Brian Oliver

In all the talk, public and private, about the doping crisis in weightlifting, the victims are rarely mentioned. Victims such as Ele Opeloge.

When the Samoan failed with her sixth and final attempt in the women’s super-heavyweights at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 it looked as though she had been beaten off the podium by one measly kilogramme. In fact she was beaten into fourth place by cheats.

Opeloge lost much more than a place on the podium. She lost a house, lost her big chance in life. Had she won a medal in Beijing it would have been the first in any sport for Samoa. It would have made Opeloge a national hero and she would have won a reward from the state of $100,000 (£77,000/€89,000). Her life would have changed. 

Opeloge has left Samoa to live in New Zealand. She would never have done so had she not been cheated out of her rightful place in the medal ceremony for the women’s over 75kg.

She, and Samoa, will now have their Olympic medal after all. It will not be presented on the podium, with flags raised and the winner’s anthem playing. It will be sent by post to New Zealand.

Two of those on the podium have tested positive in the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) reanalysis of samples from Beijing 2008 and London 2012. Olha Korobka from Russia and Mariya Grabovetskaya of Kazakhstan will lose their silver and bronze medals respectively when the IOC’s legal process is complete. Nigeria’s Maryan Usman will move up from fifth place to bronze and the silver will go to Opeloge.

Jerry Wallwork, Opeloge’s coach, was delighted that Samoa will finally have an Olympic medal, but angry and dispirited by the nature of how it happened.

Ele Opeloge of Samoa was denied her rightful place on the podium at Beijing 2008 ©Getty Images
Ele Opeloge of Samoa was denied her rightful place on the podium at Beijing 2008 ©Getty Images

"We have lost the glory of winning the medal at the time," he said. "All the hype is gone. But most importantly Ele's future could have been shaped differently if she had won silver in Beijing.

"Many doors and options could have opened up for her, especially the reward that was offered by our Government for $100,000.

"Ele comes from a poor background and these funds could have really made a difference for her family eight years ago. It’s very unfair. The small islands work so hard to be competing against big-time cheaters who pump in millions just to cover their tracks."

Opeloge is one of many victims of cheating on an industrial scale, mostly by nations that were once part of the pre-1989 Soviet Bloc. This weekend the International Weightlifting Federation’s (IWF) executive will meet in Beijing to discuss doping, sanctions and the sport’s future. They would do well to consider Opeloge’s case when they talk about how to deal with the sport’s many cheats.

If the nations with the worst doping records return to action in a year’s time as if nothing has happened, weightlifting’s credibility will hit an all-time low.

Eight weightlifters who finished second, third, fourth and even, in one case, fifth, will be upgraded to gold when the cheats caught in the IOC’s reanalysis are formally disqualified.

Some of the numbers are frightening. Of the 90 medallists, men and women, at Beijing 2008 and London 2012, 30 have now tested positive. One third of all medallists.

By the end of August the IOC’s overall retest tally was 98 positives for all sports, with more expected in the next few weeks. Of those 98, 46 were from weightlifting - nearly half. There has since been a 47th, announced last week. It was Anatoli Ciricu of Moldova, a bronze medallist in what has become the dirtiest contest in weightlifting history, the men’s 94kg in London.

Six of the top eight have tested positive, including all the medallists, and the man who finished ninth will win a bronze medal. Sadly, he too is a doper: Tomasz Zielinski, the Pole who was sent home from Rio 2016 for testing positive.

The 94kg champion Ilya Ilyin, the poster-boy of weightlifting who had expected to win a third straight gold medal in Rio before he was banned, has tested positive for both Beijing and London. So have three other lifters from Kazakhstan, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Of the 47 positives, 41 are from Soviet Bloc nations.

Six of the top eight from the London 2012 men's 94kg have now tested positive following re-tests, including Moldova's Anatoli Ciricu, who had originally won the bronze medal ©Getty Images
Six of the top eight from the London 2012 men's 94kg have now tested positive following re-tests, including Moldova's Anatoli Ciricu, who had originally won the bronze medal ©Getty Images

When all the dust has settled Kazakhstan will have totalled at least 60 weightlifting positives since they gained IOC recognition in 1993, all of them under the same head coach, Alex Ni.

One of those who will move up to gold is Christine Girard, the Canadian who finished third in the women’s 63kg at London 2012, behind a Kazakh and a Russian who have both tested positive.

Speaking at her home in British Columbia, Girard said: "I’m so glad I’m not part of the IWF right now because they have so many difficult decisions to make. I really, really hope the sport can turn this into something positive and be a clean sport in future."

One thing the IWF can do in that regard, which Girard would support, is scrapping all the weight categories and starting again, perhaps by adding one kg. They have the perfect opportunity as an extra women’s category, levelling the sport at eight each for men and women, is being added. The change could come at the same time.

Another crucial decision to be made concerns timing. At a meeting in June the IWF announced that any nation with three or more positives from the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 retests would be banned for a year. The ban would start as soon as the appeals and legal process was complete and a nation’s third positive was "closed" by the IOC.

Because that process takes time, Kazakhstan escaped a ban from Rio 2016. A team of eight - featuring four lifters who had served doping bans - won five medals. Ni was his usual energetic self, jumping into the arms of medallists and shouting with delight. Rival coaches looked on in despair.

There were no Russians in Rio because they were banned for "bringing the sport into disrepute" by the systemic cheating revealed by the McLaren Report. But as several coaches and officials pointed out, Kazakhstan has so far had more positives - 10 to nine - in the IOC retests than Russia.

A commonly heard refrain is, "If 60 positives since 1993 is not bringing the sport into disrepute, what is?" The Kazakhstan Olympic Committee is carrying out an investigation, the results of which are due within a fortnight. "We’ll believe it when we see it," said another national coach.

Christine Girard will be moved up to a belated gold in the London 2012 women's 63kg ©Getty Images
Christine Girard will be moved up to a belated gold in the London 2012 women's 63kg ©Getty Images

Because of Ciricu’s positive - he was already serving an eight-year ban for a second offence when it was announced - Moldova became the ninth nation facing a one-year ban. The others are Kazakhstan (10 positives), Russia (9), Belarus (7), Azerbaijan (5), Turkey (3), Armenia (3), Ukraine (3) and China (3).

There could yet be more. "We do not have an exact timeline on when these [further retest] results will be announced," said an IOC spokesman.

If nations are banned whenever a third positive is "closed" by the IOC, one might begin their exile in the last week of September and another in the first week of November. That would allow one to compete in the 2017 IWF World Championships and the other to miss the competition, to be staged in Penang, Malaysia, from October 17 to 25. That hardly seems fair or consistent.

The IWF should start all one-year bans on the same day, preferably January 1, to keep all those cheats out of the World Championships. For those who have the worst record, the executive board should consider stronger sanctions.

Two weeks ago a respected columnist on an American website wrote that "in the wings critics are ready to demand that the sport is thrown out of the Games because of its doping record".

The stand against Russia and Bulgaria, both banned from Rio 2016, was admirable. Further hard-line sanctions should follow. The IWF owes it to Ele Opeloge and all the other victims of the serial cheats.