Brian Oliver

There has been a lot of angry talk recently from "clean" weightlifters who feel they were cheated out of a fair chance during decades of doping by other countries.

Cheryl Haworth, a super-heavyweight bronze medallist for the United States at Sydney 2000, was not alone in voicing her outrage about the lack of a level playing field throughout a lifting career made so much more difficult because of doping by rivals.

But take a look at the current Olympic qualifying lists, and there is cause for optimism in a number of nations that have never won an Olympic weightlifting medal.

At Tokyo 2020, Italy and the US will be hoping for their best results since Los Angeles 1984 - the year when Italy last had a lifter on the podium, and the US last had a male medallist.

Chile, Ecuador and Dominican Republic are all contenders despite never having won a weightlifting medal at the Olympic Games.

Nowhere is the situation more revealing than in the most high-profile event on the schedule, the men’s super-heavyweights.

Three other nations that have never won an Olympic weightlifting medal, and one that has never been on the podium in any sport, are in with a chance.

Their own efforts have put them in contention but they are also being helped by the fact that the outstanding favourite, Georgia's Lasha Talakhadze, will scare off some rivals, and most of all by punishments imposed on the nations with the worst doping records.

It will be a surprise if more than three of the current top 10 in the qualifying rankings compete in the Tokyo 2020 super-heavyweights.

Some will drop down to 109 kilograms anyway, and China has better options in lighter weight classes, but three of the best are likely absentees as a direct result of their Federation being penalised by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) for multiple doping violations.

They are from Belarus and Armenia, both restricted to one male lifter at Tokyo 2020 and both with better gold-medal prospects in other weight categories.

Brazil's Fernando Reis is set to be a real medal contender in the super-heavyweight division at Tokyo 2020 due to the doping crackdown keeping some of his main rivals away ©Getty Images
Brazil's Fernando Reis is set to be a real medal contender in the super-heavyweight division at Tokyo 2020 due to the doping crackdown keeping some of his main rivals away ©Getty Images

At Rio 2016 Fernando Reis, Brazil’s big hope, was cheered on by his noisy fans when he finished fifth.

It seemed that Reis, who will be 30 next year and who failed to make the podium at subsequent IWF World Championships, had missed his best chance of an Olympic medal.

But, because of those absences, Reis has a chance of finishing better than fifth at Tokyo 2020, even if he makes a lower total.

"Every day I wake up the first thought that comes in my mind is winning an Olympic medal," Reis said on his way home from the Buenos Aires International Open where he added to his qualifying points for Tokyo 2020.

His rivals for a place on the podium are likely to include lifters from Algeria and Syria who were 13th and 15th at Rio 2016 and who, at the 2017, 2018 and 2019 IWF World Championships have never done better than fifth and sixth place.

The Algerian Walid Bidani is due to compete at the Qatar Cup in two weeks as he continues his quest to become the first African medallist in the super-heavyweights.

Syria’s Man Asaad, sixth at this year’s IWF World Championships, is closely matched with Reis, Bidani, and with Turkmenistan’s Hojomuhammet Toychyyev.

Turkmenistan is the only one of the nations that came out of the former Soviet Union never to have a won an Olympic medal in any sport: it is on course to end that unwanted record, with medal contenders in two weight classes at Tokyo 2020.

Not once this century has anybody won a super-heavweight medal with a total below 447kg -– and none of these contenders has done better than 436kg in qualifying.

But Reis, Bidani and Saad - and Iran’s Ali Davoudi, another medal contender - all know they have a chance.

If Talakhadze is at his best, and if his main Armenian rival Gor Minasyan is watching at home on television, he could finish 40kg or more clear of his nearest challenger.

Hojomuhammet Toychyyev could win Turkmenistan's first Olympic medal in any sport at Tokyo 2020 ©YouTube
Hojomuhammet Toychyyev could win Turkmenistan's first Olympic medal in any sport at Tokyo 2020 ©YouTube

That will not worry the men who stand next to him on the podium, nor will it concern Haworth, who spoke up while Thailand and Egypt both tried, and failed, through the courts to overturn their bans from Tokyo 2020, imposed because of multiple doping offences.

"The quota system is good," Haworth said.

When some nations complained that they had cleaned up, and their young lifters were being unfairly punished, Haworth said, "Am I supposed to feel some sympathy for them? Because I don’t.

"I don’t understand where it’s written that it’s a right to compete at the Olympics.

"It is a privilege, and the pillar of the whole thing is fair play.

"If you don’t want to respect that you have to expect not to compete in the Olympics.

"The buck stops with that National Federation."

The IWF has, in theory, taken away as many as 80 possible quota places from the countries that clearly had a doping culture, though not all of them would have qualified the maximum of eight athletes.

Some might not welcome a first medal for Syria, which has had six doping violations since 2010, Saad being one of them when he was 16-years-old.

Others might say the Olympic Games is the pinnacle of the sport and the medals should go to the best athletes in the world.

If one or two of them go instead to the best athletes allowed to compete, is that so bad?

Given that a medal for Reis could have a huge impact on the growth of weightlifting in Brazil, the world’s fifth largest country, there is every reason to think that all those absences could be just what the sport needs.