. Pedro, thanks so much for joining us today. I appreciate it.

Pedro MeloniPedro Meloni

Thanks. Appreciate it.

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