IWF Interim President Mike Irani is hopeful of a brighter future for the sport ©Mike Irani

As weightlifting awaits a crucial decision from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) next week, Mike Irani, the British doctor who became the sport’s latest leader in October, has spoken about his heartfelt hopes and plans for a brighter future.

In the short term those plans include two personal decisions: his intent to give up his vote on the Executive Board to athletes, and donating a substantial sum from his International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) earnings to a trust.

The money will be used to fund academic research into the benefit of lifting weights, essentially to send out a message that has rarely, if ever, been heard in 2020: that weightlifting is good for you.

Looking farther ahead Irani - who says he is a natural optimist who has "a reputation for being a bit boring because I’m a doctor" - hopes weightlifting can become a sport that the IOC is proud to have on the Olympic schedule.

The IWF’s latest Interim President is a strong advocate of "athletes first", wants more women in positions of influence, cites coaches as one of the main reasons for the doping problems that plague the sport, and says the IWF has "got the ‘police’ there" to oversee reform and monitor its performance.

Irani, a youthful 71, is referring to the recent staffing of two independent commissions which have begun their work, without any IWF influence - Reform and Governance, and Discipline and Ethics.

"Five lawyers on that one and they actually say it should be named the other way around, Ethics and Discipline, because the ethical discussions come first and the discipline follows if the ethics aren’t upheld," Irani said.

Whether that, and the handing over of all anti-doping procedures to the International Testing Agency (ITA) in a long-term partnership, will be enough to convince the IOC that weightlifting is on the mend remains to be seen.

The IOC will discuss quota places for sports on the Paris 2024 Games schedule on Monday (December 7), but there could be bad news in store for weightlifting if rumours are true.

Four times in recent weeks the IOC has made statements about weightlifting, none of which has been complimentary.

As Irani said: "The sea has been tumultuous in 2020."

The year started with a German TV expose of corruption on a grand scale – financial, vote-rigging, doping cover-ups – during the reign of Tamás Aján, the Hungarian who resigned as IWF President in April.

Irani served under Aján and was as shocked as anybody by the revelations.

Interim President Irani has offered to give his vote to Athletes Commission chair Sarah Davies ©Getty Images
Interim President Irani has offered to give his vote to Athletes Commission chair Sarah Davies ©Getty Images

In June came the McLaren Report into weightlifting corruption, which laid bare how serious the problems had been over a period of many years.

There was then the departure of Ursula Papandrea, the American reformist and first female leader of the sport, who was ousted as IWF Interim President in October.

She was replaced for a day by Intarat Yodbangtoey from Thailand – a nation banned from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games for doping, and which featured prominently in the scandals earlier in the year.

The IOC was unimpressed and its President Thomas Bach said so - Intarat stood aside.

Having sought advice from the Board, the IWF’s general secretary Mohamed Jaloud called Irani, chair of the IWF Medical Committee on to which he had first been elected in 1992.

"I was in clinic and got a phone call from Mr Jaloud who asked me would I think about it – that was a surprise."

Irani, a consultant rheumatologist, duly thought about it, and having sought his wife’s support he said yes.

"As a doctor you first want to make the full investigation, find out what’s going wrong, make the diagnosis.

"We were woefully short of active committees and commissions, but we had plenty of dormant ones.

"Nobody really has been auditing the performance of our systems, our testing, in the past and we have to really knuckle in on that.

"These commissions are both working really hard now, seeing where they fit in, where they link in with the ITA. They are all truly independent.

"There’s great reason to be confident in 2021. We’ve got the police there, so to speak, on those commissions.

"With governance you alter a system, personnel, procedures, policies, but you can’t say if it’s improved or worsened until you let it work for a period of time.

"You must do that, monitor progress, not just change it and leave it. And you must keep doing it."

Irani has witnessed some of the finest moments for various IWF Board members including Marcus Stephen of Nauru at the 1990 Commonwealth Games ©Getty Images
Irani has witnessed some of the finest moments for various IWF Board members including Marcus Stephen of Nauru at the 1990 Commonwealth Games ©Getty Images

Among other changes Irani wants to see are 30 per cent female representation on the IWF’s Board, committees and commissions, and votes given to athletes’ representatives.

"Ultimately the IWF exists to help athletes, to help them fulfil their natural potential," he said.

The new IWF Athletes Commission, set up by Papandrea, is chaired by another Briton, Sarah Davies, who has been an outspoken critic of the Board and the fact that athletes do not have a vote as yet, even if they do now attend meetings as observers.

The IOC, too, has highlighted this, along with the IWF’s perceived reluctance to accept independent advice and its slow progress in reforming its governance and constitution.

"If, in future, I am on the Board at a time when reforms have not taken effect and Sarah is there as an observer, I’ll withhold my vote so she can have it and her vote will count," said Irani.

He trusts that the Athletes Commission will have two votes before long.

On the subject of doping – which could restrict the team size of as many as 20 nations in Tokyo because of multiple offences over the years – Irani said coaches were often the main problem.

"What drives me silly, what’s senseless, is that you have coaches whose first aim in life should be the safety of the athlete, and they’re the ones sometimes involved in giving the athletes banned substances, sometimes pre-pubertal girls.

"It’s just extraordinary what’s going on, or has been going on.

"Finding an athlete abused by being given a drug is so, so cruel.

"It’s not just weightlifting either, though we must take our punch on the chin.

"But we’re going to stop all that nonsense with our commissions advising and acting – you’ve got to be optimistic.

"I so want for ethics people and the ITA to come forth and give us their wisdom and say this is wrong, but also that it can be righted.

"We would be absolutely bonkers to forget our past, or to forget the lessons to be learned from it.

IOC President Thomas Bach has repeatedly said the IOC has
IOC President Thomas Bach has repeatedly said the IOC has "strong concerns" over IWF governance ©Getty Images

"What happened was really, really bad but we’re trying our best, trying desperately now as much as we may have tried inadvertently through one person having everything in his lap, to get things right, to ensure that the IOC is proud to have us in their family.

"We want to be part of that family, we will try to really dig in and show that we can be entertaining, be fun, be happy with ourselves in being able to serve the IOC.

"That’s the way to look after our athletes."

Irani, who was born in Bombay and raised in England after his family moved when his father was offered a Government position, has never lifted weights apart from in training when he played rugby.

His main love was cricket, in which he was an opening bat and leg-break bowler in his grammar school and university days.

All his previous work in sport, which started as a weekend volunteer doctor for elite athletes at the Crystal Palace Sports Centre in London, has been unpaid.

He was asked to work for the British Olympic Association at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, where he first saw weightlifting, and where Britain last won a medal in the sport, a bronze by David Mercer.

After working at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh he was asked by British Weight Lifting to be the team doctor.

"It was Wally Holland, the manager, a character and a half, who asked me," said Irani.

"He said, ‘You’re not going to charge us anything for that are you? No petrol money or anything, you can come in on a bike’."

Irani was happy to do it, as he has been in more than three decades of service to sport, at the IWF and on the Board of British Weight Lifting.

He has seen some of his fellow IWF Board members enjoy their finest moments – Nicu Vlad won gold for Romania in Los Angeles, Pyrros Dimas won three Olympic golds before his famous bronze-medal farewell in Athens in 2004.

And there was Marcus Stephen in Auckland in 1990, where he became the first athlete from Nauru to win a medal in any sport.

Irani remembers the celebrations as much as Stephen’s Commonwealth Games gold medal performance.

He has been asked to take charge of the IWF until the elections in late March, but will that be it?

"I’m leaving my options open," he said.