Four days after International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach issued a stern statement about weightlifting’s Olympic future, a damaging rift at the top of the sport’s governing body has been exposed.
On one side of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) divide are a number of Executive Board members from nations that have been banned from Tokyo 2020 or had their athlete quota reduced because of multiple doping offences.
On the other side are Interim President Ursula Papandrea and her supporters, and leaders of the new IWF Athletes’ Commission.
Last Wednesday Bach suggested that weightlifting could lose quota places for Paris 2024 or even be excluded outright if it did not heed independent advice and adopt governance reforms.
Bach said the IOC had “strong concerns about the lack of progress with regards to the reforms of the IWF Constitution, the lack of acceptance of independent advice in this procedure… and the representation of athletes within the Federation, which definitely needs to be strengthened”.
Papandrea said her opponents were “beyond irresponsible”.
Their course of action regarding Olympic qualifying and mooted changes to anti-doping rules “further risks our reputation… andviolates the advice of the organisation that decides our Olympic status,” she said.
Sam Coffa, an adviser to the IWF Board and joint technical delegate for Tokyo 2020, disagreed.
“We are trying to enhance the situation for athletes because as things stand it is not a level playing field for them,” Coffa said.
The rift has developed as the prospect grows of no more live competitions taking place before April 30 next year, the end of the extended qualifying period for Tokyo 2020
If “adaptations” to qualifying rules are accepted by the Board – and they would need approval from the IOC – points won by athletes in an intense qualifying schedule that started nearly two years ago could end up counting for nothing.
Instead the old-style ranking list would determine who qualifies, based on the single best performance in the qualifying period rather than the existing complex points-based formula.
While this would be very good news for a few athletes, most notably Olympic champions Sohrab Moradi and Kianoush Rostami from Iran and former European champion Daniyar Ismayilov of Turkey, Papandrea said it “could negatively affect many”.
Nothing is being contemplated that suggests we want to change anything,” said Coffa.
“All we are doing is asking the question that everybody else is asking: ‘If we can’t bring to a conclusion our Olympic qualifying programme, what are we going to do?’
“Is it not reasonable to ask that question?”
Coffa, an Australian who was called upon for his advice in the aftermath of the corruption scandal that led to the resignation of long-standing IWF President Tamás Aján, is joint technical delegate for Tokyo 2020 with Nicu Vlad, a former Olympic champion and current IWF Board member from Romania.
Those two, and the IWF Technical Committee, are looking at possible answers to the question, and will put any suggestions to the Board and, if agreed, the IOC.
In the existing qualifying system athletes were compelled to compete roughly every three months, with a points tally accumulated from performances in three six-month phases.
The timescale was amended with IOC approval but the system is likely to be unfinished and in limbo.
“As of now there’s not one single lifter in the world who has qualified for the Olympic Games,” said Coffa.
“Kit McConnell [the IOC sport director] has made the point in an interview where he says there has to be a Plan B for sports that cannot complete their qualifying process.”
So, should everything that has happened so far be discounted?
“That is the question.
We would be negligent in our duties if we did not look at some adaptations of process in order to come to a conclusion,” replied Coffa.
“We are not seeking to change anything but in order to get the best lifters in the world to the Olympic Games you have to do some sort of massaging, some sort of adaptation.
“If there is a suggestion that we’re trying to get disqualified athletes into the Games that’s just not true – they would not be accepted anyway by the IOC.
“The original system was built on the pillars of testing for doping, but we’ve only had two of three qualifying periods.
“In the first quarter of 2020 the International Testing Agency (ITA), which has the responsibility to implement our testing regime, tested 446 samples, a huge number.
“But in the second quarter they only tested 44, of which 19 were Chinese-– so only 25 for the whole of the rest of the world.
“And in all of those tests in six months not one was from the People’s Republic of Korea.
“Tell me we have a level playing field going on here!”
World and continental junior championships – age limit 20 – carried gold status in Olympic qualifying and could have been worth a lot of points to athletes.
Some have missed their chance because of coronavirus-related postponements, and will not get another like-for-like chance if, before the next junior event, they have become too old to compete.
Papandrea claimed “a sound solution” to the juniors situation had been proposed but “has so far been rejected” by the Board.
Coffa insisted: “We are trying to enhance the situation for athletes – and let it be known we have no intention of making any changes.”
As for talk of changes to the current Anti-Doping Policy, dating back to 2018, that subject was raised by Mahmoud Mahgoub, IWF Board member and President of the Egyptian Weightlifting Federation.
Mahgoub was in favour of allowing “clean” athletes a chance to compete under the Olympic flag if their own national federation is barred from Tokyo 2020.
“Olympic qualifying is individual, and suspensions should be individual,” said Mahgoub.
“We need to change the procedure, the Anti-Doping Policy itself.
“It’s not fair to suspend all the lifters from a country because of a few positive cases
The rules state: “Member Federations shall be liable for the conduct of their affiliated athletes or other persons, regardless of any question of the Member Federations’ fault, negligence or other culpable oversight.”
Papandrea said there should be no change to the “spirit” of the Olympic qualifying system.
“The IOC has been clear, there should be no substantive changes to the qualifying system,” she said.
“These types of public comments are representative of some members of the Executive Board but certainly not all.”
“I would predict lawsuits and rejection by the IOC, a huge risk when there has been direct messaging about this.
“Everyone knew the rules on qualification as well as the rules on doping.
“We cannot punish now all the lifters that worked within the rules.
“This type of rhetoric after getting clear messages that it can affect our Olympic status is beyond irresponsible.
“It further risks our reputation if the IWF violates the advice of the organisation that decides our Olympic status.
“I am under no illusions about the likely impact of any failure to act promptly on the IOC’s latest call to action.”