Michael Pavitt

The axe remains delicately poised above boxing and weightlifting following the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board meeting in Lausanne earlier this week. And the IOC are completely right to keep it there.

My surprise was that both sports were seemingly surprised that it remains there.

Both boxing and weightlifting’s situations are comparable and severe, although the latter’s is far more specific around the topic of anti-doping.

The Olympic axe, although the nuclear option. really the only weapon the IOC have to get International Federations to bend to their will. 

The fear is that putting it to one side could result in organisations sliding back into complacency.

The threat has been like an electric jolt to the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) who have since, admirably, set about trying to tackle the doping problem that has plagued the sport for decades.

Nine countries are currently serving one year bans from the sport, while quota places for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo were restricted against countries that have consistently produced the largest number of positive tests.

Along with the extreme measures, educational seminars have become a regular occurrence and recently the IWF announced a partnership with the United States Anti-Doping Agency and USA Weightlifting to develop online anti-doping education which would become mandatory.

While these are welcome efforts, consideration does need to be given to where the sport has come from. In the past two years with have had announcements that there were 24 positive tests in weightlifting at the 2015 World Championships, along with 49 in the re-testing of samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games in Beijing and London.

It makes for painful reading, particularly when you consider a ninth place finisher in an event at London 2012 eventually rose to third place after seven failures in his division. Only then to be sent home himself from Rio 2016.

Boxing and weightlifting have provided a headache for the IOC in recent years ©Getty Images
Boxing and weightlifting have provided a headache for the IOC in recent years ©Getty Images

The sport clearly has made progress in attempting to put measures into place, highlighted by becoming complaint with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in March.

The theory looks excellent, but at this stage we really have no indication as to whether the measures are having an impact in bringing about a cultural change. 

I do think there are questions over whether countries receiving possible bans for a set number of positive tests could encourage cover-ups in countries, particularly where a National Olympic Committee is acting as a National Anti-doping Organisation. The IWF do seem to have moved some way toward tackling this by warning athletes must take part in six of their events from 2018 to 2020 to ensure they have the right scrutiny of testing.

Much like cycling in the 1990s and a good part of the 2000s, you sense there will be many more positive tests and pain as part of a long-term path. 

A doping culture does not simply change overnight, even if the right steps are being taken.

A comment attributed to IWF President Tamás Aján actually summed it up quite well, where he stated, "We are very proud of the excellent progress we have made in such a short period of time and we are already seeing the positive outcome of the measures we have implemented. 

"Cultures in countries with high historical incidences of doping will not change overnight, but we are moving in the right direction and were pleased the IOC acknowledged this."

Doping is often referred to as a disease in sports. Of all the sports on the programme, this was the one that truly was in intensive care. In this sense, the IWF have essentially drawn up a treatment plan. But that does not necessarily mean a cure has been found.

Similarly, the International Boxing Association’s (AIBA) new "Foundation Plan" was only launched in the past fortnight. It would be gobsmacking if the theory alone was enough to get the sport back into the good books, given in the past 12 months AIBA have had a Presidential coup, a civil war leading to a dispute over its headquarters and have appointed an Interim President on the US Treasury sanctions list.

Burson-Marsteller Sport, who worked with wrestling to preserve the sport’s place on the Olympic programme in the past, I would suggest have had a good deal to do with the plan.

Weightlifting have introduced a series of tough measures to combat doping but the full impact is still to be seen ©Getty Images
Weightlifting have introduced a series of tough measures to combat doping but the full impact is still to be seen ©Getty Images

Introducing term limits for Executive Committee members, measures to reduce the power of the President and the ability to remove them from power by the Executive Committee and Congress seem fairly pertinent steps.

Creating campaign policy to allow Presidential hopefuls to present their candidacy is logical, as is improving the gender balance of the Executive Committee - albeit to a still paltry figure of a minimum of five women for 28 positions.

The plan also states by November’s Congress, the Election Commission would "perform eligibility checks on all candidates standing for election". A good test would be deciding whether the current Interim President Gafur Rakhimov can stand, considering his alleged links to organised crime. 

While the IOC have highlighted that questions remain around governance, financial and refereeing, if AIBA cannot read the smoke signals being given out by the organisation about Rakhimov they could face serious problem.

The IOC have not explicitly warned Rakhimov is an issue, but their language has been very carefully considered.

IOC President Thomas Bach, in the middle of his standard press conference ramble, produced a very deliberate response about the issues facing AIBA.

"It is a range of questions that are open with AIBA," he said. "These questions cannot all be answered by the Executive Board of AIBA or by the secretary general alone."

In April it was announced Rakhimov would be taking legal action in the US in an attempt to eradicate his supposed links to organised crime.

"I truly believe my love for boxing and AIBA will conquer any challenge and despite the unfounded accusations against me I am determined to continue to devote my life to the sport," he stated.

Rakhimov is fully entitled to do so and if the allegations are unfounded, it is certainly an unfortunate situation to be in. But while those allegations remain in place, surely it makes it untenable that he can become AIBA President, as looks an inevitability at this current moment in time.

The potential appointment of Gafur Rakhimov as permanet AIBA President appears to be of concern to the IOC ©Getty Images
The potential appointment of Gafur Rakhimov as permanet AIBA President appears to be of concern to the IOC ©Getty Images

Consider for a moment what is at stake for the IOC at this moment in time. Consider Boston, Hamburg, Sion, Innsbruck, Graz and the upcoming plebiscite in Calgary.

The Olympic Movement has a genuine credibility crisis, with the public just as concerned the officials at the top of sporting organisations as they are about the costs associated with the Games.

Boxing electing Rakhimov - whether innocent or not - would provide further ammunition for campaigners against the Olympic Movement at a time when the IOC cannot afford any more fires.

Is there not a case for saying if Rakhimov recognises he could put the sport’s place at risk and he loves boxing as much as he says he does, he could opt out of the Presidential race in order to help preserve its place.

My attention this week was also drawn to a suggestion from British Rowing vice-chair Annamarie Phelps in a tweet - related to drugs cheat Alexander Zubkov’s re-election as Russian Bobsleigh Federation President - that perhaps a fit and proper persons test could be introduced.

It would be an interesting idea to have such a test, particularly if it was operated independently of Federations and potentially the IOC itself.

For the meantime, though, the threat of the Olympic axe is what the IOC have to make Federations bend to their will. It should not come as a surprise that the crisis-hit sports of biathlon, boxing and weightlifting are among the first to say they will join up to the International Testing Agency, along with the International Table Tennis Federation.

The IOC currently have the crisis hit Federations under their thumb. If they ask them to jump, the answer really should be "how high".

Certainly, this appears to have been recognised by the IWF, which the IOC made clear in the language used when discussing the governing body.

There was more terse language for AIBA, with their place on the Olympic programme looking in far greater peril.

The IOC deserve credit for sticking to their guns and forcing these Federations into action. One wonders whether the organisation will, however, have the courage to swing the axe if they need to.

It would certainly be some statement if they were to cut adrift of a sport that could potentially cause them problems.

Liam Morgan's blog will appear tomorrow