Brian Oliver

One of the most frequently asked questions in weightlifting in recent weeks has been "what's taking so long?"

The context is doping, and the eligibility of certain nations to compete at the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

It will continue to be asked until the status of Vietnam and Colombia has been decided, and possibly beyond as Bulgaria could lose a place because of an individual doping violation announced last week.

Russia and Iraq would also have questions to answer if called before a sanctions panel for having multiple positives within a year.

In the case of Romania, "what's taking so long?" was heard more than ever, because, well, it took so long.

When the Romanian federation, Federatia Romana de Haltere (FRH), was suspended last week by the International Weightlifting Federation's (IWF) sanctions panel, it brought to an end a process that lasted many months and which was based on offences committed nearly nine years ago.

The ruling by the Independent Member Federations Sanctions panel, to give it its full name, runs to 29 pages and provides plenty of answers to that frequently asked question, and much more besides.

Ten nations were guilty of the same offence as Romania, yet until last week only nine had been punished.

Now Romania has made it ten out of ten but in effect is punished more severely because of the timing: it has potentially lost an Olympic gold medal.

The suspensions were imposed under the "Tbilisi Decision" taken by the IWF Board shortly before the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, that ruled any nation should be banned for a year if it had three or more positives in the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) reanalysis of stored samples from Beijing 2008 and London 2012.

The first nine - Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Turkey and China - had the results of their relevant reanalyses by 2016 and served a suspension in 2017.

Romania, whose entire team of four at London 2012 - Florin Croitoru, Razvan Martin, Gabriel Sincraian and Roxana Cocos - came up positive for steroids, was not informed until after the others had served their time, as the relevant tests were carried out in 2019 and 2020.

Another, non-Olympic Romanian Marius Danciu, also tested positive for steroids in 2012.

The "Tbilisi nine" were banned in a post-Olympic year, whereas Romania's punishment covers the Olympic Games.

Romanian weightlifting is in a period of crisis ©Getty Images
Romanian weightlifting is in a period of crisis ©Getty Images

If Tokyo 2020 had not been delayed by COVID-19, Romania would have been there; if it was not barred from the rescheduled Games its leading weightlifter, Loredana Toma, would have been the favourite in the women's 64 kilograms category.

Any federation in the same situation as Romania would probably have taken the same view, that nine out of 10 offenders effectively had a lighter sentence.

This "disproportionate punishment" argument was dismissed by the panel along with other claims by the FRH - but the process took more than four months, or more than six months if you start from the point when the IOC finalised its disqualifications.

It is easy to draw up a timeline of proceedings to see how the case progressed from February 1, the point when the IWF announced the closure of the doping cases involved (already more than two months after the IOC) and said Romania was liable to suspension.

The International Testing Agency (ITA) took over, as it is now responsible for all IWF anti-doping proceedings.

The following paraphrased entries on the timeline show just how the days, weeks and months can be eaten up:

February 23, 2021: ITA notified FRH and gave it until March 5 to respond to the fact that it had breached Article 12 of the IWF anti-doping policy. (FRH was told it had breached Article 12 twice - for having three or more violations in a year; and for bringing the sport into disrepute.)

February 26: FRH requested to be granted a new, "more reasonable", deadline to submit its observations and to be provided with the procedural rules applicable to the proceedings before the IWF Panel.

March 1: ITA said operation of panel rules was at their discretion and asked FRH for a more detailed submission (to explain why it needed more time).

March 4: FRH expressed its concerns in relation to the lack of procedural rules governing the IWF Panel's work and requested an extension until April 20 to provide its comments to the notice (that it had breached Article 12).

March 18: ITA partially granted FRH's request for extension until March 30.

March 26: Further to the FRH's reiterated request, ITA granted FRH until April 20 to provide its comments.

April 16: By way of its legal counsel, FRH requested that the proceedings against it be annulled, and subsidiarily suspended, until a proper set of rules governing the IWF Panel's work be adopted. FRH claimed that the proceedings did not guarantee it due process and fair procedure rights.

April 19: FRH submitted a request for document production.

April 20: FRH filed its brief answer in relation to the notice, in which it inter alia reiterated its requests mentioned at paras 19 and 20 above (April 16 and 19).

At this point, the process has taken three days short of two months.

All that has happened is that Romania has replied to the initial charges by saying they should be dropped, and asking for documents to be produced.

The members of the panel were not confirmed until the following week and when a date was set for its first procedural session on April 30, FRH said it was not available for that date.

The session was rearranged for May 5 - more than three months after the IWF's "cases are closed" announcement.

By this point, the ITA appeared to be concerned.

Romania's entire London 2012 team tested positive for banned substances ©Getty Images
Romania's entire London 2012 team tested positive for banned substances ©Getty Images

Two days before that session it sent a request that the panel's decision be made "by May 31 at the latest" as it would affect the chances of other athletes hoping to qualify for Tokyo.

At the May 5 session, FRH's plea for the charges to be dropped was dismissed, as was its request for documents to be produced as it had "not established the relevance of the requested information".

