Brian Oliver

Seven sessions so far and three have been all-time greats. The roll-call of stars at the Tokyo International Forum, venue for weightlifting at these Olympic Games, is a long one and we are only halfway through the schedule. 

Hidilyn Diaz, Maude Charron, Shi Zhiyong, Chen Lijun, Kuo Hsing-chun, Giorgia Bordignon, Luis Javier Mosquera, Julio Mayora, Mirko Zanni, Rahmat Erwin Abdullah, Mikiko Andoh… and many more. Not just the 21 medallists but all those who have added so much to the spectacle with career-bests and near misses, such as Talha Talib of Pakistan, Karem ben Hnia of Tunisia and Sarah Davies of Britain.

The technical officials have played their part too, despite what their social media critics might say. If there have been questionable decisions, which have added to the drama, they have been reviewed and corrected, which has added even more.

This has been a fast-paced, well-presented, dramatic, emotional, colourful, often unpredictable and exciting show, a show that finishes every day with a medal presentation. In volleyball, they play for 15 days before they have a medal ceremony. 

The athletes have done all they can to show the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that weightlifting is worth its place on the Olympic Games programme. But it might not be enough because politics has come back into play.

Shi Zhiyong won the gold medal in the 73 kilogram category at Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images
Shi Zhiyong won the gold medal in the 73 kilogram category at Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images

The Executive Board of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) had some important decisions to make at a meeting in Tokyo and, for those unwelcome in Japan, online. The IWF cannot be relied upon to make the right ones, and whatever it decided it is unlikely to tell anybody.

It may trumpet the arrival of a new chief executive, but as for decisions that will have a profound impact on weightlifting’s future as an Olympic sport, don’t hold your breath. It has made plenty of decisions recently and said nothing.

For those who have been enjoying the spectacle in Tokyo, it is, sadly, time for a reality check. The IOC has repeatedly warned the IWF over the past nine months that its future is under threat. Corruption scandals rooted in doping, doping itself, and hopeless governance have led to many harsh words from Lausanne. The IOC spoke out in February this year after the IWF made the disastrous decision to weaken its anti-doping rules without consulting the IOC or its own Independent Anti-Doping Commission.

It said: "The situation of the IWF is becoming increasingly serious, and the IOC Executive Board is extremely concerned, particularly by the lack of significant changes to the culture and leadership of the IWF."

It was irked by the "large number of candidates for the upcoming elections (subsequently postponed) that have been involved in the IWF leadership over the recent period."

Fourteen IWF Board members were among the election candidates, including eight from nations that were banned or unable to send full teams to Tokyo because of multiple doping violations. Thailand and Romania are among the banned nations and their representatives on the Board - Romania’s Nicu Vlad "stepped aside" after being charged with a serious doping offence - will not be in Tokyo.

In the first week of July, a few days after the IWF failed to adopt a new Constitution at a Congress called for that specific purpose, things took a turn for the worse. "The IOC reserves all rights concerning its relations with the IWF in the future, including the place of weightlifting on the programme of the Olympic Games Paris 2024 and future Olympic Games," it said.

Maxim Agapitov had his Tokyo 2020 accreditation reinstated by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) withdrew it ©Maxim Agapitov
Maxim Agapitov had his Tokyo 2020 accreditation reinstated by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) withdrew it ©Maxim Agapitov

A week or so later, the IOC said nothing (just like the IWF), but it withdrew the accreditations of five Board members in the IWF delegation. One of them, the Russian Maxim Agapitov, got his accreditation back with a legal challenge, arguing he had helped to get rid of Tamás Aján, the Hungarian who had led the IWF through decades of corruption. He had the support of Richard McLaren, author of the corruption report, and has reformed weightlifting in Russia.

The other four were Mahmoud Mahgoub of Egypt, whose federation is banned from Tokyo for doping, Zhanat Tussupbekov of Kazakhstan, which had four gold medallists disqualified at London 2012, Jose Quinones of Peru, who is nearing the end of a suspension imposed by his own National Olympic Committee, and Shakrillo Makhmudov of Uzbekistan, which, like Kazakhstan, has a reduced athlete quota in Tokyo because of doping.

Quinones says he will take no part in today’s meeting. He and Makhmudov wrote to the Board offering to resign, but has the Board accepted their resignations?

The British doctor Mike Irani, the IWF’s Interim President who does as he is told by other Board members and does not have the support of his own national federation, would not say. Even when Irani does speak on behalf of the IWF it is hard to take his comments seriously. There was the IWF statement on June 24, after an investigation by the International Testing Agency (ITA) led to charges being laid against Vlad, Hasan Akkus of Turkey, and Aján.

