Daniel Etchells

Back in December, I wrote a blog in the aftermath of the 2015 World Weightlifting Championships in Houston commending the sport’s world governing body’s decision to ban 11 Bulgarian weightlifters from competing at Rio 2016 after testing positive for the banned anabolic steroid stanozolol during a training camp for last year’s European Championships in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi.

It came at a time when the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) had deemed it sufficient to impose a suspension on the All-Russia Athletics Federation (ARAF) amid allegations of widespread and "state-supported" doping in Russia, thus leaving the door open for its athletes to compete at Rio 2016 - a far too lenient sanction in many people's eyes.

Fast forward six months and it’s not the IAAF being made to look weak in comparison to the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF)…it’s now the turn of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

On Wednesday (June 22), the IWF confirmed during its Executive Board meeting in Tbilisi that the Russian Weightlifting Federation (RWF), along with the Belarusian and Kazakhstani equivalents, will be suspended for one year in the event that it is proven the countries produced three or more anti-doping rule violations in the combined re-analysis of samples from 2008 and 2012 Olympics in Beijing and London respectively.

A tough stance indeed from the body led by Tamás Aján and one that leaves all three Federations under serious threat of missing out on the chance to send their athletes to Rio 2016.

I'm not so sure I'd use the word "tough", however, to describe the IOC's stance over whether or not Russian track and field athletes approved to compete at the Rio 2016 will be able to do so under their own flag.

Although the IOC said it planned to "fully respect" the ruling of the IAAF to extend their suspension of Russian athletes from participating at all competitions, including the Olympic Games, President Thomas Bach still managed to give them something to cling on to at last week's Olympic Stakeholders Summit in Lausanne. 

The German said he expected some individual Russians to take part if cleared by the IAAF and that "they will compete under the flag of the Russian Olympic Committee", a stance in direct contrast to that of the IAAF which insists that any Russian athletes allowed to compete at Rio 2016 should do so only under a neutral flag.

IWF President Tamás Aján (left) with IOC counterpart Thomas Bach
IWF President Tamás Aján (left) with IOC counterpart Thomas Bach ©IWF Weightlifting/Twitter

It had been questioned prior to the Summit whether Bach would stand by IAAF counterpart Sebastian Coe and ensure the ban on Russian athletes competing at Rio 2016 is enforced, or side with Vladimir Putin, and come up with a solution which would allow Russia to be represented in the Olympics' flagship sport at Rio 2016.

There remains suspicions that he is swaying towards the latter, which leads me to ask what conclusions we can draw from the differing stances of the IWF and the IOC? 

British journalist Neil Wilson provided one possible answer in response to a tweet from Olympic marketing guru Michael Payne on the doping issues facing weightlifting: 

Payne's tweet: "#Weightlifting - possible for the sport to survive without doping? Always No. 1 problem at Olympics - now 4 countries banned, more to come?"

Wilson's reply: "Ajam [sic] has more balls than Bach".

More cojones or not, Aján is at the head of an organisation that certainly can't be accused of turning a blind eye to doping matters. Not these days, anyway. 

As well as provisionally excluding Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia from Rio 2016, a move rather ironically described by the IOC as a "strong signal", the IWF Executive Board also unanimously voted the withdrawal of 11 quota places for the Games.

Owing to multiple positive cases in the qualification period, two quotas were taken from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, North Korea and Russia, while Belarus lost one.

This followed Romania and Uzbekistan both losing an Olympic quota place, for the same reasons, at the IWF Executive Board meeting ahead of last year's World Championships. 

The world governing body has also confirmed its intentions to set up an Independent Investigation Commission to investigate countries with more than three anti-doping rule violations.

This includes those to have produced three or more adverse analytical findings or presumptive adverse analytical findings in the re-analysis procedures of Beijing 2008 and London 2012.

All four Kazakhstan weightlifting gold medal winners at London 2012, including under 94kg winner Ilya Ilyin,  failed doping tests following the re-analysis of samples by the International Olympic Committee
All four Kazakhstan weightlifting gold medal winners at London 2012, including under 94kg winner Ilya Ilyin, failed doping tests following the re-analysis of samples by the International Olympic Committee ©Getty Images

Questions marks remain nonetheless as to whether this will be enough to restore the sport's reputation amid the sheer number of doping cases that are coming to light. 

A "very senior Olympic insider" is quoted by the Press Association as saying: "Weightlifting should get a tick for having the guts to do something serious about doping - lots of sports don't.

"But it will also get a cross because whatever it does, it isn't working."

Aján isn’t showing any signs of letting up though and is upbeat about the latest steps taken to help tackle doping in the sport. 

"I expected that this would be a very serious Executive Board meeting," he told insidethegames in the aftermath. 

"We tried to push out the emotional problems to deal with all the problems with a cool head and very carefully, considering only one thing; the interests of the weightlifting sport and the interests of the Olympic Movement.

"We don’t have any Executive Board meetings when we don’t deal with doping problems, but now we concentrated very much and for a full day we discussed this problem to take the decision which keeps the reputation of the weightlifting sport.

"This was the most important thing."

IWF Anti-Doping Commission chairman Patrick Schamasch echoed Aján's sentiments, claiming the decisions are totally in line with the "strict stance" which the IWF is taking as an International Federation.

"We have to fight against the cheaters," he told insidethegames.

"We have to fight for the clean athletes.

"We have to protect our sport which is in danger because of the cheaters."

IWF Anti-Doping Commission chairman Patrick Schamasch says weightlifting is in danger because of drug cheats
IWF Anti-Doping Commission chairman Patrick Schamasch says weightlifting is in danger because of drug cheats ©Getty Images

Asked if the IWF were mindful of coming down harder than the IOC had done, Schamasch was keen to make it clear that he’s not a member of the "anti-Russia gang".

"I know in Russia, as in many other countries, they have some problems," he added. 

"Russia’s not the only one country.

"I told Russian people that the old demons have to be pushed out from the former system that existed.

"But I can tell you that in Russia, they also have very good people and they are eager to fight.

"Of course, we have to focus on Russia because Russia is a huge and important country in sport, but we should not forget that other countries could be looked at."

Final decisions on the possible banning of Belarusian, Kazakhstani and Russian weightlifters will be made after the IOC makes a definitive ruling on the retests.

The organisation claims to be "working hard" to finish all disciplinary proceedings in time before Rio 2016, and you would have to hope they achieve that target.

It goes without saying that the difference between a year-long ban that includes an Olympic Games and one that doesn't is huge.  

In the 40 days between now and Rio 2016, we're likely to learn a lot about the IOC as the calls for it to start getting tougher continue to get louder.