Ursula Papandrea, right, has claimed the "old guard" at the IWF are as responsible for the crisis as Tamás Aján ©ITG

Tamás Aján was corrupt and had to go but he was "a convenient fall guy...part of a bigger problem in weightlifting" according to Ursula Papandrea, the woman who replaced him as leader of the sport’s governing body.

Papandrea has also noted that Ilya Ilyin, the most high-profile drugs cheat in weightlifting, is a good example of what "taking responsibility for doping and turning up clean at competitions" looks like.

But she has only criticism for the "old guard" on the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) Board who, she claims, are "a bunch of cowards who were too scared to stand up to Aján themselves" and are responsible for the mess in which the sport finds itself.

The American, who was the first woman to lead the IWF before her own Executive Board removed her as interim president on October 13, told insidethegames she intends to form a team of "clean candidates" to stand against the "old guard" at the next elections in March.

Her forthright criticism of the Board members "who will not even acknowledge their role in weightlifting’s problems" comes in an interview posted on YouTube by Weightliftinghouse.

The IWF has been the subject of three recent statements by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), whose president Thomas Bach made clear his support for reform and mentioned "excellent cooperation" with Papandrea.

He spoke of concerns about the Federation’s reluctance to accept independent advice, its slow progress in reforming its constitution and governance and its lack of athlete representation.

Papandrea addresses all of those points in the 90-minute interview and says: "It’s not just the constitution and bylaws that need to be overhauled, it’s the entire system of governance."

That system was created during the 44-year reign of Aján, who resigned in disgrace in April after a German TV documentary exposed widespread corruption.

Tamás Aján resigned as IWF President in April ©Getty Images
Tamás Aján resigned as IWF President in April ©Getty Images

An independent investigation led by Richard McLaren, a Canadian professor of law, followed up in June with damning proof of financial mismanagement, rigged elections and doping cover-ups by the Aján regime.

The 81-year-old Hungarian was general secretary for 24 years and President for 20 years.

"I’m not saying Aján’s not guilty," said Papandrea.

"My observation was that nobody seemed to have a problem with all the rumours and speculation before - the word on the street as to rumours hasn't changed in 30 years but somehow Aján was able to hold on. 

"Who allowed that?

"They all (the "old guard" on the Board) want only to blame Aján without acknowledging the complicity with him that went on for decades.

"Ajan could not have ever operated in the way he operated on his own - there’s no way.

"Much as I say there’s blame there I have never, ever thought he was the only problem in the sport, he was part of a bigger problem.

"To me, throwing him completely under the bus on his own is not fair.

"And it’s convenient."

Papandrea and her Federation, USA Weightlifting, supported Aján in the last elections in 2017, when she gained a place on the IWF Board as a vice-president.

Earlier that year the Board voted to suspend nine nations for a year because they had multiple doping violations when the IOC retested stored samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.

Two of those nine are represented on the Board, Kazakhstan and Russia, along with Romania, which has had four IOC positives after the suspensions were imposed and is liable to a similar ban.

Of other nations represented on the Board, Egypt and Thailand are banned from Tokyo 2020 because of doping offences, while Uzbekistan and India - like Russia, Kazakhstan and Romania - have lost athlete quotas.

Thailand featured prominently in the German documentary and the McLaren Report.

When the IWF’s first vice-president Intarat Yodbangtoey, from Thailand, replaced Papandrea as interim president there was such an outcry - including from the IOC - that he was replaced after a day by Mike Irani of Britain.

Ursula Papandrea praised Ilya Ilyin, who she claims is a good example of what taking responsibility for doping and turning up clean at competitions ©Getty Images
Ursula Papandrea praised Ilya Ilyin, who she claims is a good example of what taking responsibility for doping and turning up clean at competitions ©Getty Images

"In the years leading up to his resignation Aján was pushing for real reform," Papandrea says in the interview.

"That was the only reason I could get on board with what he was doing (in 2017).

