Brian Oliver

When Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, spoke about weightlifting yesterday it was no surprise that his comments were presented in a negative way by the world’s largest news agency, Reuters.

"Weightlifting could lose spot in Olympics" was the headline on a story sent to countries all over the world.

After the McLaren report’s exposure of doping cover-ups, rigged elections and the disappearance of millions of dollars under the reign of Tamás Aján, weightlifting’s image could hardly be much worse in the mainstream media.

For the first time in years The Guardian, another of the world’s biggest news outlets, published a column about weightlifting this week: the first three words of the headline were, "Corruption in weightlifting"

The sport’s governing body, the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) is going to have to live with a serious image problem for quite a while – but that will not stop it trying to make a range of desperately needed improvements in the coming weeks and months, with outside independent assistance.

Those who follow weightlifting will have been more interested than Reuters was in one of Bach’s other comments.

"What we can say now is we will fully support the new leadership of IWF - to reform the governance of the federation and also in efforts to make the anti-doping system fully independent from the federation," he said.

"The major steps have been done."

Richard McLaren, who led the independent investigation into corruption, also had encouraging words on the IWF’s future despite providing so much bad news about its past.

"A new era of accountability and doping control management has already begun to take hold within the IWF" the report said.

These and other changes "demonstrate a sport willing to move forward, freeing itself of its conflicts of interest and introducing transparent and trustworthy processes."

The McLaren report’s recommendations to the IWF "serve to bolster the momentum that has already begun to reform an organisation whose reputation has been severely and adversely affected by the actions of a single individual."

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said he fully supported the new leadership of the IWF ©Getty Images
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said he fully supported the new leadership of the IWF ©Getty Images

Those recommendations barely featured in much of the media coverage because the scandal of corruption was so much more newsworthy.

But they are arguably the most important part of the report.

Some of what McLaren recommends has already happened, or is underway.

To sum up his main points, and ignoring those which focus on gaining yet more information about past misdeeds, he said the IWF needs to work in three areas: to stop the potential for corruption at elections, to end the "cash culture" and do a proper job of accounting, and to reform its constitution.

Why reform the constitution?

Let McLaren explain: "The IWF’s Constitution is to a great extent a façade of proper legal structure and operating rules.

"The reality is that the power in the IWF was usurped by Aján and executed through the Secretariat, with all staff thereof being personally appointed by the President.

"Aján bent the voting rules in the IWF’s Constitution, permitting bribery, exchanged favours, and lavished his supporters with material experiences to ensure his Presidency."

And then, one of the most telling sentences in the 122-page report: "The integrity provisions of the Code of Ethics are highly deficient because the buying of votes is not an offence."

How on earth can an international sports federation not make vote-buying an ethical offence?

Going into further detail on the IWF Constitution, McLaren said the Executive Board should be cut from its current size, 21 members, and become the central legislative body, in place of the Congress of all member federations.

One of the reasons is that, as the report makes clear, too many of those member federations are corrupt and/or open to bribery.

Former President Tamás Aján was accused of
Former President Tamás Aján was accused of "usurping power" within the IWF by the McLaren report ©Getty Images

Board members should not serve more than two four-year terms, "staggered" elections should be held every two years, there should be more women on the Board, and an athletes’ representative, the IWF should have a full-time Integrity Officer, and a new General Secretary Treasurer.

Perhaps most controversially, or most sensibly, depending on your point of view: "Executive Board members to be suspended from their positions if their national Federation is sanctioned for doping violations."

If such a rule existed now two members, from Thailand and Egypt, would be out of action and two more, from Romania and Iraq, would be under threat of suspension.

That is not all.

McLaren said, "The appetite for members and stakeholders of the IWF to come forward {to aid his investigation} was practically non-existent.

"There were a surprising number of individuals, including EB members, who refused to speak with us."

