OpEd: How Low Do Federations Sink Before the IOC Steps In?

"The IWF is the new benchmark and I’m with the IOC–a new reformist presidency is desperately needed," says Callum Skinner.

The IWF is the new benchmark and I’m with the IOC – a new reformist presidency is desperately needed.

by Callum Skinner

Exclusive to Around the Rings

I have never been one to shy away from what I - and I believe scores of others - see as the obvious in modern-day Olympic sport: ineffectual sports governance. The examples are too plentiful and too regular to shy away from, and it’s one of the reasons I became a passionate and prominent athlete advocacy campaigner following my Olympic Gold at Rio 2016.

I got involved in athlete advocacy because I care, and I believe an industry that seemingly stands for positivity, opportunity, fair play and all that’s good about society could be so contrary in quite so many ways. Whether it be a state sponsored doping scandal in Russia under the eyes of the global watchdog, corruption in international athletics, poor governance or a lack of transparency in biathlon, or welfare issues in my own sport of cycling, Olympic sport has picked up a poor habit in recent years of leading by example.

There are many areas where I and other athletes believe the IOC has dropped the ball in recent years - not least in the lack of punishment for Russian systematic doping - and I’ve been quick to point out where they could have acted more in athletes’ interests, however there is one particular area in which I believe the IOC has got it absolutely right: in calling out for wholesale, far-reaching reform of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF). Whether it be calling out the IWF for loosening its anti-doping rules [Article 12] at the very moment it should be tightening them, or stating that the IWF needed to take a tighter grip on its governance and athlete engagement – the IOC, has in this instance, been well aligned with what athletes surely want to see from their sports governing body.

All of this is important because it affects one group more than any other: the athletes. And that’s why I was so disappointed - though not surprised, given the way sport has shown to be run these past few years - in reading my fellow athlete and fellow compatriot, the IWF Athlete Chair no less, Sarah Davies’ article recently in which she spoke of the shameful treatment she endured at the hands of her sport’s Executive Board. For Sarah to talk of the IWF Executive Board’s "head in the sand" approach, I can unfortunately understand this only too well from my own dealings with ineffectual sports administrators. But though it may be the norm in far too many Olympic sports, that doesn’t mean it’s right. In fact, you only have to ask the IOC whose own Sports Director, Kit McConnell, has essentially intimated that the IWF needs to "get its house in order…or it’s out of the Olympics". There can be no more stark warning than that.

For anyone that truly cares about weightlifting’s future, then that sort of dismissive, belittling of athlete behavior - the like of which Beckie Scott endured from sports officials at WADA meetings - has to stop. There is no place for that sort of behavior, that lack of compassion or engagement with athletes - the sport’s number one stakeholder, no less - in 2021.

Weightlifting and weightlifters have an ally in me but also in the majority of Olympic athletes. Weightlifting has to be the most popular "second sport" of Olympic athletes, from Mo Farah to Usain Bolt and every athlete in between, most will practice weightlifting, at least in part. Solidarity is not in short supply here. I speak as a fellow athlete of Sarah’s who is only too familiar with either witnessing or seeing - in my athlete advocacy role - it in other sports. And yet, the benefits to a sport such as weightlifting of embracing positive reform are there for all to see. The McLaren Report (the weightlifting version, that is) paints the picture well and it’s now for a new leadership, a leadership with a clear, concrete plan of action for reform to come in and restore confidence to weightlifters, and those athletes outside weightlifting, too.

Just think of the benefits to weightlifting if it chooses the path of cleaning up its act and acting on the widespread doping that exists in the sport: athlete support and confidence, athlete pride, even; commercial prosperity that sees more prize money, more development funds and new sponsors; new generations of athletes that want to choose weightlifting as their sport; and, yes, new fans, too. The list is long. And surely, this has to be the path for the IWF to choose. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the IWF to choose the right path. With the IOC, athletes, anti-doping advocates, sports fans - the overwhelming majority - encouraging them to embrace change, why would they choose any other path?

Callum Skinner serves as the Athlete Lead with the athlete advocacy group Global Athlete, which was founded in February 2019. Skinner, 28, won gold and silver medals in track cycling at Rio 2016. He retired from competition in March 2019 to focus on his advocacy efforts.

Editor's note: The International Weightlifting Federation on Feb. 18 published its latest decisions on anti-doping and governance, including changes to Article 12 of its anti-doping rules. Click here to read more.

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