Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

The decision to award Russia the 2020 European Weightlifting Championships on the same day its one-year suspension from the sport expired on October 17 was certainly a bold one.

Many eyebrows will have been raised at the apparent eagerness of the European Weightlifting Federation (EWF) to welcome fully back into the fold a nation whose doping record has disfigured world sport in recent years.

Of course the EWF was within its rights to make this award, as Russia has served its sanction. As have the eight other countries banned last year by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) for having multiple positives in the retesting of doping samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games - namely China, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova and Turkey.

Desperate times require desperate remedies - and the culture of weightlifting was reaching a point where its continuing presence as a sport within the Olympic Movement was open to question.

Last December the International Olympic Committee (IOC) outlined four requirements the beleaguered IWF must meet to stay on the programme post-Tokyo 2020. These are the full implementation of the recommendations from the Independent Clean Sport Commission and the Sport Programme Commission, the completion of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code compliance monitoring programme and a questionnaire report on corrective actions.

Almost a year on, as the sport prepares for the World Championships that will start in Ashgabat in Turkmenistan on Thursday (November 1), the IWF President Tamás Aján says he is confident the sport has done, and is doing, enough to vouchsafe the place it had at the first Modern Olympics in 1896, and again in 1904, and at every Games since the 1920 version in Antwerp.

The Opening Ceremony of the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, since when weightlifting has been a permanent feature of the Games ©Getty Images
The Opening Ceremony of the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, since when weightlifting has been a permanent feature of the Games ©Getty Images  

"We have fulfilled all four of these criteria set by the IOC," he told insidethegames. "The IOC at their Executive Board meeting in July recognised the concrete steps we had taken to strengthen the IWF anti-doping programme and change cultural attitudes towards doping in high-risk countries. 

"They also praised our Tokyo 2020 qualification system which they recommended other International Federations follow.

"However, they want to monitor the full implementation of these changes to verify their positive impact. We respect the IOC's decision and our commitment to ensuring clean sport remains as strong as ever.

"We will continue to work closely with the IOC and WADA to ensure a level playing field for our athletes.

"While we will not take anything for granted we are confident that weightlifting will remain part of the Olympic programme at Paris 2024 once the IOC has seen the positive outcome of the measures we have introduced."

Asked how big a risk he considered the awarding of the 2020 European Championships to Russia on the day its suspension ended, and whether he felt this indicated that Russia had completely sorted out its longstanding doping problems under its new organisers, Aján responded: "To be clear the host of the European Championships is selected by the European Weightlifting Federation, not the IWF, so I would recommend you ask them.

"The Russian Weightlifting Federation has made good progress in ensuring clean sport and has served its suspension.

"The Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) has of course also been reinstated. But we will continue to monitor the situation closely, as we will do all nations."

Russia's top weightlifters, meanwhile, are expected to take part in the imminent World Championships, which run from November 1 to 10 and are the first event in the IWF's new qualifying programme for Tokyo 2020. Competitors from the eight other previously suspended nations will also be in Turkmenistan.

"The term of our disqualification will end on October 19, it will happen without any preconditions," the Russian Weightlifting Federation President Maxim Agapitov, who has led a campaign to help clean up the sport in Russia, told TASS.

Also due to compete are the two Kazakh weightlifters who were stripped of Olympic gold medals, Zulfiya Chinshanlo and Ilya Ilyin, with the latter losing both his 2008 and 2012 titles following retrospective analysis of his samples. Both earned wins at their National Championships in September after completing doping suspensions.

Asked how he would feel if Ilyin won gold in Ashgabat, Aján replied: "I am not going to start answering hypothetical questions. All I can say is that all athletes that compete at the World Championships will be subject to rigorous in-competition testing to ensure a level playing field."

Not unnaturally, the 79-year-old IOC member prefers to accentuate the positive as he looks ahead to the World Championships.

