What a Cleaner World Championship Means for Weightlifting

Nations with doping cultures must continue to be heavily sanctioned if the sport is to continue to grow.

The 2017 Weightlifting World Championships in Los Angeles are now history, and they provided a unique opportunity to ponder the future of the weightlifting sport. Typically, the first Worlds after an Olympic Games are a bit of a letdown for the fans. Some of the Olympic medalists will choose to retire, and other top-tier competitors take it easy for the season after the Games. On the positive side, this gives the “B Team” athletes a chance to show the national coaches what they can do on a big stage.

The 2017 Weightlifting World Championships in Los Angeles are now history, and they provided a unique opportunity to ponder the future of the weightlifting sport. Typically, the first Worlds after an Olympic Games are a bit of a letdown for the fans. Some of the Olympic medalists will choose to retire, and other top-tier competitors take it easy for the season after the Games. On the positive side, this gives the “B Team” athletes a chance to show the national coaches what they can do on a big stage. On the other hand, both the overall quality and quantity of the meet may sag a bit, as entries are much lower.

2017’s Worlds were more peculiar than even most post-Olympic years. Nearly a dozen of the best countries were absent: Russia, China, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, Moldova, and Bulgaria were all suspended by the IWF for doping infractions. North Korea decided to boycott. Not surprisingly, this had a dramatic effect on the final results, as many countries took advantage of the situation and won medals they would not normally have been in the running for.

The absences also made for some very tight final standings. For example, in one category the nine medals (gold, silver, and bronze each for the snatch, clean and jerk, and total) were won by lifters from eight different countries. That has to have been some sort of record.

Cheaters and Communists Hate Los Angeles

History has a habit of repeating itself. The 1984 Olympics, also in Los Angeles, were boycotted by the entire Eastern Bloc (read: communist) countries, save China and Romania. Most of these countries were elite powers in the sport, so many lifters from Western countries ended up with medals they would not normally have been in contention for.

The difference between 1984 and 2017 is that the absence of the power nations was not voluntary. Due to enhanced drug detection techniques that were retroactively applied to samples declared “clean” from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, a large number of positives were revealed. This resulted not only in the redistribution of the hardware from those Games but suspensions as well.

The suspensions issued by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) were unusually severe. Rather than individual lifters being suspended, the whole country is barred from competition if three or more offenses are committed by the same nation.

The IWF Gets Serious

This is a major step forward in the battle against drugs in sport. In the past, a country like the USSR or Bulgaria might have a world champion who tested positive and was subsequently suspended. But the depth of those teams was so great that the suspension had precisely zero effect on the fight against doping, or on the overall results. If Ivan was suspended, they could just send Boris in his place, and he was also good enough to win the gold. If Boris got caught, Alexei could pick up the flag.

Critically, we now know for certain that it was the national sporting bodies in these nations who sanctioned, researched, and financed well-established doping programs.

This has not been the case with the less dominant nations, like those in most of the Western world. We seldom had more than one or two athletes who might have had a chance at a medal on the world stage, so we could not afford to have them suspended. As a result, intensive testing was instituted, our athletes lifted clean, and were clobbered by those who were not. If someone from the dirty nations was caught, it did nothing to level the playing field. And so it went for years.

The idea to suspend the offending national federations has been around for a while. The going assumption at the time was that the dopers were all acting on their own, so the problem with sweeping suspensions was that the clean lifters of that nation would be unfairly punished. The solution was to lift the suspension, but only after the offending federation paid a substantial fine, with the hope that this would force them to police their lifters better.

This strategy would have been effective for the poorer national federations (like the USA, which devotes precious little funding for weightlifting), but had absolutely no impact on the nations which not only provided ample funding for their teams, but also sponsored the doping program. They simply paid the fines and proceeded with business as usual. Their government funders or private contributors simply wrote a check, the team substituted another drugged lifter, and the national suspension was avoided.

But now the stakes are higher. The International Olympic Committee has placed the IWF on notice, thinning the available slots for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, and hinting that they will be left out of the 2024 Games entirely if they don’t clean up their sport. The IWF has responded by going after the nations themselves, not just individual lifters. Now, those countries with doping cultures have to be having second thoughts. If Ivan is caught now, Boris, Alexei, Viktor, and all the others can forget about Worlds or the Olympics as well. State-run programs will have to take a closer look at their return on investment if after spending oodles on a team, it then becomes ineligible to compete where it counts most. We can only hope that these draconian new rules will have their desired effect.

