The sport of weightlifting has a long history in the Olympic Games. In fact, the sport was part of the very first Games in Athens in 1896. Two weightlifting events were held back then, the men’s one hand lift and the men’s two hand lift. Launceston Elliot of Great Britain claimed gold in the one hand lift and Denmark’s Viggo Jensen prevailed in the two hand lift. Actually, back then winners received a silver medal and everyone else got nothing.
Weightlifting might soon again get nothing when it comes to the Olympics and they have only themselves to blame.
The 2020 Tokyo Games were an historic and resounding success in many ways. New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard made history as the first transgender female weightlifter and became symbol of strength and courage for athletes everywhere. The United States finished on the podium in consecutive Summer Games for the first time in half-a-century. Filipino Hidilyn Diaz became a national hero by winning her country’s FIRST EVER gold medal in the Summer Games. The Philippines first competed in the Olympics in Paris 1924 and 97 years later they finally reached the mountaintop.
Tokyo should have served as a stepping stone for weightlifting, a chance to showcase all the progress and social change they are at the forefront, but instead it may be its swansong.
Weightlifting could very well be off the menu at Paris 2024, and the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) can only point the finger at itself if it happens.
Hungarian Tamás Aján served as president of the IWF from 2000 to 2020 before resigning after a German TV documentary uncovered widespread doping and corruption under his leadership.
He allegedly transferred his annual salary of $410,000 plus another $7,100 from an IWF account to his personal account right before his resignation, despite not having the authorization to do so. That was on top of personally collecting all anti-doping fines which totaled about $10.5 million in missing funds from the IWF.
The report by Canadian law professor Richard McLaren further stated Aján served as de facto president from 1975-2000 when he was the IWF General Secretary and operated a “culture of fear” which including vote-buying, bribery and covering up of doping violations. Aján denied all charges on his way out the door.
The IWF says the investigation is ongoing and appropriate action will be taken when the results of the investigation are made clear.
Of course, weightlifting isn’t the only sport to deal with doping issues but they’ve certainly been the most prominent of late. The 110 doping violations recorded by weightlifting at the Olympics represents over one-quarter of all Olympic violations.
The IWF covered up 41 positive doping tests and never even processed another 130 of them, including two athletes who won gold and silver and the world championships. Over 30 medals from the Beijing 2008 Games and 2012 London Games were stripped from athletes after positive doping tests.
For what it’s worth, the IWF has acknowledged their past failures, and pointed out they have banned entire countries from competitions over doping, not just individual athletes, and they are the only federation doing so.
Indeed Russia was excluded from the 2016 Summer Gams in Rio due to a high number of doing violations, while Egypt, Malaysia, Romania and Thailand were ineligible to compete in Tokyo this past summer due to doping as well.
Perhaps the IOC is making an unfair example of weightlifting. Athletics and swimming have certainly had their problems with dirty athletes, but there is zero chance those sports would ever be pulled from the Olympic program. An Olympics without athletics and swimming would be an economic and viewing disaster and the IOC knows it.
However, pointing the fingers at others does not absolve you of guilt.
Clearly change has to come from within and the IWF is under pressure to elect new leaders who can convince the IOC the dark clouds have been lifted and clear skies will prevail.
Elections were planned during their Congress in late December, but those have been delayed due to a legal issue. According to an IWF press release, it’s the legal opinion of the IWF Legal Commission that the proper legal foundations for planned IWF elections have not yet been fully complied. When those legal issues are cleared up, the IWF will hold new elections they said.
American Ursula Papandrea is a candidate for IWF president and is hoping to lead the IWF in a new direction. She relaunched her “Courage to Change” manifesto last week, but she knows the sport she loves is living on borrowed time.
“The IOC has made it very clear that weightlifting’s international governance is not fit for purpose and we are running out of time to get our house in order,” she told Around the Rings.
“Those responsible for continually seeking to delay and deny the opportunity for fair and transparent elections are pushing our great sport closer to the abyss of Olympic program exclusion and shattering the dreams of millions of young athletes for whom the Games are the ultimate prize. The IWF adheres to its own rules only when it serves to benefit them collectively or individually and to stay the Interim President and Executive Board are overstaying their welcome is an understatement. The decisions by the IWF are, at best, incompetent and at worst, serve of self-interest.”
The IOC has already cut weightlifting by 76 spots for Paris 2024, the most significant reduction in athlete quota for any sport, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if this latest misstep by the IWF convinces the IOC to cut it altogether. Cricket and polo are among a host of sports hoping to be included in future Olympic programs. Out with the old and in with the new.
USA Weightlifting CEO Phil Andrews said, “We have tested the IOC’s patience perhaps too much.”
While it’s fair to put all the blame on Aján for decades of incompetence, it’s also fair to wonder if he would still be running the show today if not for the unearthing of all the sordid behind the scenes details.
If Tokyo was the end for weightlifting at least it ended on a high. The athletes who play by the rules like Diaz and Hubbard deserve to showcase their skills in Paris, Los Angeles and many more Games to come. Hopefully the IWF will get out of its own way to allow it to happen.