"He was holding countries responsible, he was trying to do what wasn’t done before, whoever you want to blame, and that created a lot of animosity towards him.

"There was an old system and a new system and the new system was not conducive to the operations of the old system.

"He was a convenient fall guy.

"I would like to say that once he resigned there was an intent to change it all but that was not what I saw.

"There’s a part of me that thinks his removal had less to do with what everybody thought he’s done in the past and more to do with what he was trying to accomplish more recently.

"There should be a separate oversight body, outside of the IWF and reporting to the IOC, to vet every single member of the Executive Board to show they are all clean.

"I would happily go through that – if they say you are not suitable I’d step down. 

"This is what we should do.

"They wanted to get rid of me – the threat was always looming – and there is a chance now I’ve gone that they’ll do the right things but I am not confident.

“There was a majority on that Board that could have done a lot, as we saw with the removal of Ajan.

"In that instance and at other moments throughout history the Board has done the right thing but (the IWF) seems to take two or three good steps then fall back.

"They (the 'old guard') are hugely irresponsible because they put all clean athletes at risk.

"There needs to be an acknowledgement of what has gone wrong in the sport.

"Aján is gone. 

"Get over that. 

"Aján didn't put stanozolol in you - if it was a coach or an administration responsible for doping they should speak now, say whose responsibility it was.

"Get athlete support personnel directly tied to athletes – coach, doctor, any individual.

"I don’t see accountability or responsibility for any of it. 

"It was this, it was that, never just ‘we did it’.

"You have to give some credit to Ilya Ilyin who just owns up to it and then has the balls to come back, to do it a clean way."

An independent investigation led by Richard McLaren found evidence of financial mismanagement, rigged elections and doping cover-ups by the IWF under Tamás Aján ©Getty Images
An independent investigation led by Richard McLaren found evidence of financial mismanagement, rigged elections and doping cover-ups by the IWF under Tamás Aján ©Getty Images

Ilyin could not get within 70 kilograms of his career-best totals and has called it a day before the end of Tokyo 2020 qualifying, but he tried to do it after serving his suspension.

"I have an enormous respect for him for doing that,” says Papandrea.

"Not for doping but for stopping and showing up to competitions clean.

"That is owning what you've done.

"He won’t be the only person responsible in his history but he has taken personal responsibility for it.

"Those are the people you can forgive and admire but if all you do is deny, deny, deny, shift the blame, don’t want to be punished, don’t acknowledge the problem, how are you going to fix it?"

Papandrea says she was voted into office by the Board – first as acting president in January, then interim President – "to get rid of Aján because if I failed my head would roll, they could just remove me".

"I don’t think anyone else on the Board was willing to take the political risk of failing and then being put out," she said.

"It was astute of them to engage me - it’s clear I served a purpose.

"But very early on there was resistance, I was not doing things the way leading voices wanted them done.

"Instead I was doing what I thought was correct.

"On two occasions they wanted me to intervene in the Thai doping case (to appoint a new IWF attorney with the aim of overturning Thailand’s self-imposed suspension).

"They also wanted me to lie supine and let Aján ride out the investigation.

"We uncovered more and more in recent months and I tried to combat and correct it – that was not well received.

"It’s always been clear that I just want to get things done, to make things better for the sport, not to seek political gain.

"The board seems to think it was just me who would benefit from a clean sport!

"Knowing this group, political motivation is stronger than anything else and that is hugely to the detriment of the sport.

"There’s a campaign going on right now (from some on the Board) to slander me and what I tried to do in general – that’s OK, I’ve weathered storms like this before as woman involved in weightlifting for 30 years."

Ursula Papandrea, third left, was removed as IWF Interim President earlier this month ©IWF
Ursula Papandrea, third left, was removed as IWF Interim President earlier this month ©IWF

Papandrea claims the Board’s biggest problem with her was "telling the truth to the IOC".

