Weightlifting, an original Olympic sport, may be dropped

By Ognian Georgiev and Ken Belson

Weightlifting was one of just nine sports at the first Olympics in 1896, but its days on the summer program may be numbered.

After decades of rampant doping, bribery, vote-rigging and corruption at weightlifting’s highest levels, the International Olympic Committee finally took action last year by threatening to drop the sport from the Games in the coming months if the International Weightlifting Federation does not introduce a host of fixes, including rigorous drug testing measures and governance reforms.

The prognosis is not good. The leaders of the weightlifting federation failed during a key vote on June 30 to get the support needed to pass a new constitution aimed at addressing concerns from the Olympic committee. Delegates from the United States, Germany and China, among others, could not persuade their counterparts from the former Soviet republics, Latin America and other “old guard” weightlifting nations that would be hurt by tighter anti-doping measures.

If the federation, known as the IWF, cannot keep weightlifting on the Olympic program, millions of dollars would be cut off from a sport that lacks major television contracts or sponsors. Already, the IOC had reduced the number of lifters in Tokyo to 196 from 260 during the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016. The number will be cut again, to 120, at the Paris Games in 2024.

“If we don’t go far enough in our constitutional reform, then we won’t be part of the Olympic Games,” said Phil Andrews, chief executive of USA Weightlifting. “The threat is real. The IOC is watching.”

The weightlifting federation is not the first sports body to run afoul of the Olympic committee, of course. The IOC is running the boxing tournament at the Tokyo Games while it investigates the International Boxing Association, or AIBA, over a series of failings. And in 2018, the IOC lifted a series of restrictions on the International Biathlon Union only after the organization approved governance reforms and greater transparency, particularly related to drug testing.

The scale of corruption at the IWF is far deeper. In January 2020, the German broadcaster ARD produced a documentary called “Lord of the Lifters” that illustrated how entire nations were sidestepping anti-doping controls. Six months later, Richard McLaren, a Canadian anti-doping investigator, published a 121-page report that pinned much of the blame for weightlifting’s problems on Tamas Ajan, the federation’s longtime leader, who ran the organization with an iron hand.

Ajan, who resigned as the president of the IWF in April 2020, was accused of accepting bribes to bury positive doping results. Efforts to hide positive tests date to at least the 1980s. McLaren said, for example, that in 2016, Ajan called the president of the Albanian weightlifting federation and demanded $100,000 in a suitcase to cover a fine for lifters who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. If the money was not paid, the Albanians were told, the country’s entire team would not be able to compete at the Rio Games.

In a phone interview, Ajan said that contrary to the allegations in the McLaren report, he had fought to eliminate the use of performance-enhancing drugs and had been attacked by national federations he penalized for excessive doping.

“Six or seven countries started to attack me,” he said. “It was absolutely a political thing. I fought my whole life against doping.”

Ajan said he built the weightlifting federation into “one of the most perfect recognized international federations” with strict doping controls and a system that prevents nations with a high number of positive cases from participating in the Olympics. He said he was “very happy” the IOC has taken a hard line with the IWF, and he was optimistic that weightlifting would remain an Olympic sport.

Still, in the past decade, more than 600 lifters have tested positive. Last October, the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, said that investigations into the anti-doping practices in weightlifting found that athletes substituted urine samples and used doppelgängers to evade testers.

Ajan had promised a “clean” Olympics for Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, yet nearly 60 lifters who competed at those Games ultimately tested positive, including 34 Olympic medalists.

Last month, the International Testing Agency, known as the ITA, uncovered numerous instances of drug samples being mishandled, as well as meddling by IWF officials in its anti-doping program. The agency found 146 unresolved doping cases between 2009 and 2019. These cases were not processed or went unpunished because of poor administrative oversight, lax record keeping or “indifference, outright negligence, complicity, or — at worst — blatant and intentional cover-ups.”

The IOC said it would continue to push for change. Kit McConnell, the committee’s sports director, said his organization had “been very clear about what needs to change in terms of maintaining the changes to the anti-doping regulations, continuing the governance reforms, continuing the involvement of athletes in decision making and any substantial changes that are needed within the federation itself.”

Paul Massaro, who helped write the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, a law signed last December that empowers U.S. prosecutors to charge American athletes and those with financial connections to the United States in doping cases, questioned whether the Olympic apparatus was serious about reform.

“Again and again, when a story explodes, the IOC makes a big to-do and bans someone, and a few years down the road, the Court of Arbitration for Sport will undo that decision,” he said. “It’s always the athletes who get shafted while the people behind the scenes walk away.”

Ursula Papandrea, the former acting president of the IWF and a former U.S. coach, said the real losers were the lifters who did not use drugs. They compete at a disadvantage, she said, yet have been penalized by the IOC’s decision to cut the number of lifters at the Olympics.

“Clean athletes are finally starting to have chances to compete with strong anti-doping measures in place, yet are being punished again because of the reduction in quotas for Paris,” she said.

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