If you added up all the current Executive Board members whose nations have been suspended in the past three years for multiple doping violations, or who are liable to be suspended, or whose nations have reduced quotas for Tokyo 2020 because of doping, or who did not co-operate with the McLaren team, or who are mentioned in his report in a less than flattering way, you would actually have a majority – 11 of 21.

The number could be higher, for McLaren is sending a separate, confidential report to the IWF’s Oversight and Integrity Commission which appointed him in January, and which is chaired by Interim President Ursula Papandrea.

The details put into the public domain last week are deemed to be legally watertight - the contents of the confidential report are not, and any names in it are unlikely to be made public.

Those who demand everything be made public are not being realistic, and are not under threat of legal action against them, as the IWF would be.

As McLaren himself said: "The Interim President, Ursula Papandrea, is now facing the task of reforming an organisation which has former Aján supporters and even a known corrupt member on the Executive Board.

"It will be interesting to see where that goes."

The IWF's Interim President Ursula Papandrea announced that work on a new IWF Constitution was underway ©Getty Images
The IWF's Interim President Ursula Papandrea announced that work on a new IWF Constitution was underway ©Getty Images

Weightlifting is stuck, stymied by its own inept Constitution.

How can it remove from its own decision-making process people who might not want the sport to move in the right direction, who might want to cling on to their position for their own good, not the sport’s?

Some exasperated Board members say the single most important action that needs to be taken now is "get rid of all Board members from doping countries."

That is understandable, but defining a "doping country" is far from straightforward, given some have made huge improvements on that front in recent years.

Others agree with the United States Anti-Doping Agency and the athletes’ body, Global Athlete, that an independent body should take over the running of the IWF until the next elections.

Papandrea, who appointed McLaren and who has done more than any other Board member to see off Aján, thinks that would be unfair and is committed to overseeing change from within, with help from independent advisors.

She made a start today in announcing: "The focus of the Executive Board over the next few months must be to take the most serious of corrective measures.

"The Oversight and Integrity Commission will begin its work on a new Constitution and by-laws with assistance from independent professionals from ASOIF {Association of Summer Olympic International Federations}.

"We are in the beginning stages but we hope to make quick yet thorough work of it.

"We are particularly grateful for the continued support of the IOC in achieving its call for the fundamental reform of both governance and management.

"Independent expertise will be allied with athlete input in working to shape the future of the IWF and its relationship with the sport."

It will not be an easy task, given so many Board members could turn against her.

Antonio Urso, who was twice beaten by Tamás Aján in rigged Presidential elections said unity is the way forward for the IWF ©Getty Images
Antonio Urso, who was twice beaten by Tamás Aján in rigged Presidential elections said unity is the way forward for the IWF ©Getty Images

Some want a new Anti-Doping Policy – a risky proposition given the IOC supports the IWF’s current situation on that front.

Some did not want McLaren appointed – not surprising, given what he found - and do not want Papandrea guiding them to a new future.

They can have their say in January, or whenever the next elections are held: what would the sport gain by another change in IWF leadership before then?

There are, perhaps, ways to "clean" the Board and member federations.

The current IWF Constitution includes one very important rule, never used, regarding those whose conduct "brings the sport of weightlifting into disrepute."

The IWF can take "such action as it deems fit" against these people.

Then there are the terms of reference of the McLaren investigation, which compelled Board members to assist with the investigation and said failure to do so "will be treated as a serious breach of obligations to the IWF."

Possibilities, yes, but making any charges stick might be difficult, time-consuming and even counterproductive.

The best way to move forward is easy, straightforward and staring all members of the IWF in the face: unity.

"It would be good for the sport if everyone who wants to reform worked together to that end, lest we continue to divide the sport along perceived lines, from within or outside," Papandrea said.

Antonio Urso, the Italian who was twice beaten by Aján in rigged Presidential elections, supports Papandrea and agrees that unity is the way to go for now, with a clean-up of national federations and substantive change to follow.

"We have to give a chance to clean, clever honest people to become part of this family and renew completely the culture and philosophy of our sport," he said.

Who would want to argue with that?