While the scourge of doping has delivered yet another blow to weightlifting’s tarnished reputation at the Rio Olympics, one of the sport’s most experienced coaches and administrators remains hopeful of a bright, clean future.
Paul Coffa, the general secretary of the Oceania Weightlifting Federation, who has been involved in the sport for more than half a century, said catching and banning drugs cheats before Rio was “a big break for weightlifting”.
Bulgaria’s weightlifters could not compete in Rio after the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) banned the country’s athletes following a high number of doping cases.
Russia were also absent for “bringing weightlifting into disrepute”.
Six 2012 champions were excluded from Rio because of doping, including four from Kazakhstan and one from Poland. Two Poles were among the four weightlifting positives announced in the past 10 days. Of the 29 positives announced from reanalysis of 2008 and 2012 samples, 26 were from the pre-1989 Eastern Bloc.
In 2015, the IWF also banned weightlifters from Brazil, China, Egypt, Colombia, Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Mexico, Korea, Seychelles, Taiwan, Tunisia and Turkey while athletes from countries such as Argentina, Iran, Chile and Iceland were also suspended.
Despite the problems, Coffa said the sport was heading in the right direction.
“Weightlifting is a beautiful sport,” the 74-year-old told Reuters. “If you take drugs away it would be sensational, the balance of medals would go to so many different countries, not the way it is at the moment. I believe that will happen.”
TEARS AND DIVERSITY
There were signs of it happening already in Rio.
The number of countries winning medals was 22, only one fewer than the all-time record set in 2000, the year when women’s contests were added to the Olympic programme.
The diversity of the sport was on full display for large, noisy and appreciative crowds at the 6,000-capacity arena during an entertaining and incident-filled 10 days of competition.
There was an Arab woman on the podium, a champion from Uzbekistan, a medal for Kyrgyzstan, a vegan competing for the United States and a lifter from Kiribati trying to raise awareness of global warming by dancing on and off stage.
A Colombian cried for five minutes after winning gold, Egypt won their first men’s medal since 1948, the United States their first medal in the sport since 2000.
And in the final contest of the Games, a 145kg super-heavyweight from Turkmenistan was reduced to tears after three failures, and security personnel were called to the arena when Iranian coaches reacted angrily to a judges decision.
Despite its doping problems, weightlifting is growing in popularity.
“Our membership numbers have risen from 11,000 to 26,000 between the last Olympics and these Games,” said Phil Andrews, chief executive of USA Weightlifting, who predicted the bronze medal won by American Sarah Robles would be a boost back home.
“Our medal will help to promote the sport.”
Coffa said he believed there will be tougher sanctions from the IWF in future and that the threat of being caught through retrospective testing would be another deterrent.
Five Olympic champions from Kazakhstan will lose their 2008 and 2012 medals due to retests.
Coffa pointed the finger at pre-1989 Eastern Bloc countries for many of the sport’s problems earlier in the week.
His comments have prompted a furious response from Bulgaria.
“It is an insult to all those athletes from the region who have won medals at major championships,” Bulgaria coach Ivan Ivanov told Reuters.
Bulgaria’s weightlifting federation president, Nedelcho Kolev, said: “It’s not correct to associate doping with certain regions.”
The IWF’s legal counsel, Dr Magdolna Trombitas, told Reuters outlined why Bulgarian weightlifting appeared to be in the crosshairs.
“We are happy to provide some statistics which would help Bulgaria to understand that the source of their problem is not the effective anti-doping program of the IWF but the use of prohibited substances,” Trombitas said.
“Since the first doping controls in 1976, the total of doped Bulgarian weightlifters is 59.
“The number of tests per continent is totally in line with the number of registered athletes in the international registered testing pool.”
There have been 50 Kazakhstan positives since their National Olympic Committee was recognised in 1993, said Trombitas.
By comparison, Oceania has had six positives since 2000.
Coffa said he was also onboard with an IWF women’s commission recommendation to scrap the existing weight categories and change them by 1kg or so.
That would effectively allow the sport to start again with a clean slate.
The change could happen when a new women’s weight category is introduced in the near future to even up the sport at eight categories each, rather than the current 8-7.
“The IWF might go for that,” said Coffa. “I would like to see it.”