Brian Oliver ©ITG

If you stood one weightlifting Coffa brother on top of the other they might just about stretch beyond three metres, edging marginally higher than the top of the discs when the giant Georgian Lasha Talakhadze makes one of his world record lifts.

"We are the same height," said Paul, "but Sam would have you believe he is slightly taller."

"I was five feet (1.52 metres) when I was 12 and I still am now," said Sam.

"Mind you, a five-foot 12-year-old was a giant in my village in Sicily, so I was goalkeeper in the soccer team."

There is not much of them, but what there is has gone a long, long way in weightlifting - and there is more to come from the Coffas.

When Sam, 84, and Paul, 78, have a family get-together for the first time in six months in Melbourne on Friday they will be talking not so much about the 120-plus years they have collectively devoted to the sport, but about where they go next.

For Sam, in his new role as honorary advisor to the Executive Board, it is helping the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) to further distance itself from its murky past and raise its standing in the Olympic Movement.

For Paul, who will be fresh out of quarantine on his return to live in Australia after 26 years raising the sport’s profile around the Pacific Islands, it is establishing a new base Down Under for the Oceania Weightlifting Institute. There is no chance of either man calling it a day soon.

Marcus Stephen, left, was elected President of Nauru in 2007, having been coached to Commonwealth glory by Paul Coffa, right ©Paul Coffa
Marcus Stephen, left, was elected President of Nauru in 2007, having been coached to Commonwealth glory by Paul Coffa, right ©Paul Coffa

Sam, who is also president of the Australian Weightlifting Federation (AWF) again, has the next IWF elections and the 2022 Commonwealth Games to keep him busy.

"We don’t even know which weight categories will be used in Birmingham 2022, or how many of them - there’s a lot to be sorted out," said Sam.

Coach Paul is sure to be around until Paris 2024 as he has an Olympic medal contender already, the phenomenally talented young Fijian-Australian Eileen Cikamatana.

Fiji was one of the stop-offs when the Oceania Institute moved around, always under the charge of Paul and his wife Lilly, who has been "like a mother to us" in the words of four-time Olympian Dika Toua, from Papua New Guinea.

The Institute, which will set up in Canberra, Sydney or Melbourne, has been based in Samoa, Fiji and New Caledonia since Paul started it in 2001. By then he had already spent seven years in Nauru, where he established a National Olympic Committee and first coached Pacific lifters in their homeland.

Not since 1994, when Paul felt he had done all he could for Australia - he was national coach for 15 years, including at Los Angeles 1984 where Australians won Olympic gold and silver, and with Sam’s support masterminded of a huge boom in weightlifting - have the brothers worked together in an AWF context, as they will in finding the Institute a new home.

Paul put a sizeable sum of his own money into the Institute, which has never been run as a profit-making business.

The Institute lifters were supported directly by International Olympic Committee solidarity funding and by their own national weightlifting federations and National Olympic Committees.

Paul has coached hundreds of medallists and helped to promote weightlifting to such an extent that at one point in the late 1990s Nauru - population at the time 9,500 - had more weightlifters registered with the IWF than China.

The big boost came when Marcus Stephen, coached by Paul, won Nauru’s first gold medal in any sport at the Commonwealth Games in 1994.

The Coffa brothers have had a significant impact on weightlifting in the last 50 years ©Sam Coffa
The Coffa brothers have had a significant impact on weightlifting in the last 50 years ©Sam Coffa

Children were named after famous weightlifters, and "kids walk in the street practising their snatch and their clean and jerk" said Stephen, who sits on the IWF Board as president of the Oceania Federation.

Stephen later became President of Nauru, leading to a trip to the White House to meet the Obamas after making a presentation on climate change, and to a new nickname among his friends on the IWF Board - "Your excellency".

"Paul helped to make weightlifting so popular that on Nauru, the Cabinet would stop its business to discuss why the split jerk is more effective than the famous Pyrros Dimas push jerk," said Stephen. He described Paul as "the father figure of weightlifting in the Pacific region" and added: "Don’t forget, Lilly is everything to us as well."

The Oceania Talent ID Programme is a huge success that has allowed the sport to remain healthy and grow, said Stephen, who cannot see an end in sight to Paul’s efforts despite his return to Australia.

