Sopita Tanasan is one of numerous Thai weightlifters to be banned ©Getty Images

The strength of Tamás Aján's leadership of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) will be tested in Lausanne tomorrow, at a meeting that could have a profound effect on the sport's future.

Aján is among members of the IWF executive board who want to block an attempted return by Thailand, which withdrew itself from international competition in March after a series of violations left it with the worst recent doping record in the sport.

He is also in favour of retaining the independent sanctions panel that punishes countries with multiple doping offences, such as Thailand, and is proposing further reforms to the IWF anti-doping strategy via a new collaboration with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

All of this will be discussed at an extraordinary meeting of the board.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said in a letter to the IWF that it would be "very concerned" by any change to Thailand's position.

It also expressed support for the significant changes - including a new Olympic qualifying system, and the use of independent experts in anti-doping procedures and sanctions - made by the IWF since 2017.

Any decision seen as a backward step would "fail to honour our commitment to athletes, member federations, the global weightlifting family, the IOC and WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency)", Ajan said in an open letter to weightlifters last week.

It could also lead to the IOC reconsidering weightlifting's status as an Olympic sport, a point made by Ajan in a letter sent to Intarat Yodbangtoey, first vice-president of the IWF and Honorary President of the Thai Weightlifting Federation.

Intarat Yodbangtoey has called the process
Intarat Yodbangtoey has called the process "reckless" ©IWF

Opposing these moves is a group of executive board members, seven of whom are from nations that cannot send a maximum team to Tokyo 2020 because of doping violations.

They say Thailand's youths and juniors should be allowed to compete because innocent young athletes - including those from their own countries - are being punished for past misdeeds by others.

The nations are Russia, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Egypt, India, Romania and Uzbekistan, all of whom have the support of the IWF general secretary Mohamed Jaloud, from Iraq.

They also want to scrap the sanctions panel and make the board the ultimate decision-maker on multiple-offence punishments - a proposal that could lead to conflicts of interest, says Aján.

Collectively, those seven nations who want to scrap the sanctions panel have had more than 150 doping violations since the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, while the seven "cleanest" nations on the board would not even reach double figures.

It appears to be a straight fight between those with good and bad doping records on the 21-strong board, but there are others who want to disband the sanctions panel of independent anti-doping experts - all of whom come from the United States, Canada, Germany and New Zealand, nations that could be described in weightlifting terms as "squeaky clean".

"There seems to be less agreement from one meeting to the next,” Ursula Papandrea, head of the IWF women's commission and President of USA Weightlifting, said.

"There will be more fighting, and that's not going to leave us anywhere positive."

Thailand, many of whose doping violations have been by teenagers, and Egypt are both banned outright from Tokyo 2020, and have both failed with legal challenges that might have let them back in.

Egypt's Sara Ahmed is having to pay a heavy price for her country's doping ban ©Getty Images
Egypt's Sara Ahmed is having to pay a heavy price for her country's doping ban ©Getty Images

Thailand's weightlifting federation tried through a Swiss court to return to international competition, but failed.

Aján then wrote to Yodbangtoey, who for decades had been a close ally, to tell him that putting the interests of one country above the future of weightlifting was "absolutely reckless" and "risking the reputation and the Olympic status of our sport".

Egypt was the first nation to be suspended by the sanctions panel in September, a consequence of six positives for youth and junior lifters in December 2016.

The Egyptian weightlifting federation appealed against the suspension to CAS, which informed the IWF on Wednesday that the appeal had been dismissed and "the decision made by the Independent Member Federation Sanctions Panel is confirmed".

That suspension - and the realisation that Thailand is next in line for a formal suspension to be determined by the same panel - was the catalyst for the move by some members of the board to put decisions back in their own hands.

The ratification of the sanctions panel by CAS will be seen as good news by those board members who see it as an essential part of weightlifting's future.

There have been six more Egyptian positives this year, and another decision to be made by the Lausanne meeting is reallocation of the 2020 IWF World Junior Championships, which were to have been held in Cairo.

While Thailand and Egypt are paying for doping in the past three years, the overwhelming majority of violations by Russia and Kazakhstan occurred before 2016, the most high-profile of which came at the Olympic Games when the IOC retested stored samples from 2008 and 2012.

Russia has been in the news again this week with the revelation that 145 doping positives had been covered up by the Moscow laboratory, of which, according to the news agency TASS, 41 were by weightlifters.

Only yesterday, the Russian federation President Maxim Agapitov wrote to Sir Craig Reedie, President of WADA, asking for help in an internal investigation into alleged doping "crimes" in the period 2012-15 before he became the Russian federation's President.

Both Russia and Kazakhstan have revamped their anti-doping procedures, have seen a marked drop in performance levels, and claim they are paying a heavy price for their past doping culture while Aján, who presided over the sport in its worst years of cheating, is not.

In a statement to insidethegames, Agapitov said Aján was "not fighting against doping - he is fighting against individuals in an attempt to retain his control of weightlifting".

Ursula Papandrea and Tamás Aján are key figures in the sport ©IWF
Ursula Papandrea and Tamás Aján are key figures in the sport ©IWF

Agapitov, whose federation can send a maximum of two athletes to Tokyo, said: "There have been more than 50 weightlifting doping positives in the 2008 and 2012 IOC retests.

"Are we supposed to believe those weightlifters were clean the rest of the time at every other international competition and in training for those competitions?

"The IOC oversees testing of weightlifters at the Olympics.

"The IWF oversees testing of weightlifters at all other times.

"How did the IWF testing miss more than 50 cheaters in the lead-up to the 2008 and 2012 Olympics?"

He also sent a list of questions he hopes to put to the board in Lausanne, concerning anti-doping, nepotism and lack of transparency about finances and staff salaries.

"Under Dr Aján’s leadership, weightlifting as an Olympic event has been in danger for 30 years," said Agapitov, who highlighted the threat to the sport's Olympic status after doping scandals at Seoul 1988 and Sydney 2000.

Papandrea said: "They say there has been retrospective judgement and punishment of Kazakhstan and Russia, but it's not going on in the political realm, and I understand that.

"But the point is we need to be looking forward, and most things I see the secretariat and Dr Aján doing point to sincerity and a genuine effort (to clean up the sport).

"Even if Dr Ajan was the person in charge in the doping culture, he is now presiding over change.

"Does anybody want to preside over a sport that's not even in the Olympics?

"There are so many other things we could be doing right now; governance issues, financial security, promotion and marketing, but instead we're hung up as we have been for a year on doping issues, on this struggle that should not exist.

"I was looking at the photos taken after the last presidential election (in Thailand in 2017) and for me there was a moment of hope that everybody was on the same page.

"But now I feel the divisions are becoming deeper and deeper.

"If everybody was truly for clean sport and wanted to remain in the Olympics, we wouldn't have to have this meeting because the answers are clear as to what we have to do.

"We have to have total independence in which the board does not even touch anything to do with anti-doping - which is the situation we have in the US - and we have to punish countries as the independent groups tell us to.

"I want everything independent, including sanctioning, because there's a huge conflict of interest, especially with the composition of this board."