Sarah Fischer took gold at the European Weightlifting Championships ©Getty Images

When athletes from Greece, Belgium and Austria won medals last Friday, the penultimate day of the European Weightlifting Championships, they collectively helped to set a record that will be welcomed by everybody working to clean up a sport that has for so long been tainted by doping.

The European Weightlifting Federation is celebrating half a century of existence this year and never in all that time – nor in the 70-plus years of continental championships before the EWF was formed – have so many nations had athletes on the podium at the continent’s flagship event.

The final figure in Batumi, Georgia for the main medals, won on total, was 19.

Italy won two golds, Britain’s women had their best results in European Championships history, Latvia and Belgium did well.

In amongst the smaller medals, awarded for snatch and clean and jerk, was Israel – its first women's medal in a major championships.

And conspicuous by their absence from the medals table were Azerbaijan and Moldova, two of the seven European nations who were banned for a year, alongside China and Kazakhstan from Asia, in 2017 for multiple doping offences at the Olympic Games.

“This is fantastic, it’s reality, it’s what weightlifting looks like when systematic doping stops,” said the President of one European national federation.

“We all have a chance now.”

It is not just in Europe: there has been a wide spread of medals at other international championships in the past couple of years, since the crackdown on doping has taken effect.

The only two International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Championships this century to have featured more than 20 nations in the medals table were last year and the year before.

The spread of medals, and the presence on the podium of nations who never thought they could get there, is is the result of the IWF’s new anti-doping policy, its stricter punishments of national federations and individuals, and its Olympic qualifying programme.

Any lifter who wants to qualify for Tokyo 2020 has no chance of doping without being caught, at least during the 18-month qualifying period for Tokyo 2020, because they must compete and present themselves for testing so often.

The Asian, Pan-American and African Championships are being held in the next two weeks and a wide spread of medals is expected all around.

Ursula Garza Papandrea, President of USA Weightlifting and a vice-president of the IWF executive board, believes the sport is about to enter a new era.

“The increasing number of countries winning medals in the last year speaks to the effect of the new and stronger anti-doping policies,” Papandrea told insidethegames.

“The immediate effect has been this variety of countries on the medal stand.

“This is not an anomaly but a harbinger of what the future of weightlifting will look like.

Britain's Zoe Smith won bronze in Batumi ©Getty Images
Britain's Zoe Smith won bronze in Batumi ©Getty Images

“The effects are multi-faceted as these medallists return home and raise the profile of weightlifting in their countries, and receive more support from their National Olympic Committees, thereby growing the pool and potential within their own countries.

“Additionally, it supports the initiative of clean sports with our member federations which will, in time, repair the damage to the reputation of our sport.

“We are at the door of a new era in weightlifting, with fair play and true international inclusivity at the forefront.”

The IWF’s new policies helped to persuade the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to guarantee weightlifting a place on the Olympic Games schedule from 2024 onwards, conditional on its handing over of all anti-doping activities to the Independent Testing Agency.

“You only have to look at the numbers to see what’s happening,” said Oren Shai, chairman of the Israel Weightlifting Federation, who was surprised to see Nicole Rubanovich win a snatch bronze at 71kg last week.

Rubanovich’s performance and the overall results have filled Shai with hope.

“I’m very happy about the results because it shows that there is a future for us, a chance to win medals,” he said.

“You are seeing athletes from the dominant nations in B Groups – even Russia.

“We’re not doing extraordinary numbers, but the performance level is coming down.

“Our idols in Europe, our role models, are Spain and Italy.”

The Israel Weightlifting Federation is holding coaching seminars for the CrossFit community and for other sports – “just like they do in Italy” – and investing the revenue in building a national training centre.

Shai is hopeful Israel can qualify one lifter for Tokyo 2020 and is far more optimistic about his nation’s chances than he was in the past.

The seven European nations suspended last year were Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.

Back in 2015 they filled the top six places at the European Championships and Belarus finished eighth.

The Russians, who are working hard to change the culture of the sport at home, topped the medals table in Batumi, and Belarus, Armenia and Turkey all did well – but Ukraine did not win a medal until the last day, and Moldova and Azerbaijan won nothing.

Boyanka Kostova, who won 58kg gold at the 2015 European and World Championships with her two career-best performances, was the biggest name in Azerbaijan’s original entries in Batumi.

But Kostova, 25, who was suspended in 2016 when she came up positive in the retests of samples from the London 2012 Olympic Games, did not compete – nor did any other women from Azerbaijan.

Perhaps she was injured, perhaps she was one of the 41 athletes barred for not keeping their whereabouts information up to date, or perhaps she is just not good enough: her totals at a national competition last November and at the Qatar Cup in December were 80kg below her 2015 level.

Maybe that is what a new era looks like.