Brian Oliver

It looked likely to be the biggest story of the week in Olympic sport when insidethegames reported, on New Year’s Day, that two Egyptian coaches had been sent to jail during a Government inquiry into widespread doping and fraud.

Within five days it seemed almost irrelevant.

Even the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to such overwhelming disruption of the sporting calendar since February, is arguably only the second most important story in weightlifting in 2020.

Five days after the "coaches in jail" story, on Sunday January 5, the German state broadcaster ARD aired a documentary, Lord of the Lifters, about alleged corruption in weightlifting, most notably involving Tamás Aján, that would cause bitter division and seismic change in the sport.

Its effects have already led to significant changes in leadership at the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), with more to come.

As Richard McLaren, the Canadian law professor, said today when he revealed the findings of his team’s investigation into corruption in the sport, "it is time to turn the page and create a new era for weightlifting."

Some important work towards creating a "new era" has already been underway for some time, but all of it has been overshadowed this year by claims of corruption.

The insidethegames headline on the day of the ARD broadcast was "Weightlifting’s doping cover-ups and missing millions – German TV documentary targets IWF President Aján".

Allegations of corruption and cover-ups in anti-doping and finance, mostly related to incidents from years ago, were directed at Aján, the Hungarian who had held high office at the IWF since 1976.

Claims of doping by Thai weightlifters, including girls aged 13, were more shockingly immediate.

Vehement denials came from Aján, then IWF President, and his first vice-president Intarat Yodbangtoey, the IWF’s second most senior elected official who had been at the helm of the Thai Amateur Weightlifting Association (TAWA) for many years.

Within hours of the ARD broadcast the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said the allegations were "very serious and worrying" while the most senior figure in anti-doping in Germany, Andrea Gotzmann, said the sport was in danger of losing its Olympic status.

When Aján said the documentary had "ruined my life and 50 years of my work" he would be proved right.

His reputation, after years of service to the IWF, to the World-Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on whose Board he sat, and to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) of which he was a member and honorary member for 20 years, has been destroyed.

The ARD documentary Lord of the Lifters which aired on January 5, was the start of a turbulent five months for weightlifting ©ARD
The ARD documentary Lord of the Lifters which aired on January 5, was the start of a turbulent five months for weightlifting ©ARD

On Tuesday January 21 insidethegames reported that Aján's reign was under threat as Executive Board members wanted to suspend him.

The following day, at an Executive Board meeting in Doha, Qatar, Aján stood aside as President for an agreed term of 90 days, pending an independent investigation into the corruption allegations.

A woman took charge of the IWF for the first time in its 105-year history when Ursula Papandrea, a former international athlete who became the highest-qualified female coach in the United States and a campaigning presence on national and international executive boards, was voted in as Acting President.

Papandrea also headed a new body created in that meeting in Doha, the Oversight and Integrity Commission (OIC), whose first major task was to find somebody suitable to carry out the independent investigation.

A week later, in Thailand, Boossaba Yodbangtoey, Intarat’s wife, resigned as President of TAWA along with her entire Board because of the doping scandal in her country.

The following day, January 30, Papandrea and her team caused a sensation by appointing Richard McLaren, the Canadian law professor who played a leading role in exposing state-sponsored doping in Russian sport, to lead the independent investigation.

Aján was not happy with that, and did not step aside lightly.

He continued to carry out duties that should have fallen to Papandrea and, as McLaren said, was obsessed with retaining control - some on the Executive Board wanted to formally suspend him.

On Thursday March 26, by when Aján had resigned as an honorary member of the IOC, his exile as IWF President was extended.

The Board gave Acting President Papandrea more time in charge, until June 19.

In the first week of April Thailand’s ban from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, for multiple doping violations, was formally announced.

That was soon followed, on April 15, by the biggest news of all: the Lord of the Lifters himself had resigned. Aján agreed to end his 44-year reign at the IWF.

The following day, insidethegames published an interview with documentary maker Seppelt in which he said: "I strongly believe that the story of Aján and the IWF is much bigger. I am sure there are many more stories which could be investigated."

Aján countered by saying a lot of the allegations in the documentary were "fake news" and said he had resigned because of the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, not because of the corruption allegations.

