Brian Oliver ©ITG

In a break between contests at the European Junior Weightlifting Championships in Eilat, a two-year-old boy runs on to the competition platform and plays with the three smallest discs that weigh half a kilo, one kilo and 1.5 kilos, lifting them from the rack and trying to slide them on to a bar.

His father crouches down to help him, then carries him across to the other side of the platform to try with another set of weights.

It is a picture of innocence. 

The boy’s name is Zakhar and his father is Maxim Agapitov, who has just taken on a role as far removed from innocence as it is possible to be in the sporting world.

Russia has the blackest name because of doping scandals that have emerged over the past two years and which cost the nation their place in certain sports at the 2016 Olympic Games.

One they missed was weightlifting, which has the worst doping record of all Olympic sports and accounted for nearly half of the 98 positives announced by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) after they retested samples from the 2008 and 2012 Games.

Agapitov has a double whammy: he has just taken over as President of the Russian Weightlifting Federation.

When part two of the McLaren report into doping in Russia was released on December 9, Agapitov was in the air, heading off for his next big appointment, a meeting with Dr Tamas Ajan, President of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), to discuss his plans for the future. 

Changing the culture of Russian weightlifting through education, and building a new team are his priorities.

Maxim Agapitov has a tough task in front of him as President of the Russian Weightlifting Federation ©Getty Images
Maxim Agapitov has a tough task in front of him as President of the Russian Weightlifting Federation ©Getty Images

In the week of the European Junior and Under-23 Championships, in which Russia topped the medals table, former Soviet Bloc weightlifters and coaches were labelled "cockroaches" by the most senior figure in Oceania weightlifting, Paul Coffa.

On the basis of those nations having provided 42 of the 48 retest positives, Coffa renamed the Soviet Bloc "the Doping Bloc". The IWF deserve credit for excluding Russia from Rio, which many sports did not do.

Seven nations from the old Soviet Bloc, including Russia, have a one-year ban hanging over them, to be imposed once all appeals have been dealt with, because they provided three or more positives in the retests.

Then came further revelations in the McLaren report, which highlighted the widespread use of banned drugs by "testosterone lovers" in Russia, the switching of samples, manipulation of  information on the testing database, and biological passports so abnormal that one senior scientist said she had "never seen anything like it".

Like many of his proud countrymen and women, Agapitov is not especially apologetic.

He implies that other nations have clearly been doping too, most notably in Asia and the Middle East; he questions why so many substances are on the banned list; he highlights flaws in the testing in Rio; he says steroids were introduced to sport by western countries; and he insists that weightlifting needs Russia because it is the motherland of the sport, the inventor of global coaching techniques.

But he accepts the need for change, the imperative of "turning around the minds of the coaches, some of whom do not want to listen, do not want to learn". 

"If something bad comes into the system it doesn't mean the system itself is bad," Agapitov says. "But people brought something bad to the system.

"Weightlifting has a lot of problems, I have seen them over the years, the mistakes made, the liabilities. I wanted to help because weightlifting is not just my job, it’s my life."

Agapitov, 46, is from Uchaly in Bashkortostan, north of Kazakhstan.

He first went to a gym when he was six years old and he also tried wrestling, skiing and sambo, the Russian martial art, before opting for weightlifting aged 10.

The main reason he did so, he says, is not because of his early love for the sport but because his father, Octyabrin, was a builder, and he built a swimming pool at the weightlifting gym.

Sergey Syrtsov resigned as President of the RWF after the country was banned from Rio 2016 ©RWF
Sergey Syrtsov resigned as President of the RWF after the country was banned from Rio 2016 ©RWF

"It was only small, a few metres long, but for kids it was a big deal because it was the only one in Uchaly," says Agapitov. "I would go for a workout for half an hour then play in the pool for two hours."

He also had a salutary experience in his first competition: he was 10 and the other boys were aged 12 to 14.

"It was a 48 kilo contest, and I weighed 33 kilos," he says. "I came last.

"At that weight, and with the age difference against the older boys, I should have known it would be very difficult but the only thing I understood was that I was last. It made me angry and it motivated me to train hard.