IWF President Tamás Aján pictured during the Rio 2016 Olympics ©Getty Images
IWF President Tamás Aján pictured during the Rio 2016 Olympics ©Getty Images  

"My belief is that it will be one of our best ever World Championships," Aján said. "Every World Championships we aim to improve on the previous edition and create an even better environment for our athletes and an even greater experience for our fans.

"This year's World Championships will follow that philosophy and will take place in a state-of-the-art venue, legacy of the fifth Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in 2017, which will ensure our athletes have everything they need to compete at their best.

"The newly established bodyweight categories will make their debut and Ashgabat will also give place to the first qualification event for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.  

"There will be more anti-doping testing at this year's World Championships and we are about to launch a new online education platform. We will also have widespread outreach and educational programmes, which aim to increase awareness and understanding, and support cultural change."

The latter element is something that Aján acknowledges lies at the heart of the problem - and not for his sport alone.

"The independent Clean Sport Commission identified that in a small number of countries there is a culture of doping that goes beyond weightlifting," he said.

"In these countries it is not just about introducing more testing and stricter anti-doping measures; it is also about education to try and change these cultures. We have already hosted a number of education seminars, including one in Moscow which was attended by all nine suspended countries. The seminars all aim to help National Federations align themselves with international best practice."

Many sports have faced the challenge of altering perceptions regarding doping practices. Cycling is perhaps an obvious example of a sport that has by and large improved its image in recent years.

Asked when he envisaged weightlifting being able to do the same, Aján responded: "I can't comment on other sports but certainly in weightlifting I believe we have made significant progress. Change won't happen overnight and there is always room for improvement but we have sent out a strong message to the world that doping will not be tolerated."

It remains to be seen whether weightlifting has saved itself as an Olympic sport, but no-one can argue that radical measures against doping have not been applied within the sport, as Aján reiterates.

"Our first step was to appoint an independent Clean Sport Commission to advise the IWF Executive Board on improvements to the anti-doping programme, and a Sport Programme Commission which was set-up with the purpose of elaborating the Tokyo 2020 qualification system and creating ideas for the event programme for the Tokyo 2020 Games," he said.

"In the meantime, at the IWF Executive Board meeting in September 2017, the Executive Board suspended the nine Member Federations who were found to have incurred three or more anti-doping rule violations during the IOC's retesting of Beijing 2008 and London 2012 samples.

"This was of course a difficult decision to take but a necessary one to protect our sport and our clean athletes. 

"We sent out a strong message that our members have a responsibility to ensure clean sport in their countries and if they do not fulfill their responsibilities then they will lose their right to participate.

IWF President Tamás Aján believes his sport has done enough to secure its continuing place within the Olympic and Paralympic Games despite recent doping controversies ©Getty Images
IWF President Tamás Aján believes his sport has done enough to secure its continuing place within the Olympic and Paralympic Games despite recent doping controversies ©Getty Images

"After extensive consultation over a four-month period the Clean Sport Commission and Sport Programme Commission presented their recommendations to the IWF Executive Board, which were unanimously approved.

"Recommendations included the implementation of new rules in the IWF Anti-Doping Policy which are a clear deterrent; a requirement for athletes in in the IWF Registered Testing Pool and other national team athletes to provide the IWF with an updated list of their coaches and other athlete support personnel; and enhanced anti-doping education devised in collaboration with WADA and the International Association of National Anti-Doping Organisations.

"In the months that followed we implemented all of these bold recommendations.

"In February 2018, the IOC Executive Board approved our Tokyo 2020 qualification system which rewarded countries that have a history of clean sport with more opportunities to compete at the Games.

"In March 2018, WADA confirmed the competition for all corrective actions. In April, the new IWF Anti-Doping Policy came into place which was aligned with international best practice. The independent Clean Sport Commission also noted the increase in out-of-competition testing in high-risk countries. By June, the Clean Sport Commission had noted the implementation of all of its recommendations.