Today’s revelations by McLaren of missing millions, doping cover-ups and vote-buying, rounded off the most tumultuous five months in weightlifting history.

The success of Fiji's Eileen Cikamatana has been one of the good news stories during five turbulent months for the sport ©Getty Images
The success of Fiji's Eileen Cikamatana has been one of the good news stories during five turbulent months for the sport ©Getty Images

Since the first week of 2020 weightlifting has attracted a slew of negative headlines around the world that have overshadowed the progress made by the new regime at the IWF.

The headquarters are moving from Budapest to Lausanne, the organisation is being restructured, new executive leadership is being hired, and there is a governance overhaul underway, but none of that has made headlines in the mainstream media.

Besides the fallout from the German documentary there have been yet more IOC retest positives from London 2012 that could keep Romania out of Tokyo 2020.

Colombia and Iraq also face bans for multiple doping cases, and the scandal that landed those coaches in jail in Egypt led to scathing condemnation of Egyptian weightlifting in a leaked report, as well as a provisional ban for a senior coach.

There has been good news too: phenomenal performances by Loredana Toma of Romania, Eileen Cikamatana of Australia, and Ali Davoudi of Iran on the platform.

Lasha Talakhadze was once more voted male weightlifter of the year and when Kate Nye took the women’s award she became the first American winner since 1982.

Ilya Ilyin, who forfeited two Olympic gold medals for retrospective doping positives, and who was seen by many as the "poster boy" of the doping era, announced his retirement as an athlete.

This is a sport in which athletes should be the focus of attention, and not for doping, but it has not happened yet in 2020 and it hard to see it happening by the end of the year.

Papandrea herself wrote about "a new era" back when she became Acting President in January, in a column for insidethegames.

She wrote: "Concepts like transparency, accountability and good governance should not be talking points, they should be supported by a constitution and by-laws that support measures for checks and balances, drug testing records accessibility, whistleblower provisions, and the list goes on.

"If we can enact these types of reform initiatives, we can head off any potential for these kinds of allegations to be asserted in this way ever again.

"That would mean two years from now we would be in a better place, not just on the anti-doping front, but on all fronts."

So the target has been set: there is an enormous amount of hard work ahead for those who want to lay the foundations for that new era.

insidethegames story about the German TV documentary was the start of five turbulent months for weightlifting ©ITG
insidethegames story about the German TV documentary was the start of five turbulent months for weightlifting ©ITG

Timeline of trouble – January 5 to June 4, 2020

Sunday January 5 - "Weightlifting’s doping cover-ups and missing millions – German TV documentary targets IWF President Aján" - here

Monday January 6 - "IWF hits back at corruption claims and turns focus on ‘organised doping’ in Thailand" - here

Wednesday January 8 - "Documentary team’s new evidence of weightlifting corruption" - here

Friday January 10 - "Ajan says corruption claims have ruined my life" - here

Thursday January 16 -  "Documentary ignored all our reforms" says Aján - here

Tuesday January 21- "Aján's 44-year reign under threat" - here 

Wednesday January 22 - "Aján steps aside – Papandrea takes charge" - here

Wednesday January 29 - "Board may move to formally suspend Aján" - here

Thursday January 30 - "Board resigns en masse in Thailand" - here

Friday January 31 - "Exclusive: McLaren to lead investigation" - here

Sunday February 16 - "IWF to give athletes a voice" - here

Tuesday March 3 - "Aján resigns honorary IOC membership" - here

Thursday March 26 - "Aján cannot return" - here

Saturday April 4 - "Thailand banned from Tokyo 2020" - here

Saturday April 11 - "Aján faces expulsion in Board vote" - here

Wednesday April 15 - "Aján resigns to end 44-year reign" - here

Thursday April 16 - "Sport cannot control itself" says Seppelt - here

Thursday April 23 - "Exclusive: IWF moves from Budapest to Lausanne" - here

Friday April 24 - "Andrews ‘humbled’ by new role for IWF" - here

Monday May 4 - "Ilya Ilyin quits weightlifting" - here

Thursday June 4 - "Doping cover-ups and more than $10 million missing - Aján condemned in weightlifting corruption inquiry" - here