"The way he is going, there’s more to come. Who knows - an Olympic Games medal?"

The Coffas started out in the sport way back in the 1950s, the decade they emigrated from Sicily to Australia.

They fell in love with it while watching athletes train, in a hall just down the road from them in Hawthorn, for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.

Sam - who lifted at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, coached Australia’s national team, and drafted in some of weightlifting’s most important rule changes this century - thought his days in the sport were over when he was ousted from the IWF in 2017 after turning against Tamás Aján.

The Hungarian resigned as IWF President in April before being castigated by Richard McLaren’s independent investigation into weightlifting corruption on June 4.

A few weeks after Aján’s exit, Sam received a surprise request to advise the IWF Board, and has since been offered a technical delegate role at the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, when he will be 85.

Sam Coffa in competition ©Sam Coffa
Sam Coffa in competition ©Sam Coffa

"After I said yes to both requests my friends asked me, ‘Are you nuts?;" said Sam.

"My family were the same, they said, 'You must be mad.' But my doctor, he said, 'Good idea, Sam, if you feel good and your mind is still working, keep it going.'

"I’m taking my doctor’s advice."

Sam says he has "never been busier" as he sits up at all hours reading IWF proposals and documents, thinking about any advice he might offer towards improving the constitution and the anti-doping policy.

Like any nation involved in weightlifting since the 1950s, Australia has had its moments when it comes to doping, though a Senate inquiry in the 1980s, which centred on a number of sports at the Australian Instititute of Sport and the alleged supply of drugs to weightlifters, produced only an interim report with no final findings. A more recent inquiry led by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency (ASADA) in 2006 also focused on the supply of drugs.

The Coffas were never implicated in the doping allegations, though Sam did admit that "things were not done up to standard" when governance of the AWF was criticised in the 2006 inquiry.

Robert Kabbas, a silver medallist at Los Angeles 1984 when Paul was coach, replaced Sam as AWF President in 2007, leaving Sam to focus on his IWF work until he was effectively kicked out by Aján in 2017.

He retook the AWF Presidency in 2018 and has served in that role for more than 25 years in his two spells, as well as many years as President of the Australian Commonwealth Games Association.

Whatever happened in the 1980s, when the Soviet Bloc countries, the United States and just about every other successful weightlifting nation was on drugs, there are now clearly "clean" and "doping" nations - and the latter are putting the sport’s Olympic status at risk.

Paul has been more outspoken than anyone in criticising the "cancer of doping and the cockroaches who are still doing it" decades after others stopped for fear of killing the sport.

Sam said: "Like the IOC I would like to see the IWF absolutely and utterly out of doping controls, to let others be judge, jury and executioner."

The Coffas left Sicily in the 1950s ©Getty Images
The Coffas left Sicily in the 1950s ©Getty Images

Moves are already underway in that direction, as the IWF has signed agreements with the International Testing Agency (ITA) and Court of Arbitration for Sport Anti-Doping Division. Change has been happening for a while, and more is on the way under the IWF’s Interim President Ursula Papandrea.

"Finally it’s come to an end," said Sam of Aján's reign.

He worked under Aján’s leadership as chairman of the Women’s Commission in the build-up to Sydney 2000, where women competed at the Olympic Games for the first time, and as head of the IWF Technical Committee. He also served as technical delegate at all Olympic Games this century and said: "My love was for the technical sector."

In that capacity he wrote papers to explain why certain rules should change, which led to the jury being able to overturn a questionable referees’ decision, to weight increments dropping from 2.5 kilograms to 1kg, to the end of the "body weight advantage" rule, and to new clothing regulations that encourage more women from the Islamic world to compete.

It also led to the invention of "Sam’s lunchbox" as it was called, a jury monitoring system which was so named, in 2007, because the prototype he invented was packaged in a school lunchbox.

His first four years at the IWF were "a complete waste of time" on the Technical Committee, where the then chairman Lazăr Baroga, from Romania, wanted nothing to do with ideas from the "revolutionary" newcomer from Australia.

"He would always say 'This is a traditional sport, no need for changes, we are like FIFA,' so I thought the only way to get anything done was to get on the Executive Board, which I did in 1993."

He had his run-ins with Aján, then general secretary, and his predecessor as president, Gottfried Schödl, who collectively tried to ditch him in 1997 "but they failed and were surprised when I was elected third vice-president".