"I was lucky that in the next two years the Federation created two new weight categories for boys, at 40 kilograms and 44kg - and in my next competition, at 40kg, I won. At 44kg I won the city title, then regional, then came second in the National Championship and I became very serious about weightlifting."

A year of national service was hugely important in Agapitov’s competitive career. He served in 1988, the year before the Berlin Wall came down and the old Soviet Union broke up.

"While I was in the army I competed against a friend who introduced me to his coach, who invited me to join him, and at the age of 20 I had to decide whether to be a full-time athlete or qualify as an engineer," he said. "I knew I could return to education later so I went full-time in weightlifting."

There was bad news a few years later. In 1994 Agapitov tested positive and was banned for two years. 

"I don’t know how it happened, it’s still a secret for me too," he says. "There were some political games going on at that time - Soviet Union committees disappearing, Russian committees taking over."

When he returned to competition, Agapitov benefited from doping by others in the IWF World Championships in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in the 91kg class.

"I came back after two years and in 1997 I finished in third place in the World Championships in Chiang Mai," he said.

"I was tested - clean and I never had any more problems - and the first and second were both positive, which is how I came to be the champion."

He had high hopes for the 2000 Olympic Games but was injured two months before they started and that was that - he retired.

It was a fulfilling career in which Agapitov benefited hugely, he says, from the old Soviet system.

Russian weightlifting has been plagued by doping problems ©Getty Images
Russian weightlifting has been plagued by doping problems ©Getty Images

"I was very, very lucky because I had a good education, a good coach, good equipment, all paid for by the ministry of sport," he said.

"I became an Honoured Master of Sport [the highest rank] and we had it all in the Soviet system - it worked very well before 1989. It was easy to control everything in Soviet Union times. There are a lot of good things about the Russian system now but it’s no longer easy to control everything, and people can do what they want.

"I became a big name when I won the World Championship in 1997, and I wanted to give something back to the sport.

"Ever since then I have been around the Federation. I had learned English, another benefit from a Soviet education, and helped with translation, travelling to seminars, and I did some work for the IWF, making presentations.

"I go into schools and introduce kids age 12, 13 to the sport, and explain to them what weightlifting means to me. There are plenty of kids in Russia who want to lift weights."

Agapitov became the head of the Moscow business for Eleiko, the Swedish company that leads the world in weightlifting equipment manufacture. 

He joined the board of the Russian Federation in 2010 and was elected President a few weeks ago after Sergey Syrtsov resigned.

Agapitov was elected in part because he was not a coach and was not involved in the doping scandal.

"I was pushed into it… it had never been my dream, my goal was never to be President," he says.

It must feel, surely, that the whole world is watching, that this is perhaps the hardest job in world sport?

"Of course I feel responsibility - it is an honour to have this job but there is a huge responsibility pressing on me," he said. "But I am not alone, the Government will help me, the IWF will help.

"They cannot do without Russia, without all of us [Soviet Bloc nations]. The world needs Russian weightlifting.

"I don’t want to say we are not changeable, we understand our responsibility is greater than other countries because we started this sport, we had so many Olympic champions, and we have to continue. We are always at the centre of discussions."

Agapitov makes repeated references to the fact that modern weightlifting owes everything to the "Russian School" that grew from the work of two outstanding Russian scientists, both of whom were multiple champions as weightlifters and one of whom worked on the Soviet space programme.

Arkady Vorobyov, who died in 2012, won Olympic golds in 1956 and 1960, four world titles, and held 21 middle-heavyweight world records. He studied and worked at the Institute of Aviation and Space Medicine and the Russians applied his work, and weightlifting research, to help their cosmonauts to survive in outer space.

Vorobyov worked with the national head coach Alexey Medvedev, who died in 2003. Medvedev, a double world champion, was head of weightlifting at Russia’s top university of physical culture and a guru whose knowledge was sought far beyond his own country.

International Weightlifting Federation President Tamas Ajan has pledged his support to Russia  ©Getty Images
International Weightlifting Federation President Tamas Ajan has pledged his support to Russia ©Getty Images

Medvedev developed many Olympic champions in Russia and also worked in other communist nations such as China, Cuba, North Korea, Poland and Bulgaria, who between them have won many Olympic medals.