Irani was duly "appalled" and a statement said the IWF was "ready to take immediate action". Is one month and six days immediate enough? The IWF has taken no action. Irani did announce a new website, though.

Then there was the statement on June 30, after the Constitutional Congress ended in stalemate because more than 50 members of the IWF voted against the new Constitution – a prerequisite for a continued Olympic presence, according to the IOC.

"The Congress has been adjourned and will reconvene so as to be completed before the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games," Irani said.

His masters on the Board kiboshed that, delayed it until the last week of August, after the Olympic Games, and kept the decision secret for a couple of weeks. They also decided the "continuation" of that Congress should be in-person, in Doha, Qatar, whereas the original was virtual. This means, inevitably, that some nations from Oceania cannot attend because of COVID. Like Britain, they have written to ask for a rethink.

The Philippines' Hidilyn Diaz was one of the stars of the weightlifting events at Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images
The Philippines' Hidilyn Diaz was one of the stars of the weightlifting events at Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images

Do not be surprised if the second part of the Congress is virtual, but plenty of those who virtually attend will actually be at the Ritz Carlton in Doha, all expenses paid by the IWF. It could happen.

While all those heroic weightlifters have been training and making and missing their lifts in Tokyo, talk has been rife, including Reformers and the Old Guard.

The IWF’s Reform and Governance Commission, which drew up the new Constitution but got disbanded before the vote, was re-engaged (no announcement, of course).

The reformers, represented by Finland, Germany and the United States, agreed a number of compromises with the Old Guard (Iraq, Russia, Australia).

Sticking points concerning historic doping bans, age limits, term limits and "definition of a corporation" (don’t ask) became less sticky, which would clear the way for certain Board members to keep their seats. In exchange, the Old Guard said yes to more athlete representation, including votes at Congress and more females on the Board.

The problem with all of this is that nobody has asked the IOC if the proposed new version of the Constitution meets with their approval. One of the IOC’s messages was - do not weaken the eligibility criteria for Board members in your new rules. It could not have been clearer in its messages and actions - the IOC does not trust the current IWF Board and wants new faces running the sport.

Despite being warned otherwise, eligibility criteria have been weakened. The IOC is far from blameless in all this, having feted Aján as a member and honorary member for 20 years. After earlier doping scandals at Seoul 1988 and Sydney 2000, it was clear how bad things were. There was further evidence when the IOC caught 34 medallists and nearly as many others who had been cheating - but had not been caught by the IWF - when it reanalysed stored samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.

Yet the IOC, much like the IWF Board, has been reactive rather than proactive.

But does it matter? Agapitov served a doping ban in the 1990s but surely has nothing to fear after winning his accreditation battle; besides, you cannot punish somebody for a 27-year-old offence when they have already served a suspension. And his experience of reforming the governance and culture of weightlifting in Russia could be invaluable as other nations follow suit.

Sam Coffa of Australia will be able to stand at the age of 85. It is far from ideal, but for the second Olympic Games running, he is clearly doing a good job as technical delegate.

Quinones, who is also affected by the eligibility changes, may or may not stay. If he does, he could teach other Board members an awful lot about how to promote the sport. He is President of the Pan American Federation, whose website, and its innovative ideas during lockdown, has made other continental federations, and especially Asia, look hopelessly inadequate.

If compromise is the only way to secure the votes for a new Constitution, so be it. But given all those comments in recent months, it is hard to see the IOC accepting the changes.

The one that will be hardest to push through is the rule that will allow individuals to stand for election without the support of their own federation provided they gain a certain level of backing from other members. Think that one through: who, exactly, would these candidates be representing, other than themselves? Certainly not the athletes, not the real heroes of Tokyo 2020.

All of which means weightlifting may well not be at Paris 2024. After Italy won two medals this week and Canada won a gold, Antonio Urso hailed "a new era for weightlifting".

Urso resigned from the IWF Board last October because of its "crazy and destructive behaviour". He said this week: "Weightlifting without doping is so interesting. This is the first Olympic Games since  Tamás Aján went and everything is completely different."

Italy, China and others have considerable clout on the IOC Board, which will meet soon after Tokyo 2020 has finished, but there is still a lot of persuading to be done, and it could be a lost cause.

As an American sports lawyer said in a New York Times report on weightlifting’s woes this week, "It’s always the athletes who get shafted while the people behind the scenes walk away."