He was "an active presence" at the Sydney 2000 Games, as President of the host nation’s federation, and stepped in as technical delegate at the last moment when Baroga died just before the Games began. When a doping scandal involving the Bulgarian team became big news, Sam was asked to face the media for the IWF, telling them that Bulgaria had "brought weightlifting’s reputation into worthless repute."

His relationship with Aján improved over the years, to such an extent that it led in 2013 to "the only regret in all my 62 years in weightlifting" - supporting Aján rather than Antonio Urso in the IWF Presidential election.

Urso was, like the Coffas, from Sicily. He knew the Coffas well as their club, Hawthorn, had competed against Urso’s, Caltanisetta, in challenge matches.

Sam had "learned the sport properly" in Italy, and even competed in the Italian Championships in 1959, when he and his wife Marjorie went on honeymoon to Sicily and ended up staying for 11 months.

Sam Coffa, left, at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images
Sam Coffa, left, at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images

In that time staying with Sam’s sister, who still lives in Sicily, Marjorie became fluent in Italian and Sam trained and trained, learning all he could about weightlifting - not just competing but coaching, promoting and talent identification.

Urso wanted a change of leadership but Sam stayed loyal to Aján.

"In Oceania we didn’t support him - and we should have done," said Sam, who with Paul was awarded the highest honour by Italy’s National Olympic Committee, the gold star, in 2018.

"Antonio’s a thinker, an academic, he has a vision."

In the four years before the next election, in Thailand in 2017, Sam and Paul both showed strong backing for Urso, having turned against Aján when they were shown hard evidence of corruption.

Urso presented documents about missing millions, and about anti-doping corruption involving Greece, which was mentioned as a footnote in the McLaren report because it occurred before the period his team investigated.

"I supported Antonio… you know the rest," said Sam, who suspected what McLaren established - that the 2017 election was rigged by bribery.

The extent of the corruption at the IWF was altogether different from the setbacks the Coffas had suffered, many years earlier, at the hands of petty officialdom. Those experiences taught them that politics in sport can frustrate you at every turn.

The first disappointment for Sam had come way back in 1959 when he met the Australian Olympic qualification standard for the Rome 1960 Olympic Games, at a competition in Italy during that 11-month honeymoon.

The AWF would not accept his performance, demanding he return to Australia to do it again on home soil - a round trip of many weeks by sea, which Sam was unable to make.

He was "banned from the sport for nine years" in the 1970s because of a falling-out with the President of the AWF at the time. Sam had led the Australia team to the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, where they won four gold medals, but a powerful rival resented his success and said he had gone against instructions by entering Australia’s top lifter, Nick Ciancio, in a different weight class.

"I did that because he probably would have lost to Louis Martin, the great English lifter, if we’d gone with the original plans," said Sam. "Nick Ciancio won a gold medal but they just wanted to get rid of me because they saw me as a threat."

Dean Lukin, left, a 1984 Olympic gold medallist, with Paul Coffa, centre, and American Mario Martinez ©Paul Coffa
Dean Lukin, left, a 1984 Olympic gold medallist, with Paul Coffa, centre, and American Mario Martinez ©Paul Coffa

The AWF officials refused Sam’s membership application for nine straight years, prompting memories of the ordeal suffered by one of his great friends Dawn Fraser, the champion swimmer who was banned for 10 years for her part in a prank at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games.

While Paul is nicknamed 'The Brute' Sam has his hard side too, as he showed in gaining revenge over his enemy at the AWF.

During his exile he went into local Government and became Mayor of Hawthorn.

He and Paul invited a German Olympic champion, Rolf Milser, to open a new sports centre and offered him AUD1,000 (£555/€685/€610) if he could set a world record, but they needed the AWF’s support.

The event was to be televised and the AWF needed the publicity so they agreed and told Sam "bygones will be bygones". He got his membership back, became president of the AWF within 18 months, and sent his arch enemy packing.

Sponsorship, television coverage and large crowds in competition halls were all part of a thriving weightlifting scene in Australia in the 1980s and 1990s, when Paul played a hugely important role.

