Brian Oliver ©ITG

Imagine a future world for weightlifting where athletes are the centre of attention on a completely different level. The walls have gone and the warm-up and back-room decisions on the next lift are out in the open, part of a vibrant show watched by thousands of spectators.

Many in the arena decided to give weightlifting a go after seeing exhibitions to promote the sport, including live lifting, when they were out shopping, or on the beach, or strolling around the park.

An ever-growing television audience is kept in thrall by expert commentators who heighten the drama on and off the platform and by the use of easy-to-follow graphics and 360-degree camera work. 

Via snappy interviews and quickfire personal details, the athletes are "humanised" in a way that weightlifting’s older aficionados, from the dark years of doping and corruption, can barely believe. Their fans create another huge following on all forms of social media.

Sponsors are flocking to the sport, including some of the world’s biggest names in technology and sportswear. Thanks to the commercial success of this reborn sport, athletes earn big prize money.

Weightlifting is mainstream - featured in the media as never before, talked about in schools, gyms and workplaces by regular people of all ages across the world.

Perhaps this sounds too fanciful for a sport shackled for so long by its past misdeeds and its inability to effect change, as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has often pointed out, "in a timely way". But this new future is being talked about right now and a glance at the list of companies that have partnered up with the Chinese Weightlifting Association (CWA) would impress even the biggest doubters.

The first significant step into the future might even be taken this year when China hosts the 2022 International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Championships in Chongqing, one of the world’s biggest cities. "We have some really big ideas," said CWA President Zhou Jinqiang, who is also a contender to take charge of the IWF.

So does Norway, which will host the 2025 IWF World Championships in Forde, by when the changes might have moved up a gear.

"We have a fantastic sport but we need to review everything we do if we want to make it commercially successful," said Stian Grimseth, a double Olympian, coach and President of the Norwegian Weightlifting Federation.

While Grimseth is optimistic, he is highly critical of the speed, or lack of it, at which the IWF operates. He was appointed to the Marketing Commission, chaired by Zhanat Tussupbekov of Kazakhstan, in 2017.

"I kept asking 'can we get started?' but nothing ever happened. We have not had even one meeting."

There is a similar message from the United States.

The former IWF Interim President Ursula Papandrea made "growth and change", a key feature of her campaign for the postponed elections and said: "I continue to say our biggest advantage is all of the untapped ideas and the discussions that haven’t been had."

Change cannot happen until the seemingly never-ending problems of the present are overcome, however. Two years ago this week, the IWF suffered catastrophic reputational damage when the German state broadcaster ARD aired a documentary that exposed shocking levels of doping and corruption.

CWA President Zhou Jinqiang is eager to modernise weightlifting as the sport looks to save its place on the Olympic programme ©CWA
CWA President Zhou Jinqiang is eager to modernise weightlifting as the sport looks to save its place on the Olympic programme ©CWA

Since then, the IWF has been repeatedly pilloried by the IOC, which describes the governing body as "a problem child". Four weeks ago, the IOC, having already cut the athlete quota for Paris 2024 by 40 per cent, took weightlifting off the programme altogether – with a chance to earn a recall - for Los Angeles 2028.

Amid all the gloom, there has been some progress, most notably the inclusion of athletes in the IWF’s decision-making process and the adoption of a new Constitution. There was even talk of benefiting from "the IWF brand" at its Special Congress in Tashkent in Uzbekistan three weeks ago. But those who want to focus on the future rather than the past know there is a long way to go before the IWF’s reputation is restored.

As the IWF leads weightlifting into year three since ARD, insidethegames asked various stakeholders if there might be cause for optimism. 

Despite serious misgivings from just about everywhere, the answers are encouraging to anybody who wants to see weightlifting survive and thrive as part of the Olympic family. We sought the views of three Member Federations that had historically significant results in 2021 – China, Canada and Norway – two of which, as noted, are future World Championships hosts.

We have also heard from two of the IWF’s Interim Presidents during two years of turmoil, the current leader Mike Irani and Papandrea, who was ousted by her own Board in October 2020 after trying to drive through governance reforms.