He was awarded an honorary professorship in Beijing and worked closely with the Chinese team who garnered so many medals after women’s weightlifting was added to the Olympic programme in 2000.

The scientific basis for the "Russian School" of weightlifting was laid out by Vorobyov and Medvedev, with the former focusing more on biochemistry and recovery, and the latter on training methods.

But what of now, of Russia’s blackened reputation, of Paul Coffa’s "Doping Bloc" comments?

"We have to look at this situation from different angles," says Agapitov. "From one side what Paul Coffa says is correct, but from another who is strongest in the world of weightlifting? The Soviet Bloc countries. Which weightlifting school is the strongest? The Russian school.

"Doping or not doping, Russia is the strongest country, or former Soviet nations. Absolutely, the culture of weightlifting is coming from Russia.

"Who is tested most? Those who finish first, second, third - which is why the Russian and Soviet Bloc countries have been tested so often. If you test those who finish, fifth, sixth, seventh, the picture may change.

"One must wonder how other countries are still managing to break long-standing world records. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) recently reported that there were 'serious failings' on anti-doping methods during the Rio Olympics.

"WADA said that there were many athletes who were designated for testing who 'simply could not be found' and 'up to 50 per cent of planned target tests were aborted' on some days. WADA even reported there was 'little or no in-competition blood testing in many high-risk sports, including weightlifting'.

"The problem is not just a problem of Russia but a problem of every country, a problem for the sport.

"For example Thailand, China - their results today are so strong we couldn’t compete with them [in certain weight categories]. Is it true that Soviet Bloc countries are doping but are still not as strong as these other countries? Are you believing this? I am not.

"We can’t just press a button and everything will change. We must involve the Government, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, WADA, the Ministry of Sport, the IWF and ask for their help."

The IWF have pledged their support for Agapitov.

"I have discussed a lot with Dr Ajan Tamas Ajan," he said. "The most important thing is going in a different direction. The biggest problem is doping, it has happened and we have to understand how and why. If we don’t understand how it happens we can’t change."

Russia's Sports Ministry, headed by Pavel Kolobkov, will also be heavily involved ©Getty Images
Russia's Sports Ministry, headed by Pavel Kolobkov, will also be heavily involved ©Getty Images

The European Federation has announced plans for new, continent-wide coaching qualifications, for closer collaboration between coaches from different nations, and for a programme of frequent multi-national coaching seminars.

"Our main task as a Federation is to turn around the minds of coaches," says Agapitov. "The European Federation’s ideas on coaches are good, absolutely. Of course the most important people are coaches."

Organising seminars for coaches at regional and national level is high on Agapitov’s agenda. Beyond that, "I must look at finance, our next budget, conferences, building a new contract with athletes and coaches, getting a new team for next Olympic period," he says. "But the most important thing is education."

That point was reinforced by a WADA statement said on the very day Agapitov spoke to insidethegames. 

"Prevention of doping through education needs to be more prominent within the system and an integral part of all anti-doping efforts," it said. "This means a focus on teaching values, which strengthens athletes’ and their support personnel’s ethical decision-making ability throughout their sporting careers."

Is there a threat of funding cuts for the Russian Weightlifting Federation?

"Considering the results of the last Olympic cycle, I think so," Agapitov said. "But it is also certain that the Ministry of Sport will support us in creating a new Federation and help in the fight against doping.

"Weightlifting is an important sport and we are proud of it. President Putin has promised to create the most advanced anti-doping system."

Agapitov first became a father aged 21 and his 25-year-old son Denis is a weightlifter. Sometimes three generations train together: Maxim, his father and his son. He hopes Zakhar, too, will take up the sport - but will it be a clean sport when he is old enough to try it?

"If we can build a good team and not make mistakes, turn around the mind of athletes and coaches, keep good connections with the IWF and the European Federation, if things go well politically and economically, then we have everything for the future to go well," he said.

"We have knowledge, we have kids who want to lift - we have everything to be successful."