Multiple Executive Board members are at loggerheads with the International Weightlifting Federation's Interim President Ursula Papandrea ©Lifting Life/USAW

Four days after International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach issued a stern statement about weightlifting’s Olympic future, a damaging rift at the top of the sport’s governing body has been exposed.

On one side of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) divide are a number of Executive Board members from nations that have been banned from Tokyo 2020 or had their athlete quota reduced because of multiple doping offences.

On the other side are Interim President Ursula Papandrea and her supporters, and leaders of the new IWF Athletes' Commission.

Last Wednesday Bach suggested that weightlifting could lose quota places for Paris 2024 or even be excluded outright if it did not heed independent advice and adopt governance reforms.

Bach said the IOC had "strong concerns about the lack of progress with regards to the reforms of the IWF Constitution, the lack of acceptance of independent advice in this procedure... and the representation of athletes within the Federation, which definitely needs to be strengthened".

Papandrea said her opponents were "beyond irresponsible".

Their course of action regarding Olympic qualifying and mooted changes to anti-doping rules "further risks our reputation… and violates the advice of the organisation that decides our Olympic status," she said.

Sam Coffa, an adviser to the IWF Board and joint technical delegate for Tokyo 2020, disagreed. 

"We are trying to enhance the situation for athletes because as things stand it is not a level playing field for them," Coffa said.

The rift has developed as the prospect grows of no more live competitions taking place before April 30 next year, the end of the extended qualifying period for Tokyo 2020.

Kianoush Rostami, a reigning Olympic champion, could benefit from a new qualification system from Tokyo 2020, as he looks set to miss out ©Getty Images
Kianoush Rostami, a reigning Olympic champion, could benefit from a new qualification system from Tokyo 2020, as he looks set to miss out ©Getty Images

If "adaptations" to qualifying rules are accepted by the Board - and they would need approval from the IOC - points won by athletes in an intense qualifying schedule that started nearly two years ago could end up counting for nothing.

Instead the old-style ranking list would determine who qualifies, based on the single best performance in the qualifying period rather than the existing complex points-based formula.

While this would be very good news for a few athletes, most notably Olympic champions Sohrab Moradi and Kianoush Rostami from Iran and former European champion Daniyar Ismayilov of Turkey, Papandrea said it "could negatively affect many".

The Athletes’ Commission, which is represented at Board meetings but does not have a vote, is against the idea.

Nothing can happen without approval from the IOC.

"Notably, the current qualification system was approved by this Executive Board," Papandrea told insidethegames.

"I am not saying it’s perfect, but it is what the athletes used to develop their competition strategy for two years.

"To disrespect their efforts is an affront to their work thus far.

"In the next quad another method may be developed."

Because of COVID-19 there may not be any more qualifying competitions - the last was in early March in the United States.

Rumours have been circulating within the sport of attempts to "change the rules" for Olympic qualifying, and of a move to scrap anti-doping rules that impose mandatory punishments on national governing bodies with multiple offences.

Sam Coffa, left, believes contingencies must be in place should Olympic qualifying not be completed ©Getty Images
Sam Coffa, left, believes contingencies must be in place should Olympic qualifying not be completed ©Getty Images

"Nothing is being contemplated that suggests we want to change anything," said Coffa.

"All we are doing is asking the question that everybody else is asking: 'If we can’t bring to a conclusion our Olympic qualifying programme, what are we going to do?'

"Is it not reasonable to ask that question?"

Coffa, an Australian who was called upon for his advice in the aftermath of the corruption scandal that led to the resignation of long-standing IWF President Tamás Aján, is joint technical delegate for Tokyo 2020 with Nicu Vlad, a former Olympic champion and current IWF Board member from Romania.

Those two, and the IWF Technical Committee, are looking at possible answers to the question, and will put any suggestions to the Board and, if agreed, the IOC.

In the existing qualifying system athletes were compelled to compete roughly every three months, with a points tally accumulated from performances in three six-month phases.

The timescale was amended with IOC approval but the system is likely to be unfinished and in limbo.

"As of now there’s not one single lifter in the world who has qualified for the Olympic Games," said Coffa.

"Kit McConnell [the IOC sport director] has made the point in an interview where he says there has to be a Plan B for sports that cannot complete their qualifying process."

So, should everything that has happened so far be discounted?

"That is the question. 

"We would be negligent in our duties if we did not look at some adaptations of process in order to come to a conclusion," replied Coffa.

"We are not seeking to change anything but in order to get the best lifters in the world to the Olympic Games you have to do some sort of massaging, some sort of adaptation.

"If there is a suggestion that we’re trying to get disqualified athletes into the Games that’s just not true - they would not be accepted anyway by the IOC.

"The original system was built on the pillars of testing for doping, but we’ve only had two of three qualifying periods.

"In the first quarter of 2020 the International Testing Agency (ITA), which has the responsibility to implement our testing regime, tested 446 samples, a huge number.

"But in the second quarter they only tested 44, of which 19 were Chinese-– so only 25 for the whole of the rest of the world.

"And in all of those tests in six months not one was from the People’s Republic of Korea. 

"Tell me we have a level playing field going on here!"

Weightlifting's path to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is far from straightforward ©Getty Images
Weightlifting's path to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is far from straightforward ©Getty Images

Data on tests carried out since then, if any, is not yet available.

"The playing field is also not level when you consider that some nations allow their athletes to train as normal, and will allow people in from other countries, whereas others do not," added Coffa.

"The only thing we might be able to do is to revert to the absolute world rankings.