The IWF has not had a permanent leader since Tamas Ajan resigned nearly two years ago, having been the centre of attention in the ARD documentary "Lord of the Lifters". Ajan has since been charged by the International Testing Agency (ITA) with a serious doping offence, accused of colluding with IWF Board member Nicu Vlad to allow a Romanian to win a medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games when she was twice suspended - for doping and sample swapping.

Romania was one of four nations banned from the Tokyo Olympic Games last year for multiple doping offences. Two of the others, Thailand and Egypt, also have representatives on the IWF Executive Board. Seven of 19 Board members elected in 2017 are from nations that were banned or had reduced athlete quotas in Tokyo because of doping.

That is why electing new leadership and changing the culture within the IWF are seen by the IOC as prerequisites if weightlifting is to remain an Olympic sport. The elections have been delayed by more than a year and, because of procedural problems, cannot happen before June.

As Grimseth pointed out, any talk of a revamped sport will not be turned into action until the IWF has new leadership. "We should not be talking about anti-doping and corruption now, it should be cleaned up, finished," said Grimseth. "There is so much interest around the barbell, around strength training – we have a lot of possibilities across the world.

"In the past 10 years we should, as a sport, have taken a position regarding the wide interest in strength training but we didn’t. We have lost more good years in the past than the good years that lie ahead, and we cannot afford to lose a single day now, we have to change.

"When I was at the World Championships (in Tashkent in Uzbekistan last month), I was up on the third floor looking down on the platform and the warm-up area. I was talking to the IWF general secretary about 2025 and I was saying all this pressure, all this drama and excitement behind the walls in the warm-up area down there, it’s so extremely interesting and we need to introduce it to the spectators in the hall, to the people watching on television, to all the forms of media now available. 

"What we are showing to the public is only 10, 15, 20 per cent of the game when we need to show and explain all of it. 

"I explained how in Norway we have the world’s best chess player, Magnus Carlsen. I was never interested in chess but when I was working on my computer his World Championship match (in December) was on the television.

"I thought I’d just let it run, it wouldn’t disturb me and I can get on with my work - but after a few minutes I was starting to think 'This is really interesting, what’s happening here?' It was the best commentators, good graphics explaining it all, and immediately I could start understanding this quite complicated game.

 "My dream is not only to host the World Championships in 2025 but to do it in a new, modern way of presenting weightlifting, which should be the way we are presented in Los Angeles 2028. 

"I am ready to spend years on it, helping to develop a new kind of competition. If we don’t at least double our own membership in the next few years we won’t have been doing our job properly.

"Yes, I am optimistic but we need a good Board, one that is able to accelerate the work - this should have been done by now. I don’t like all these delays, but I do really believe that we will be able to find a way forward, a middle way.

"Democracy is working now – we share the same ideas on the big picture and it was good to talk in person in Uzbekistan (at the Special Congress) and not be only online."

One of the CWA's innovations was to hold national age group championships in a shopping mall ©CWA
One of the CWA's innovations was to hold national age group championships in a shopping mall ©CWA

A few days before the Congress, Solfrid Koanda became Norway’s first female medallist at the IWF World Championships – and its first since 1972 in either gender – when she won clean and jerk gold and bronze on total at 87kg.

That made it 11 medals for Norway in various continental and world competitions in 2021, compared with five in 11 years before then. The arrival of Zygmunt Smalcerz, an Olympic champion, as national coach and the rapid improvement of Koanda and others have made it "a very good time for Norwegian weightlifting," said Grimseth.

Smalcerz won his Olympic title for Poland in 1972, the year when the clean and press was removed from Olympic weightlifting. "That was the last significant change to the format," said Grimseth, who pointed out that Smalcerz, 80, was also very proactive in discussions about modernising the sport and was "a true inspiration".

Grimseth’s suggestions include mixed team events, bringing the warm-up drama into the open and discussing whether weightlifting still needs two lifts, the snatch and clean-and-jerk, or whether one would be enough.

"We need to understand that there are three things that are needed not just the two that the IOC asked for, governance reform and cleaning up the doping," he said.

"The third is making our sport more interesting, to introduce it in a new way – if we don’t we will still be failing, we will still be close to having our place in the Olympic programme reviewed because we need more than just the obvious.