"We know that we have more to do and will continue to reform to ensure clean sport and a culture of clean sport. But there is no doubt we have made a huge amount of progress in a very short period of time, and we have pioneered new reforms that I have no doubt others will follow."

In retrospect, did Aján think action could or should have been taken earlier?

"To be clear, we have long been committed to protecting clean athletes," he said. "It is not the case that action has only started to be taken in the last 15 months. Could we have done more? Perhaps, yes. But there is always room for improvement.

"I do not want to spend too much time looking back. We have had problems, like all sports, which we have acknowledged. We have implemented concrete actions and now we are looking forward.

"We are constantly looking to identify innovative and pioneering ways to protect clean athletes by making anti-doping testing more accurate, more efficient and more transparent for the benefit of all sport.

"We will continue to implement the recommendations of our independent Clean Sport Commission. 

"We are confident that with the reforms we have made, athletes, fans and all stakeholders can have trust in our sport."

One of the strongest messages the IWF has sent out in recent months was its insistence on upholding the suspension on China prior to the Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang in August and September.

How important was this?

"We have been very clear with our National Federations that if you cannot guarantee clean sport you cannot compete and that is something we will honour and is reflected in our new Anti-Doping Policy," Aján responded.

"That said, we have been working with all our member nations, including those that have been suspended, to ensure measures are put in place to protect clean athletes. In countries with historical problems of doping, that go beyond weightlifting, we have been working to help them change their cultures.

"Change does not happen overnight but we have been encouraged by the progress that we have seen. I would not say there have been any countries that have not embraced reform.

"In June this year, the Independent Monitoring Group recognised the significant anti-doping progress among the suspended National Federations."

The revised Tokyo 2020 qualification system, geared to reward and encourage nations with good records on anti-doping, has conversely affected nations with bad records.

Kazakhstan's Ilya Ilyin, pictured celebrating a world record and second Olympic title at London 2012 - he was subsequently stripped of both - has qualified to take part in the impending IWF World Championships after serving a two-year suspension ©Getty Images
Kazakhstan's Ilya Ilyin, pictured celebrating a world record and second Olympic title at London 2012 - he was subsequently stripped of both - has qualified to take part in the impending IWF World Championships after serving a two-year suspension ©Getty Images  

Kazakhstan, for instance, is due to be limited to the minimum of two places under new IWF qualifying rules, one male and one female - although the Kazakh Weightlifting Federation is imminently challenging the qualifying rules at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

"The Kazakhstan Weightlifting Federation has appealed to CAS over the Tokyo 2020 qualification system," Aján said.

"I do not wish to prejudge the decision but of course our position is very clear. Our Tokyo 2020 Olympic qualification system is not about punishing nations but about providing more opportunities for countries that have a proven track record of promoting clean sport.

"It is a qualification system which has been praised by the IOC and one that they have recommended other IFs follow."

It is ironic that a sport which appears one of most basic and easy to appreciate should be entangled in so many tensions and problems.

"I would agree," Aján said. "Certainly it is very easy to appreciate which is why it is such a popular sport around the world. It is very easy to measure and so it is very easy for fans to understand and enjoy.

"Strength is a core to all sport and a regular part of most people's every-day-lives. If you go to any gym in any city in any country around the world you will see people lifting weights, whether they are training for sport or working on their fitness.

"It is a sport that has been practiced for many hundreds of years and it is this history and shared experience which makes it so popular. It is after all part of the Olympic Motto - Citius, Altius, Fortius.

"Weightlifting is the pure demonstration of human strength while at the same time it requires concentration and precise technical skills. It is the perfect combination of these three elements that I am passionate about. Acquiring such capabilities can be done through long years of training and I truly admire our athletes' dedication.

"As of the future, I expect new disciplines, innovative competition formats and mixed events to be introduced. They would certainly bring unprecedented excitement to the sport. The possibilities are endless and I am confident that great things are to be expected."