Brian Oliver

Murray Levin was involved in weightlifting across seven decades as an athlete, official, promoter and global influencer.

"You could call me the last dinosaur of weightlifting," said Levin, a successful American businessman who played a leading role in helping women’s weightlifting develop from a nonentity to a feature of the Olympic Games.

He also spent hundreds of thousands of his own dollars in serving the sport at national, continental and world level - and now he is worried that it will all have been for nothing.

"When I saw that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are talking about throwing weightlifting out of the Games, I went to hide under the bed,” said Levin, who despite being in his eighties has a sharp recall of events that happened 20, 30, even 60 years ago.

"I used to make copies of pictures of Frankenstein from the 1931 film with Boris Karloff, and put words across the bottom saying, ‘He took steroids’.

"I could see the day would come when steroids would be the end of us, and I fear it’s going to happen.

"We were in trouble before, especially throughout the 1980s when Dick Pound, the Canadian sports official who campaigned against doping, wanted us out of the Olympics.

"But then we had Ben Johnson, a Canadian, testing positive in the race of the century in Seoul in 1988 and Dick Pound backed off.

"Weightlifting survived then, but this time I’m not so sure because the drugs are still there - 30 years later and the drugs are still there.

"When the legitimacy is gone, if it is dropped from the Olympics, weightlifting will die. It will just be a recreational sport."

Ilya Ilyin - seen as a national hero in Kazakhstan, despite having to return his Olympic gold medals ©Getty Images
Ilya Ilyin - seen as a national hero in Kazakhstan, despite having to return his Olympic gold medals ©Getty Images

These are worrying words from Levin, whose perspective stretches back to the 1940s, a few years before steroids became an issue.

But Levin, who was President of the United States and Pan American Federations for many years, is not alone in believing weightlifting is facing the biggest threat to its Olympic status, and to its very existence, in 100 years.

The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) has two months to save the sport.

It is guaranteed a slot on the Tokyo 2020 schedule but will not feature at Paris 2024 unless it delivers to the IOC a "satisfactory" report on how it will deal with what the IOC President, Thomas Bach, calls a "massive doping problem".

This weekend’s extraordinary meeting of the IWF’s Executive Board, in Bucharest, is the first significant step towards compiling that report.

The mood within the IWF is positive, in the appropriate sense of the word, and everybody in Bucharest will be aware of the importance of unity.

The number of positives has been persistently high over the years, and Bach’s comments followed the embarrassing number of cheats caught in the retesting of samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games - 49 of them.

All but six were from former Soviet Bloc countries, which have been among the worst serial offenders over the years. Russia and Bulgaria were both banned from last year’s Olympic Games; Kazakhstan has a dreadful doping record and have shown no signs whatsoever of accepting any responsibility for it, feting Ilya Ilyin, doubly disqualified from Olympic gold, as a national hero.

But the Soviet Bloc nations are not alone: there have been multiple "team’"positives for Thailand, Egypt, Greece, Malaysia, Iran and others over the years.

Even in the United States, where elite athletes are among the cleanest in the world, there have been 19 positives at club level this year, 17 of whom came to the sport from crossfit.

Clearly, the physical benefits of doping are greater in weightlifting than in many other sports, and that is one of the biggest challenges facing the IWF.

As Adam Pengilly, Britain’s IOC member, says elsewhere on insidethegames, the number of positives may have to go up if the battle against doping is to be won.

His view makes sense: there is nothing to be gained from shirking the issue.

Nor is there anything to be gained by imposing weak or inappropriate sanctions, which has happened before and which finally forced Levin to step away from the sport he loves.

"It was 2006," Levin recalls, "and a big case came up – the whole Iran team got caught on drugs [nine of them].

"Being an honorary member of the IWF, they asked me to come to China for a meeting where they had to decide what to do about it.

"They could fine them, it was $400,000 (£298,700/€338,800) I think, or they could kick them out of the sport, which would have put them out of the 2008 Olympics.

"Their coach had all the usual excuses, somebody must have given them candy etc.

"I said right away ‘I can tell you what my decision is’ but my vote did not count, I was just there to give them my thinking.

"I said you have to kick them out as an example to all the other countries doing this, because every time you find them guilty and let them off the hook they will find new ways to cheat.

"They voted to fine them $400,000. It balanced their budget, and they didn’t go back on that way of thinking later on."

The new Clean Sport Commission is expected to recommend to the IWF Executive Board tough sanctions are taken against countries where doping is endemic in weightlifting ©IWF
The new Clean Sport Commission is expected to recommend to the IWF Executive Board tough sanctions are taken against countries where doping is endemic in weightlifting ©IWF

This weekend the IWF will hopefully start cracking down in a different way.

Nine nations, including China, Russia and Kazakhstan, are due to be suspended for up to a year because they had three or more positives in the 2008 and 2012 retests.

The time for financial penalties has passed: they must all be "kicked out", as Levin might say, of this year’s IWF World Championships in Anaheim starting next month.

The only one of the nine with any sort of a case for leniency is Russia, because they were banned from Rio 2016 and could argue that they have already served their time.

The IWF are also likely to be advised by their new Clean Sport Commission, featuring five independent experts, to put more responsibility on individual nations.

If Kazakhstan, for example, cannot control its own coaches and athletes, what chance does anybody else have?

Amid all the negativity, fear and sense of impending doom it is easy to forget that weightlifting, besides being a truly global, historic, genuine Olympic sport, is great entertainment.

It can be and often is highly dramatic, and with the right presentation it is clearly fit for a 21st-century audience.

It is easy to follow, it offers spectators a medal ceremony every day, and although there is room for improvement and innovation, it is very much worth saving.

Let’s hope the IWF can put Murray Levin in a more positive frame of mind, starting this weekend.