"We need to sit down with some really clever people, who have never been in a weightlifting hall, to say this is our sport, this is what happens on the platform, this is what happens behind, it’s very dramatic, please tell us how we can present this to the world in a way that will attract more people to weightlifting.

"We need to put all our energy into this, to find a way to introduce our sport to 2022 and put all the bad things in the past. Maybe the IOC has programmes and partners that can help us; there are so many possibilities. I think the IOC would support us."

When told that China had similar views and wanted to modernise this year’s World Championships, Grimseth said: "That’s really great to hear, perfect."

Zhou highlighted the importance of electing a new leadership and creating a clean, transparent sport that can "win trust from all stakeholders".

He said changes to the traditional competition format should make it "more athlete-centred" and presentation should be modernised to attract new audiences. Such improvements "will contribute to producing superstars" and widen the sport’s appeal, he added.

China has won more Olympic gold medals in weightlifting, 38, than any other sport except diving – and in last year’s Tokyo Olympic Games, it had a record-breaking seven champions from eight entries.

Zhou told insidethegames: "We could broaden the scope of competition venues, for example in shopping malls, parks and residential communities, so as to shorten the distance between spectators and athletes and to generate more passion for our sport."

The CWA tried this approach three years ago, when national age group championships were staged in a shopping mall in Zhejiang and drew considerable interest. About 30 teenaged athletes also put on warm-up shows of standing long jumps, back squats and dead lifts.

Zhou suggested a Grand Prix series with a grand final offering prize money for medallists and record breakers, and mixed team events "more in compliance with the IOC’s approach to gender equality".

Away from the competition platform, there should be more international and continental training camps, including a continuation of the "innovative virtual training camps held amid the Covid-19 pandemic". He said the CWA would take a lead as innovators to "tap the full market value of our sport".

"Take the broadcasting innovation for example: we are developing brand-new presentation modes of broadcasting, such as data visualisation and 360-degree views of athletes’ movements," Zhou insisted.

The CWA has a close partnership with CCTV, the national broadcaster in China, and achieves good ratings for weightlifting competitions. It has also connected with eight partners, including TikTok, the social media video site with more than a billion users, Baidu, the biggest search engine in China which ranks third in the world, and ANTA, the country’s largest sportswear manufacturer.

"We are making further efforts in involving more enterprises in our partnerships," said Zhou. "We are willing to introduce Chinese enterprises to the IWF for cooperation, after a new IWF leadership is elected."

Christine Girard, right, who initially won bronze at the London 2012 weightlifting competition, did not receive her gold medal until years after due to doping offences ©Getty Images
Christine Girard, right, who initially won bronze at the London 2012 weightlifting competition, did not receive her gold medal until years after due to doping offences ©Getty Images

But that election - and all that has gone before it since the ARD broadcast on January 5 2020 - is the big bugbear. 

Canada, like China and Norway, had landmark results last year when Maude Charron became the first Canadian to stand on top of the Olympic podium, and Boady Santavy was the nation’s first World Championships medallist since 1953.

Christine Girard won Olympic gold for Canada but was not awarded the medal until years after when dopers were disqualified from London 2012.

Craig Walker, President of the Canadian Weightlifting Federation, is hugely optimistic about what should be a "fantastic" Commonwealth Games for the sport in Birmingham in July and a "pretty exciting line-up of competitions in 2022", but less so about the IWF’s prospects.

"I do feel we are making forward progress, even if that progress is slow, but I wouldn’t talk it up all the way to optimism," he said.

There were times in the past two years when Walker thought weightlifting could be kicked out of Paris 2024. "The IOC was as clear as it could be with its concerns about the need for meaningful reforms," he added. "They were perhaps even more public in expressing those concerns than they might have been.

"When we were left off the programme for LA, it did not come as a huge surprise and it shows we have a lot of work to do. We saw it with wrestling, years ago. You think it's unimaginable that an original Olympic sport could be off the programme and it was - they had to institute reforms.

"Now we're off the programme for LA and we have to keep pushing down this path in a meaningful way. Anyone who thinks the IOC is bluffing has not been paying attention."

Walker believes the biggest step forward since the ARD programme was creating the Athletes' Commission and, eventually, giving athletes votes on the Board and at Congress.

