Brian Oliver

China’s unstoppable weightlifters racked up another nine world records, the United States had by far its best continental results, Japan and Korea continued their impressive progress, Saudi Arabia won a first major gold medal and Haiti made it on to the podium for the first time.

It has been another great week for weightlifting, exciting contests and records galore at the Asian Championships in Ningbo, China and the Pan American Championships in Guatemala where, in another sign of change, there were more women competing than men.

The action ends this weekend in Ningbo and Guatemala, the Arafura Games in Australia run until Monday and the African Championships in Cairo finish on Tuesday.

That brings to a close the first six-month phase of Olympic qualifying, after which everybody who follows the sport will sit down to analyse the ranking lists of about 1,000 athletes contending for 196 places at Tokyo 2020.

While many of the favourites are well placed, it has not been a good start for others who had high hopes for Tokyo.

Om Yun-chol of North Korea is up in weight and down in numbers, Daniyar Ismayilov (Turkey) and Daniel Godelli (Albania) have not registered a total, Sohrab Moradi of Iran is recovering from a bad back injury and the brilliant Fijian teenager Eileen Cikamatana is absent after a dispute with her national federation that should never have happened.

Then there is the intriguing performance of Ilya Ilyin, the man who may have made more headlines than any other weightlifter in the 21st century, usually for the wrong reasons.

Ilyin will have to look a long way down the men’s 96kg rankings before he finds his name.

There are 14 places available for Tokyo. A third of the way through qualifying, he is likely to be around 40th.

Ilya Ilyin in action at London 2012 ©Getty Images
Ilya Ilyin in action at London 2012 ©Getty Images

That will not surprise Ilyin, who twice stood on top of the podium at the Olympic Games, only to be disqualified for doping when samples from Beijing 2008 and London 2012 were retested by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Kazakhstan had 10 disqualifications, and Ilyin was the biggest name among the 54 positives that caused the sport so much trouble.

Ilyin did not take all his lifts in Ningbo last Thursday. He just had to make a total to be in contention for Tokyo, having weighed in without lifting at both the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Championships and the Qatar Cup late last year to meet the qualifying conditions.

But can Ilyin, who will be 31 next month, return to anything like his old form in time for his big target of the year, the 2019 IWF World Championships, less than five months away?

Ilyin has been training longer than that already, before and since his return from suspension, yet he has never lifted lower numbers.

His entry total in Ningbo was 360kg and he fell 15kg short of that, finishing fifth with by far the worst performance of a career that began when he was a teenager in 2005.

It was also the first time he had been beaten on the platform in international competition in all those years.

At his best, he lifted 87kg more at 105kg in 2015, and 63kg more at London 2012 in the old 94kg category that produced 10 of the 54 positives in those IOC retests.

Over in Guatemala, the record-breaking American teenager CJ Cummings lifted 344kg, just 1kg less than Ilyin's career low in Ningbo – and he was competing three weight classes lower at 73kg.

Clearly, Ilyin is finding it very difficult to cope with his new circumstances and there are those who believe some coaches, not just in Kazakhstan, are finding it equally hard.

After finishing first at Beijing 2008, it would take Ilyin 10 years to compete six more times: to qualify for Tokyo he must enter six competitions in 18 months and he will be tested every time.

Kazakhstan’s national head coach told the media before the Asian Championships that Ilyin was “only 50 per cent ready” for competition and with a Kazakhstani journalist among the coaching team, there were other positive interpretations of Ilyin’s performance.

He gave up his last two clean and jerks to avoid the risk of injury, he could have lifted more, he has had injuries, he just wanted the qualifying points and nothing else mattered.

He has trained in Romania and in Sochi, Russia as well as at home in Kazakhstan, and his aim in Ningbo was simply to post an acceptable total before returning to prepare for the World Championships, the most important competition in the second six-month Olympic qualifying period.

Ilyin said before competing, “I know that I constantly won (in the past) but now I just need qualifying points, to go on to the World Championships… I need to think about Tokyo, so this start will be unimportant for me.”

Others were not so sure. One Asian coach said: “I will be surprised if he makes it to Tokyo.

“Of course he will improve, but so will others.

Russia's Tatiana Kashirina shows her power ©Getty Images
Russia's Tatiana Kashirina shows her power ©Getty Images

“His results show how much of a role doping played in his preparation in the past.

“It's not just the number of competitions.

"Training clean is completely different and it looks like his old coaches can’t help because he has got rid of them.”

According to the Kazakhstani media, Ilyin ditched three coaches and turned to Anton Moiseyev from Shymkent, Kazakhstan’s third largest city.

In a recent interview, Ilyin said he had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since his Olympic disqualifications, that he sometimes found training extremely tiring and that he had considered moving into coaching.

But he cannot bring himself to give up competing while weightlifting still “brings me joy”.

Ilyin is a national hero despite his tarnished achievements (his main rivals were doping, too) and there appears a desperate effort from the highest level to get him to the Olympic Games again.

That is in stark contrast to China, who will not even consider sending to the Olympics any athlete who has tested positive, no matter how long ago.

While Kazakhstan is struggling – Zulfiya Chinshanlo, another disqualified Olympic gold medallist, is also way below her best and Rio champion Nijat Rahimov apparently had a back injury in Ningbo – rival countries have made great strides.

Of the nine nations suspended for a year in 2017 for multiple Olympic Games doping offences, three have had world-record performers in the first phase of Olympic qualifying: China (too many to mention), Russia (Tatiana Kashirina) and Armenia (Simon Martirosyan), and they have won plenty of medals, too.

China has won five golds at every Olympic Games this century and even with its smallest team to date, the maximum four men and four women, it will probably expect to match that number next year.

Belarus has had arguably the best young performer of a memorable month in 20-year-old Yauheni Tsikhantsou, who totalled 400kg at the European Championships in Ilyin’s weight class, 96kg.

Turkey and Ukraine won gold, while Moldova, Azerbaijan and now Kazakhstan, which at least made the podium in Ningbo, have had a month to forget.

The new qualifying system, a more rigid anti-doping policy, and “clean” training have changed everything, opening up medal opportunities for more nations.

Israel won a first women’s medal in the European Championships, Britain’s women had their best results to date and Italy had a very successful week, capped by Nino Pizzolato's outstanding 81kg gold.

In Ningbo, Saudi Arabia took a first gold (though the winner, Mansour Al Saleem, has served a two-year doping suspension), while in Guatemala, Haiti won its first medal.

Among other big improvers worldwide are Japan, Korea and the United States, who won their 31st medal on Friday night, smashing their previous Pan American record of 22.

“It’s an exciting time not just for Team USA but for weightlifting around the world,” said Phil Andrews, chief executive of USA Weightlifting.

“More nations are able to see success and invigorate their national programmes.

“Our team did better than ever but we were also excited to see results in other continental championships point towards a highly competitive 2019 worlds and 2020 Olympic Games.”

Perhaps a touch too competitive for Ilya Ilyin.