Brian Oliver ©ITG

In 2016 and most of 2017 weightlifting’s reputation as a credible Olympic sport reached an all-time low.

Right now, though, lifters, coaches and officials in most parts of the world will be on a high.

They can really start to believe in a clean future for their sport.

The bad news started when the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) announced on January 21 in 2016 that as many as 50 athletes faced sanctions for doping offences in the previous year- 25 of them from the IWF World Championships that had finished a few weeks earlier.

In June, 2016 came the devastating news that 10 weightlifters had come up positive in the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) retesting of samples from Beijing 2008 and London 2012.

By the end of that process the tally would be 49 weightlifting positives and a warning from Thomas Bach, the IOC President, that the sport’s "massive doping problem" could cost it its place on the Olympic Games schedule. 

The threat still stands.

At the end of 2016 two senior figures from Continental Federations spoke out.

Antonio Urso, President of the European Weightlifting Federation, warned doping was out of control and weightlifting needed to make fundamental changes because "2016 was the worst year ever for our sport".

Paul Coffa, the Oceania Weightlifting Federation general secretary who has been in the sport for more than half a century, called the serial dopers "cockroaches" and suggested the only way to punish them was to deny them Olympic Games places.

Paul Coffa, centre, secretary general of the Oceania Weightlifting Federation, has been among the most outspoken of critics against doping in his sport, particularly in the former Soviet Block countries ©OWF
Paul Coffa, centre, secretary general of the Oceania Weightlifting Federation, has been among the most outspoken of critics against doping in his sport, particularly in the former Soviet Block countries ©OWF

Coffa, who has just coached Pacific Islands lifters to gold medals at the Commonwealth Games, railed against the "Doping Bloc" - those nations from the former Soviet Bloc who had an embedded culture of doping.

"Like cockroaches you see one or two on top of the carpet, but you can be guaranteed that when you lift that carpet there are hundreds of them," Coffa wrote.

"The rest of the world is not stupid. We know exactly what is happening and we know that this cheating has been going on for years and years.

"Doping is like cancer. It is ruining our life and ruining our sport."

If 2016 and the first nine months of 2017 were the bleakest period in weightlifting’s history, 2018 is already dazzlingly brighter even for arch critics such as Urso and Coffa: the sport is undergoing fundamental change, and dopers are paying with places in the Olympic Games.

In its Tokyo 2020 qualification policy, made public this week, the IWF may have found a cure for that doping "cancer".

At the very least, it will surely put the disease into remission.

Clean lifters around the world can celebrate: at last they can think about competing on level terms.

Those nations and athletes who have played by the rules can and will become medal contenders and, even more significant, the "dirty"nations will have to qualify clean.

If they do not, they will not feature at the Olympic Games - at least not in weightlifting.

Nations with 10 or more doping violations since the start of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing will not be able to send more than four athletes to Tokyo 2020; those nations with 20 or more can send only two.

Those with a clean record can qualify eight.

Individual qualifying means every Tokyo 2020-bound lifter must compete six times in the 18-month qualifying period, which surely makes doping impossible without detection.

As Ursula Garza Papandrea, IWF vice-president and USA Weightlifting President, said, "The Olympic qualifying system is yet another indication that achieving clean sport is a real goal, and that real steps are being taken."

For that the IWF, its President Tamás Aján, director general Attila Adamfi, its executive board and its invited independent advisers must take a bow.

This year did not start well when Ilya Ilyin, the most famous doper of all who was twice disqualified from first place at the Olympic Games, won a legal battle over the length of his ban and started planning for a return to the sport later this year.

Ilyin, from Kazakhstan, was a regular visitor at the recent European Championships in Romania, where he was training at the start of the long road back to competitive fitness and, he hopes, the 2020 Olympics.

But the IWF’s qualifying document makes it extremely difficult for him and for Kazakhstan, the nation with the most doping violations since the Beijing Olympics.

If Kazakhstan - which won six medals at Rio 2016 - can enter only one male lifter, will Ilyin be good enough, at 32, to take that place?

With a limited amount of spaces to choose for Tokyo 2020, countries like Russia will have to make some hard decisions ©Getty Images
With a limited amount of spaces to choose for Tokyo 2020, countries like Russia will have to make some hard decisions ©Getty Images

The same question applies to others who may be left at home.

If Tatiana Kashirina competes, Russia’s other female medal hopes will have to watch on television.

Iran, restricted to two men, has two world-record holders at 85 and 94 kilograms, and at least one super-heavyweight medal contender: whatever the weight classes in Tokyo 2020, they cannot all compete.

At least eight nations which will send reduced teams to Tokyo 2020 were on the podium in Rio 2016, and two more, Russia and Bulgaria, were banned.

North Korea, one sanction short of the limit, will have to change its ways.

Its athletes will have to compete more often, and be tested more often - six times in the qualifying period.

Of course the new qualifying rules are very hard on the athletes of today who played no part in what happened many years ago.

Those nations who cannot send full teams to Tokyo 2020 may well argue that they are paying the price for crimes committed by others, but they should address those complaints to themselves, their own governing body, their own coaches, their own administrators – not the IWF.

The tide started to turn last September, a few months after Aján's re-election as President, when the IWF announced that an Independent Testing Authority would take over its anti-doping programme.

International Weightlifting Federation President Tamás Aján has helped oversee the new qualifying system for Tokyo 2020 which punishes countries with poor doping records ©Getty Images
International Weightlifting Federation President Tamás Aján has helped oversee the new qualifying system for Tokyo 2020 which punishes countries with poor doping records ©Getty Images

The IWF also created two new bodies, well populated by independent experts, to help clean up the sport.

When three Germans, two of them scientists, an American lawyer, a Canadian expert in sport ethics, a Belgian lifter and coach who has long spoken out against cheats, and directors from the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency were named on the new Clean Sport Commission, things started to look hopeful.

The Sport Program Commission, in which the Commonwealth Games Federation’s former director of sport, Matthew Curtain, played a key role alongside that same Belgian, Tom Goegebuer, Romania’s Nicu Vlad, Japan’s Chinen Reiko and Adamfi, was another driver of change.

There are more details to be decided, and nothing can be taken for granted about how the qualifying system will work out.

But surely this Tokyo 2020 qualifying document could, and should, change everything. 

It is bad news for cockroaches.

Every single person involved in its creation deserves a medal.