"I wrote a report to the IOC (before its Executive Board meeting on October 7) that said this is what happened, completely factual, and the 'old guard’ didn’t like it," she said.

"The IOC appreciates a forthright description but the Board wouldn’t have it because it was exposing what was done and what wasn’t done, with a timeline and minutes.

"Get the best people and rebuild the sport from its foundations, tear down everything and build an entirely new foundation - that was my aim.

"It helped me build trust with the IOC but at the same time I lost support from within the Board.

"They wanted a puppet and they got the wrong person.

"They threatened to remove me, there was always a looming threat, so I was just trying to get as much positive stuff done knowing that I was a temporary solution to them.

"I wanted to quit more times than I can tell you, seriously.

"It was like banging your head against a steel wall, not even a brick wall because at least you can chip away at that.”

Papandrea referred several times to her detractors’ reluctance to accept advice from the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF), especially regarding its recommendations for independent experts to sit on two important commissions working on governance reform and ethics.”

"Not one of ASOIF’s recommendations was accepted,” she said.

"They just kicked the ball down the road, nothing happening, stalling - and they wanted me to go the IOC and say here’s our roadmap, this is what we’ve done blah blah blah.

"We were in a limbo state.

"One board member actually said, can you believe it, ‘We don’t need to actually do anything, we just have to look as though we’re doing something.’

"Of course we have to do something, you idiot!”

On athlete representation Papandrea says: "We should have athletes on every single commission, athletes on the Executive Board - but there was opposition to even having athletes as observers at the Board meetings."

The 'old guard' also voiced their anger when Papandrea used her executive power to appoint Britain’s Sarah Davies as chair of the Athletes Commission in late August.

"They were really pissed when I appointed Sarah but I wanted a chair who will be active and boy did I get that right!" said Papandrea.

IWF Athletes' Commission chairperson Sarah Davies has been hugely critical of the Board ©Getty Images
IWF Athletes' Commission chairperson Sarah Davies has been hugely critical of the Board ©Getty Images

Davies called the Board "corrupt" in a video on social media and started a petition of no confidence in the Board - signed so far by 13,300 people - which she will present to Thomas Bach.

"When I appointed Sarah they all jumped on me like hyenas,” Papandrea said.

"Athlete representation is an IOC expectation – like gender equality and good governance.

"How did we get this far without no Athletes Commission when 20 per cent athlete representation (on the Board) should be a minimum?"

Papandrea also believes that the two-day Constitutional Congress in March will be too late for any electoral reforms to be applied to the Electoral Congress which follows over the next two days.

"This is an issue as applied electoral reform is needed,” she told insidethegames.

"There was an expectation that we would adopt electoral changes to apply to the election."

She also believes that the 'old guard' will be strong favourites to maintain the status quo on the Board.

When asked if weightlifting had a bright future Papandrea responds with two of her own questions.

"How confident am I that the right people can get in at the next election that will properly engage with total reform?

"And what level of confidence do I have in the people currently engaged in reform?

"With the former it’s low, with the latter it’s low.

"I would like to see a new slate of people stand, people who have not been involved in the last 10 years.

"I think it’s worth doing (standing at the elections).

"I don’t have the overwhelming level of confidence I see from the other side, the sense that ‘there’s no way they’re going to remove us.’

"It’s the same kind of arrogance that has always permeated the organisation, that the same people will do things the way they've always done them, they'll always be back, they'll maintain the status quo.

"There has been such a long series of wrongs, such a lot of latitude extended to us, how long can you violate the norms of good governance and doping?

"We need to be doing what the IOC expects us to do, things that are out in the public sphere.

"It really wouldn’t have been hard to do the things the IOC were asking of us – that’s what’s so upsetting.

"At the end of the day the IOC gave us a bunch of rope and they said you can build yourself a way to climb out of this mess with the rope, or you can hang yourself with it.

"People can make their own assessment on how we’ve done in that regard."