"We have done an exercise and have seen there is no appreciable difference between the first five in rankings over the qualifying period, and the Olympic [points] table.

"The first five in all weight categories are exactly the same, even if the order might be different.

"Besides, in my view ROBI points [used in qualifying and calculated by comparing an athlete’s total with a world standard or a world record] introduced a subjective measure to an objective sport.

"As somebody put it to me we don’t lift points, we lift weights.

"Anyone who has done what was required under the existing qualifying rules would be in the mix."

Moradi, Rostami and Ismayilov have complied with the original rules but for various reasons - injuries, "bomb-outs", an entry that missed a deadline - they have low points totals but very high one-off totals.

"Given the circumstances there might be athletes who through no fault of their own have fallen through the cracks, and we should take a look at that," said Coffa.

"What about junior lifters in 2020 who won’t be juniors next year, has anybody thought about that?"

World and continental junior championships - age limit 20 - carried gold status in Olympic qualifying and could have been worth a lot of points to athletes.

Some have missed their chance because of coronavirus-related postponements, and will not get another like-for-like chance if, before the next junior event, they have become too old to compete.

Papandrea claimed "a sound solution" to the juniors situation had been proposed but "has so far been rejected" by the Board.

Coffa insisted: "We are trying to enhance the situation for athletes - and let it be known we have no intention of making any changes."

As for talk of changes to the current Anti-Doping Policy, dating back to 2018, that subject was raised by Mahmoud Mahgoub, IWF Board member and President of the Egyptian Weightlifting Federation.

Mahgoub was in favour of allowing "clean" athletes a chance to compete under the Olympic flag if their own national federation is barred from Tokyo 2020.

"Olympic qualifying is individual, and suspensions should be individual," said Mahgoub.

"We need to change the procedure, the Anti-Doping Policy itself.

"It’s not fair to suspend all the lifters from a country because of a few positive cases. 

"You can’t control all the lifters and all the coaches all the time, to see what they are doing."

Egypt is among the nations banned from weightlifting at Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images
Egypt is among the nations banned from weightlifting at Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images

Sarah Davies, chair of the IWF Athletes’ Commission, believes that view is "ridiculous" and said too many federations operated their own system of ethics for doping which was "all about avoiding suspensions for dopers rather than imposing them".

Three nations are banned outright from Tokyo - Thailand, Egypt and Malaysia - and more could join them, while a long list of nations can send teams of only two or four, compared to the maximum eight, because of multiple doping violations.

Almost all those doping cases occurred between two and 12 years ago, during the Aján era when there was widespread corruption in anti-doping procedures.

Of the nations affected seven are represented on the IWF Board, where 10 votes are currently enough for a majority.

Egypt is contesting its "unfair" suspension in a Swiss federal court said Mahgoub, who described current penalties as inconsistent and especially unfair to "clean" lifters from suspended nations.

He cited the example of Mohamed Ihab, a popular bronze medallist at Rio 2016 who has never tested positive in international weightlifting.

While Egypt has been banned because seven young lifters tested positive in December 2016, he said Ihab had been tested 40 times in recent years, including twice in three days on one occasion.

"Yes, if a country has six or seven or more positive cases there must be an investigation by the ITA, by any independent organisation, and if they prove that the federation is involved it should be suspended," said Mahgoub.

"But you can’t suspend the federation merely after a certain number of positive cases when, realistically, the federation was not responsible for the actions of one or two individuals.

"This federation or any other country, if you are suspended for the stupid actions of a few individuals you are killing the sport in that country for one, two, three years - how does that help the sport in general?"

There is said to be a widely held view among Board members that national federations are punished too severely for multiple doping offences.

Fernando Reis, the Brazilian super-heavyweight who is another senior member of the Athletes' Commission, said: "Federations are trying to not be accountable for the actions of their athletes but that's their job - they are responsible for a big part of the [doping] problem."

Those Board members who want to move in "a different direction" are keen to change parts of the IWF Anti-Doping Policy that deal with sanctions, including the imposition of mandatory fines and suspensions.

Coffa said he is "against mandatory sentencing because each case is different. 

"There might be all sorts of reasons why you should look at each one differently."

Fernando Reis says national governing bodies need to be held accountable for the actions of their athletes ©Getty Images
Fernando Reis says national governing bodies need to be held accountable for the actions of their athletes ©Getty Images

The rules state: "Member Federations shall be liable for the conduct of their affiliated athletes or other persons, regardless of any question of the Member Federations’ fault, negligence or other culpable oversight."

Papandrea told insidethegames there should be no change to the "spirit" of the Olympic qualifying system.

"The IOC has been clear, there should be no substantive changes to the qualifying system," she said.

"These types of public comments are representative of some members of the Executive Board but certainly not all."

She said there was already a Plan B, approved by the Board and sent to IOC last year when the qualifying period was cut short, and which followed the "spirit and principles" of the original points system based on multiple performances rather than just one.

"Any changes now could negatively affect many athletes and countries to benefit a few athletes and a few countries.

"I would predict lawsuits and rejection by the IOC, a huge risk when there has been direct messaging about this.

"Everyone knew the rules on qualification as well as the rules on doping.

"We cannot punish now all the lifters that worked within the rules.

"This type of rhetoric after getting clear messages that it can affect our Olympic status is beyond irresponsible.

"It further risks our reputation if the IWF violates the advice of the organisation that decides our Olympic status.

"I am under no illusions about the likely impact of any failure to act promptly on the IOC’s latest call to action."