"The athletes' voice is being listened to - that is a meaningful reform and substantive," said Walker, who spoke of his respect for Britain's Athletes' Commission chair Sarah Davies in advocating for those she represents. "The new Constitution is important, too, no one should downplay that, but it doesn't mean anything if we don't see reform in leadership and the way the IWF operates."

Like Grimseth, he thought the democratic process worked well in Tashkent. "There wasn’t anything contentious in the voting, nothing close to 50-50," he explained. "The Constitutional amendment (on vetting procedures for candidates) was an important step.

"We must ensure we don't get bogged down in the Swiss civil courts whenever a candidate wants to challenge a decision. You saw that in the voting. If we're going to have a serious vetting process, we must expect disputes."

A partnership with the US means that, for the second time, Canada will host one of USA Weightlifting’s American Open events this year. These events have been at the forefront of innovation in weightlifting presentation in recent years, using multiple platforms to accommodate huge entries of up to 1,800 athletes aged from nine to 90.

"Organisers have worked to ensure that there is always something to catch the eye at every moment of the competition, and to explain the sport to the average listener," said Phil Andrews, chief executive of USA Weightlifting. "The key is to make the sport attractive to the new viewer, or the new lifter, and grow our community.

"The more people who understand and experience the joy of the barbell, the better for everyone involved in our sport.

"It’s no surprise that the commentary and TV team at most IWF events is usually full of Americans."

While the US and other nations are changing the way they present weightlifting, "both the people and ideas have been stagnant for decades" at the IWF, said Papandrea.

"We have lost time and I know this sport has not lived up to its potential. There is an overreliance on IOC funding, which isn’t sustainable, and we must find new ways to fund and grow the sport.

"Innovation is vital. Weightlifting is one of the oldest sports in the world but technology has moved on and we must embrace it to engage spectators, media and athletes alike."

Chongqing is set to host the 2022 IWF Championships, with China eager to show how modernising weightlifting can help grow the sport ©CWA
Chongqing is set to host the 2022 IWF Championships, with China eager to show how modernising weightlifting can help grow the sport ©CWA

Weightlifting should "learn from what other sports have done to reinvent themselves for the modern age without losing touch with our core values," Papandrea said. "At present, we are not using fan data in any meaningful way, we are relying on tried and trusted methods that are long since out of date.

"Let’s bring in global competitions, with new formats that create more drama and interest. Let’s stage international team events that excite audiences beyond just the lifting of the bar."

At the Tashkent Congress, details were revealed of a four-year research project by the University of Lausanne, which will help the IWF to assess its progress.

In a statement, the IWF said researchers would seek ways of measuring an International Federation’s global performance - sporting, economic, media, social and societal. The aim is then to use the findings to "inform and guide the Federation’s strategic management".

There was also a presentation by Jean-Marc Exhenry, a corporate business consultant and external adviser to the IOC, about the need for change. "The culture must change," he said. The IWF must be run "as a business company, a model that can be adopted by national, regional and continental federations".

Exhenry spoke of the need to make weightlifting more attractive by developing "new forms of the sport, make it faster" and said an esports version should be on the IWF’s budget for next year.

The IWF must build a stronger, more credible image, he said, to the point where it can "sell the IWF as a brand and weightlifting as a product".

"The sport industry is increasingly complex and competitive," he explained. "What we need is a clear picture of what we want and who we are."

Irani, a consultant rheumatologist from Britain, told insidethegames: "In big organisations like teaching hospitals, we learn that there are two critical elements to culture: the people and the plan they are working to.

"I believe the IWF is close to having the most appropriate set of people because of the forthcoming elections and the provisions which ensure we’ll have more women and more athletes among our leadership than ever before.

"But we did need a clear plan towards unlocking the potential of our great sport, and that’s what we’ve been working towards with the help of external experts.

"Yes, there was a very real threat to our great sport, which might have been excluded from the Olympics (in Paris). We began last year with three tests ahead of us: adopt new governance, ensure clean competitions at Tokyo 2020 and reform our culture.

"On governance, the adoption of our new Constitution was a clear improvement. The weightlifting competitions of Tokyo 2020 were indeed clean. And we’ve also made significant steps towards a more professional culture.

"We’ve made real improvements in the past year. We look forward to what 2022 will bring."