He negotiated deals worth AUD750,000 (£415,000/$510,000/€460,000) and AUD1 million (£555,000/€685,000/€610,000) from a potato chip manufacturer and a communications company, as well as many other sponsorships.

Within two decades Australia hosted an Olympic Games, a Commonwealth Games, an IWF World Championships and countless other international events.

Paul gave up his career as an athlete in his early 20s and immediately took up coaching.

"My last tournament as a competitor was in 1965. I was disqualified in the press lift at that time and I abused the referees for not knowing the rules and so I quit lifting. It was not a pleasant exit.

"Sadly the three referees passed away, so you can’t question them as to the reason why they disqualified my press."

An oil painting of Sam Coffa as Mayor of Hawthorn ©Sam Coffa
An oil painting of Sam Coffa as Mayor of Hawthorn ©Sam Coffa

On the very day he quit, a 15-year-old junior shot put champion, Ray Rigby, asked Paul to coach him in weightlifting. Paul was 23.

Within two years Rigby had a junior world record, in 1968 he competed at the Olympic Games - Paul was not invited - and in 1970, under Sam’s management, he won Commonwealth Games gold.

From the time he started until 1974, the AWF would not give Paul any recognition as a coach "even though I had top lifters competing at Olympics, World Championships and Commonwealth Games.

"It was a huge education for me - to understand coaching and, equally important, sports politics.

"They made sure I did a nine-year apprenticeship. That was solid to take."

After being appointed Australia’s national coach for the first time at the World Championships in Manila, capital of the Philippines, in 1974 he never looked back. He became sports director of the Victorian Weightlifting Association in 1979, and with Sam as AWF President from the early 1980s the boom began.

Paul focused on five areas: promotion of weightlifting in schools, sponsorship, international events, media coverage, and mass participation.

"We had four clubs in Melbourne in 1979. By 1988 we had 119 clubs in Melbourne and the state of Victoria.

"In the first year of the school programme in 1980, which was sponsored by Puma, we had 504 entries throughout the state.

"By 1988 Victoria had 27,000 students participating in the school programme, with another 20,000 in other parts of Australia.

"The sponsorship I was able to get for weightlifting in those days was phenomenal, and every single dollar was channelled towards development of the sport."

Paul goes through the four main highlights of his years before the Pacific Islands project.

At the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, his first, he had "the privilege of looking after Dean Lukin, who won gold, and Robert Kabbas who won silver - two of the greatest weightlifters Australia and the Commonwealth has ever had".

Eileen Cikamatana is one of Paul Coffa's best lifters at present ©FIPE
Eileen Cikamatana is one of Paul Coffa's best lifters at present ©FIPE

Two years later there was a sensation at the World Cup in Melbourne when Naim Süleymanoğlu defected from Bulgaria to Turkey during the competition.

"Forget about the politics with Bulgaria and the IWF at the time, I saw this episode as an opportunity for sponsorship. Weightlifting in Australia and worldwide was on the front pages of sport. Who could miss such an opportunity?

"Not long after I signed a sponsorship for AUD750,000 with Samboy Chips."

Then there was organising the "extraordinarily successful" 1993 IWF World Championships in Melbourne, off the back of which Paul was able to sign a seven-figure sponsorship deal with Telstra.

Another highlight was assisting the 'Wild Bunch' to migrate to Australia after the Berlin Wall came down and Eastern Europe opened up - Sevdalin Marinov, Kiril Kounev, Blagoi Blagoev, Stefan Botev and the current IWF Board member Nicu Vlad.

Vlad, a 1984 Olympic champion who won Commonwealth Games gold for Australia before returning to Romania, is due to work with Sam as a technical delegate at Tokyo 2020 next year.

Paul is planning to be there too, with however many Institute lifters qualify, to the add to the 45 who have already done so since his first involvement with the Pacific Islanders at Atlanta 1996.

"Twenty-six years after leaving Australia I have done a 360-degree turn and I am back," he said, speaking from his and Lilly’s quarantine in a five-star hotel in Sydney.

"Three doors down from us, young Eileen is also in quarantine. 

Due to the upheaval of the Coronavirus pandemic, the closing of countries’ borders, the postponement of the Olympic Games to 2021, and with no indication of when borders will open again and all the Institute scholarship holders having returned to their home countries - the Institute programme has ceased.

"But of course, this is not the end of the journey."