A Cleaner Future Ahead for Weightlifting?

The unintended consequence is a difficult and familiar “Catch-22” position. Now that testing will be even more intensive, the inevitable result, at least in the short term, will be more positive tests. Not everyone will be scared straight by the new testing regime, and a few will always try to beat the system. New drugs that cannot be detected are being researched all the time.

Whenever someone is caught, the critics will claim that the system has failed. The expect that testing alone will ensure clean lifting. In the past, this criticism would cause the authorities to back off to avoid negative press, but the critics would then point to the lack of positives and say that there wasn’t sufficient testing, or that evidence was being suppressed. The sport suffers both ways.

Currently, the “three strikes” rule provides for a one-year suspension from all international competitions, both to enter or to host. It would probably be useful to increase the suspension period for repeat offenders since, for some countries, a one-year hiatus might not be too damaging. When it gets to two or four years, even the worst offenders would be forced to rethink their values.

Hopefully, this new sanctioning of whole federations will start to break down the long-established drug cultures in many of these federations. In the meantime, the public will have to realize that in such a climate, more positives will be a good sign in the early stages, not a bad one. The IWF, for its part, needs to be cautious of being too authoritarian. Suspensions should be lifted if the country in question shows genuine progress in anti-doping. They should also be encouraged to work toward cleaning up their act in positive ways, not just negative ones.

What a Cleaner Championship Looks Like

Speculation aside, the conspicuous absence of dopers threw the spotlight on many Western lifters. The USA’s eight women took second place in the team standings, behind Thailand. The medal count was opened by Maude Charron, who took silver in the snatch with 102kg. She then jerked 122kg to total 224 and finish fifth overall. Mattie Rogers took all three bronze medals in the 69s, and was only 5kg off of the top step. Best of all for the hometown crowd was Sarah Robles imperious six-for-six performance to take gold in the 90+ category, granting the USA its first world or Olympic title since Tara Nott at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Spain’s Lydia Valentin has three Olympic medals (two awarded after redistributions), and finally added a world title to her collection. Her six-for-six day gave her a massive 18kg lead over second.

On the men’s side, the USA finished seventh in team points. Harrison Maurus had a great day, snatching 155kg and jerking 193 for a new American and Youth World Record. His 348kg total earned him a bronze in the 77s. Much was expected of CJ Cummings in the 69s, and he got off to a good start, going three-for-three in the snatch to finish at 141kg, a new Youth, Junior, and Senior American Record. However, his switch to a full squat jerk resulted in one miss at 177kg and two at 178, leaving what would have been a bronze medal on the table.

Canada’s Boady Santavy, I wrote about him in Lessons from Four Generations of Weightlifters, delivered on his father and coach Dalas’s promise of big (and heavy) things, snatching 165kg and jerking 201 to take sixth place in the 94s. Along the way, he set Commonwealth Junior as well as Canadian Junior and Senior Records.

Perhaps the highlight of the week occurred in the 105+ category, where Georgia’s Lasha Tlakhadze easily snatched 220kg for an all-time World Record. The lift was so smooth that everyone was left wondering how much more he could do. Will he be the first to snatch 500lb? Time will tell.

A Cleaner Sport Will Grow

With the age of drug-induced dominance perhaps behind us, weightlifting is showing signs of becoming a true world sport, the barbell rises as I’ve said before. If the doping problem can be contained, it will only improve this trend. I say contained, because I do not think it is possible to eliminate entirely from sport. But with the stiffer sanctions now in place, it will hopefully be brought down to a level satisfactory to fans, athletes, and governing bodies alike.

The 2017 Worlds were an interesting look into what might be weightlifting’s future. We can see an increased diffusion of the sport’s popularity in the world, as many more countries got to mount the podium than was possible in the past. This will do as much for the sport’s popularity as anything else we might try. CrossFit rescued weightlifting from the doldrums in the opening years of the 21st century; let’s have an effective anti-doping regime to take us even higher in the coming years.

History may have sung a very familiar tune at the 2017 Worlds as we heard in the 1984 Olympics: same city, similar nations missing. Let us hope our recent drug-plagued history is one we can manage to not repeat.

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