Is Weightlifting Cleaning Up?

For many years, the sport of weightlifting has been fraught with instances of illegal drug use, a.k.a. doping.  Clean athletes stood on the sidelines as their drug-enhanced counterparts took home the medals and glory of championship titles.  Cynicism abounded in the United States.  No one believed that U.S. athletes could bring home medals because of athletes–and countries–who flagrantly violated anti-doping policies.

In recent years, the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) has stepped up its measures to clean up the sport:

  • In June 2017, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President, Thomas Bach, warned that weightlifting may be excluded from the 2024 Olympic Games if it did not provide a satisfactory report to the “massive doping problem” by December 2017.  IOC president Thomas Bach told reporters:  “The IWF has until December 2017 to deliver a satisfactory report to the IOC on how they will address the massive doping problem this sport is facing.”
  • The IWF subsequently implemented the IOC’s recommendations to clean up the sport, including introducing a new Anti-Doping Policy and securing WADA compliance.
  • In December 2017, the IOC acknowledged the IWF’s efforts but determined that the status remained unchanged, and that the sport’s inclusion in the 2024 Olympics was “subject to the IWF further demonstrating that it has fulfilled certain conditions.”
  • The IWF has continued to take measures beyond those recommended by the IOC, such as new bodyweight categories and a new Qualification System designed to reward nations with a history of clean weightlifting.  In addition, the IWF partnered with USA Weightlifting and USADA to provide worldwide anti-doping education to weightlifters.
  • In June 2018, the IOC again revisited the matter of inclusion in the 2024 Olympic Games and again determined that weightlifting’s inclusion was still pending review.

So, is the sport actually getting cleaner?

The 2018 IWF World Championships, held in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, November 1-10, displayed plenty of evidence that the sport is, in fact, cleaning up:

Rainbow of Representation on the Podium: The podium was not dominated by a handful of countries. Of the 30 medals contested in the Men’s sessions, 17 of these medals went to different countries.  Only five countries took home multiple medals, with only China (9 medals) taking home more than two Men’s medals.

On the women’s side, athletes from 13 different countries were represented on the podium.  Only four countries took home multiple medals, although China (10 medals) and Thailand (6 medals) each took home a large number of Women’s medals.

In comparison, only 15 countries were represented on the podium in the Men’s sessions of the 2015 World Championships, and only 9 countries were represented in the Women’s sessions.

Guangzhou, China is home to over 13,000,000 people.

China took home 19 of the 60 total contested medals, or 32% of the medals, at the 2018 World Championships.  This sounds like a disproportionate share.  However, when you consider that 25% of the world’s population lives in China, China’s medal haul does not seem out of line.

Performance of the Tbilisi Nine.   In October 2017, the IWF banned nine countries–Russia, Armenia, Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Turkey, China and Kazakhstan–from participating in international competitions for twelve months.  The countries, referred to as the Tbilisi Nine, incurred three or more positive results from the retesting of frozen samples from the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympic Games.  None of the nine participated at the 2017 World Championships in Anaheim.  All nine countries, however, participated in the 2018 World Championships in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.

In a December 11, 2018 article by insidethegames, Attila Adamfi, director general of the IWF, pointed out some interesting points of performance from the 2018 World Championships in Ashgabat:

Apart from China, the “Tbilisi nine” showed a marked drop in performance in the recent IWF World Championships in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, which is seen as an indicator that the IWF’s tougher stance on doping is working.

Adamfi called Ashgabat “a milestone event” and said, “It is interesting that more than half of the athletes from the nine did not even make the A Groups, with 64 of 122 in the B, C and D Groups.”

He said there was “a clear distinction between China and the rest” based on their doping record of only two positives since 2011, the evidence of which “suggests their recent success was not supported by doping”.

“Take out China and look at the other eight,” said Adamfi.

“Azerbaijan, all seven athletes in C or D Groups, not even one in B.

“Out of 20 in Kazakhstan’s team, 12 in B and C Groups, and only two medals in total.

“Their role was more realistic, their performance level much more equal to the others.”

Lower Posted Totals from Tbilisi Nine Athletes.  Excluding China, fourteen athletes from Tbilisi Nine countries competed in both the 2015 and 2018 World Championships.  Of these fourteen athletes, only four posted higher totals in the 2018 World Championships.  The other 10 athletes posted lower totals in 2018 than in 2015.

Of this group, the average decrease in total weight lifted for Men was 3.8%, and the average decrease in total weight lifted for Women was 5.3%.  This decrease suggests cleaner athletes with more realistic totals.

Artem Okulov secured Russia their first of two medals of the 2018 IWF World Championships. Photo Credit: Mahassen Hala Paiva @liftinglife

Fewer Medals Claimed by Tbilisi Nine Athletes.  Again excluding China, Tbilisi Nine athletes claimed 29% of the Women’s medals at the 2015 World Championships but only 10% of the medals in the 2018 World Championships.  Similarly, these countries took home 42% of the Men’s medals at the 2015 World Championships but only 23% of the Men’s medals at the 2018 World Championships.

What does this mean for youth weightlifters?

It appears that weightlifting is cleaning up!  This is encouraging for all youth lifters and their coaches.  It gives us all hope that hard work will pay off.  Do your part to keep the sport clean by familiarizing yourself with the material on the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency website and checking all of your supplements–including protein powders and vitamins–for banned substances.

Cover Photo Credit: Ryan Paiva @liftinglife

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