The fight against yourself, lifting a kettlebell

‘You know the hammer guy who visits the marathon runner? He's here as well.’

Dozens of kettlebells lie like silent witnesses on the floor of the Stade Bertrand Dauvin. Some are heavier than the others and therefore have a different color. Some remain untouched and unaffected for a long time. Some lie on the stage, in front of the black curtain, others lie behind it. They are all there to be lifted by the participants of the European Championship Kettlebell sports in Paris.

As a fitness device, the metal kettlebell may be known to regular gym visitors, but as a sport it is probably not. The idea is to get the kettlebells above your head as many times as possible in ten minutes with the same movement. This can be done in different disciplines: jerk (lifting from the chest), snatch (flowing movement with a pendulum between the legs) and long cycle (combination of the two previous ones). And in a combination of two or three parts, the duathlon and triathlon. The kettlebell should not touch the ground. A-athletes lift the heaviest type of bells, 32 kilograms per kettlebell.

It seems like a monotonous strength sport at first glance, but it has much more to it than that, says 43-year-old Estonian Erki Soo: “It’s not only about giving maximum power, it’s about technique as well. And endurance, knowing how to breathe and being mentally strong. The real competition starts after six minutes. You run out of your fuel, then it’s becoming mentally hard. You need to find a different kind of fuel. You know the hammer guy who visits the marathon runner? He’s here as well. It’s about moving out of your comfort zone and still managing to push yourself. That suffering in the last two or three minutes, that gives you the satisfaction.”

Latvian Vasili Ginko, president of the UIKL, at European Championships in Paris

Everyone in Paris tries to give the best of themselves in ten minutes. A young Ukrainian guy lies exhausted on the stairs of the hall, completely knackered, an English woman pushes herself to raise the kettlebell one more time with a final effort and a grimace on her face. And the 50-year-old president of the international association IUKF and participant Vasili Ginko from Latvia, drops both kettlebells from his hands after ten minutes of the jerk section, relieved to get rid of the heavy bells.

Kettlebell sport is said to go back to the time of the ancient Greeks, says Ginko, when he has recovered from his efforts. “You can see the first kettlebell in the museum in Olympia in Greece,” he says. That kettlebell is made of stone, weighs 143 kilograms and has the inscription: ‘Bibon heaved me above the head by one hand’.

Ultimately, the Russians developed it further from military training into a real sport. In 1974 Girevoy, the sport of girya (which means kettlebell in Russian), was born. “And now we have an official structure and we are working on setting it up more broadly internationally,” says Ginko. The association joins GAISF and Sport Accord and the Olympic movement. Not to become an Olympic sport very quickly. “We want to be at the World Games first, the Olympic Games for non-Olympic sports. I think that’s a realistic goal.”

Ginko hopes that people will become aware that kettlebells cannot only be used as training equipment. “Some top athletes in MMA or ice hockey use them as training, for example Fedor Emelianenko. That’s great, but it can be more than that. It’s good for inter muscular coordination, for endurance. I’m 50 years old and I can compete in the professional league. Not as good as I used to be, haha, but I’m still in good health. The sport has a lot of positive effect on your body and mind.”

The sport is still in its infancy. The two international associations (WKSF is the other one) sometimes apply slightly different rules and are each other’s rivals. One would say that the sport should profit more being under one federation, give it a more professional appearance. According to Ginko, about 65 countries are now affiliated with the two different associations within kettlebell sport. Estonia and the Netherlands are two of those federations, both with different backgrounds. In Estonia the military structure is still visible.

Erki Soo was introduced to the sport in 2001, being in the military. “My sports instructor appointed me for the military championships. At first I didn’t really like it, but about five years ago I started taking it seriously. It is a nice community and it is great to learn from other athletes and countries.” And in Estonia the sport is growing steadily. “A month ago, about 230 athletes took part in the military championships. That is a growing potential.”

Erki Soo from Estonia during the discipline snatch.

In the Netherlands, the sport mainly comes from the gyms. It is a small sport that has only really developed since 2012. With a few hiccups. “It was completely new, so we had to figure everything out ourselves,” says national coach and athlete Naomi Kooiker. “If there was any information to be found, it was in Russian. So I studied the sport a lot and followed workshops. We experienced some pretty strange things in the beginning, at least from our point of view. At the weigh-in, you stood as a woman in your underwear against three grumpy Russian men… Luckily, there is more and more attention for equality, also in weights and categories that can now also be done by women.”