FRH was then given a 14-day deadline to file its answer to the original referral from February, regarding the two counts of breaching Article 12.

It did so on May 20, when it set out a number of arguments as to why it was not responsible for doping by its athletes, and why it should not be barred from competing in Tokyo.

The proceedings in question, FRH said, related to anti-doping violations which were dealt with individually, and as FRH was not a party to the proceedings it was "not in a position to defend and challenge" those proceedings.

Therefore, FRH said, "the facts that were taken into consideration to reach the decisions against the athletes should be revalidated, questioned and reanalysed in order for them to be used against the FRH".

The report states: "In particular, the FRH submitted that the IWF's assumption that the ADRVs of the FRH athletes were intentional, because those athletes had not submitted any explanations in the course of their proceedings, should not be held against the FRH as it had no means to challenge anything that happened before the current procedure."

This argument, that a national federation should not be held responsible for the actions of its athletes, has been put forward by others in the five years since the Tbilisi Decision was adopted.

Clean athletes, young athletes and future generations from nations with doping problems, historic or otherwise, should not be punished for the misdemeanours of others, some have said - Egypt, Thailand and Russia among them.

"In this regard," the panel’s report states, "FRH submitted that the human rights of those 'innocent athletes' and the principle of proportionality should be taken into account."

The FRH further submitted that it had never "practised a sponsored doping activity such as Russia's" and that the other nine Tbilisi Decision nations had not missed an Olympic Games so "the innocent athletes were not prevented from participating in the most important event of their career".

It added that "the federations of Iraq and Colombia are allegedly in the same situation as the FRH yet are not subject to the same proceedings".

The FRH wanted the IWF to provide guarantees for athletes to participate in competitions under a neutral flag during any suspension.

In its response, dated June 15, the panel sets in stone certain principles and conditions regarding a national federation's responsibilities.

There was no need for proof of intent, for example: if athletes cheated, and in numbers, the national federation is held responsible, end of argument.

If innocent athletes suffered because of this, so be it.

Coaches must be held to account, too.

One of the conditions if FRH wants to benefit from an early return for its athletes, next February rather than June and therefore in time for the European Championships, is that it must "remove from their functions any athlete support personnel who have trained more than three athletes who have committed doping violations in the past 10 years".

The "disproportionate punishment" argument was answered in forthright terms by the panel.

The timing of the Olympic Games and the fact that they happen once every four years "does not warrant a different sanction than the one imposed", it said.

Romanian weightlifters will miss the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Romanian weightlifters will miss the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games ©Getty Images

The panel's view was: "Given the fact that most of the ADRVs underpinning the present decision happened during the Olympic Games, the panel is reinforced in its conclusion that having the FRH missing the Tokyo Games is by no standard disproportionate in nature."

The FRH's claim that it was not responsible for retired athletes was also refuted.

Under its anti-doping rules, the IWF "retains jurisdiction to complete its results management process", regardless of whether an athlete or coach is retired.

The FRH's "statute of limitations" argument was dismissed by the panel as the latest London 2012 positive was discovered in 2020, not in 2012.

There were other, more frivolous claims, by the FRH. As the science to test for certain substances did not exist in 2012, how could they “"fight an undetectable enemy?"

FRH also suggested that ongoing wider investigations into doping in weightlifting, by ITA and the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Intelligence and Investigation department, might "produce conclusions that would completely change the situation".

The claim appeared to suggest that there might have been malpractice involved, similar to that revealed in the McLaren Report into Corruption in Weightlifting which was published in June last year, and which focused on allegations of bribery, vote-rigging and doping cover-ups at the IWF during the reign of its former President, Tamás Aján.

The panel said it found FRH's suggestion "purely speculative and not supported by any evidence".

In making its ruling, the panel listed nine "good behaviour" conditions which must be met if Romania wants its athletes to return after eight months rather than a year.

The principle of allowing athletes to compete by the partial lifting of a suspension, provided it meets certain conditions and while the federation itself remains suspended, is a good one.

It was applied in the case of Thailand only last Friday (June 18), when the suspension of athletes was lifted because the national federation had met all its conditions, even though the federation itself remains suspended until 2023.

Critics will point out that the IWF has been too soft on doping nations in the past, and that eight of its current Executive Board members are from nations that have been suspended (Thailand, Egypt, Romania), are liable to suspension (Iraq), or have reduced athlete quotas at Tokyo 2020 (Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, India) because of doping.

It is clear, given recent news from Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Bulgaria, among others, that doping is still seen as part of the sport in certain parts of the world. 

But there is sense in the approach spelled out by Mike Irani, the IWF's Interim President, in January.

He said the aim was to remove cheaters from the system "but also to give federations the chance to recover from sanctions with educated and clean athletes and not to totally destroy them".

"We cannot let go of the hand of federations who have doping problems," he said.

"We have to help the clean athletes in such poisoned environments to have the chance of competing clean in a safe environment."

Which is why the most important of the nine conditions Romania must adhere to was the last one.

"The FRH leadership accept public responsibility to change the culture of doping in Romanian weightlifting."