Russia Fights For Leadership of IWF: an interview with Maxim Agapitov

Elections will show who will lead the fight for the purity and fairness in world weightlifting.

The presidential elections of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), one of the most problematic of sports structures, will be held in Uzbekistan on December 19-20, 2021.

The organisation is currently going through a deep management crisis, and is facing the consequences of a major doping scandal. The former president of the organisation, Tamas Ajan, headed the federation since 2000, leaving the post in April 2020 following allegations of corruption and cases of concealment of doping.

It was reported that during his presidency more than 60 positive doping samples of athletes from 18 countries at international competitions were concealed.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organisation was without a president for a long time, constantly postponing the new elections.

More than 11 countries have nominated candidates for the post of head of the IWF. In the context of the IOC sanctions against the Russian Olympic team, the nomination of Maxim Agapitov, the head of the Russian Weightlifting Federation (RFWF), came as a surprise to many. The candidate himself is confident that Russia's anti-doping experience can be extremely useful in the situation of the IWF crisis.

Russia and doping are interconnected concepts for many in the world. In this context, it is quite brave to claim the presidency of an international federation, don't you think?

"Russia is highlighted in the context of doping in the most unfavourable light. I am not defending the mistakes and decisions that led to the crisis in Russian sports. I can only talk about weightlifting.

"The RFWF athletes did not participate in the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro – this was the result of international sanctions. In 2016, I headed the Russian federation, which was in a state of political and financial bankruptcy. Of course, I was looking for reasons for the failure of the anti-doping policy.

"When the retests of the 2008 and 2012 Olympics were made, Russia brought 10 positive samples. But we weren't the only ones who got into this situation. Another half dozen countries and fifty athletes have failed in doping. I realised that the problem is becoming massive, that it is a global failure. Therefore, in 2017 we started internal reforms that allowed us to strengthen our anti-doping system. Now the crisis is over, there is a positive result. Unfortunately, not everyone followed our example, although the causes of the crisis were absolutely identical. I am convinced that the federations have become hostages of the system created by the IWF leadership. And Russia was definitely not the cause of the crisis in world weightlifting. The proof of this is Richard McLaren’s report, he headed the anti-corruption investigation at the IWF.

"McLaren revealed the scale of the problem: the international federation is mired in corruption, manipulation of doping and fraud. I want to emphasise that by solving these problems in our country, we have achieved success.

"For more than five years, the RFWF athletes have not produced positive tests at international competitions. The rights of Russian weightlifters to perform at the international level have been fully restored. Therefore, the RFWF is the one federation that has demonstrated the ability to identify the causes of the crisis, to act boldly, and to really solve the problems. Only one who has passed such a path knows what to do."

Indeed, weightlifting is in deep crisis around the world. Russia has made some progress in the fight against doping, but has not fully regained the trust of the world sports community. Isn't it too early to talk now about the flagship positions in the fight against doping around the world?

"You know, the Russians have a saying: 'for one beaten, two unbeaten!' We were really beaten by the doping crisis, but now have a realistic program of action. Therefore, the RFWF quite reasonably claims leadership in world weightlifting.

"Is it too bold? Athletes have courage, and the leaders of weightlifting even more so. Our sport in Russia has deep historical roots, great public and state support. In addition, we should not underestimate the role of the USSR, and then Russia, in the development of the sport in the world. Our experience and culture of weightlifting is fundamental. We have the right and willingness to share experience, to offer ideas and to develop recommendations, setting an example of positive change. I am convinced that weightlifting is a unique sport, self-developing, beautiful, engaging and spectacular. We need to remove what prevents it to develop - to stop corruption, fraud and manipulation with doping on a global scale. Then weightlifting can and will thrive."

The world anti-doping system has been in place for decades and there are many players in it who must ensure the purity of the competition and the result. Is it possible that corruption in the IWF is just the tip of the doping movement?

"The IWF has exclusive anti-doping authority in weightlifting. For many years they have had the power to plan and initiate tests, investigate and impose sanctions. It turns out that the international organisation has done its job so abysmally that weightlifting is mired in a doping scandal.

"Post-Olympic retests showed the scale of the problem. It is impossible to imagine what a similar retest of samples from the 2009-2015 World Championships would have yielded. Today, all the evidence points to a systemic failure at the IWF, not that some rogue country is cheating the world.

"However, the IWF managed to shift the blame for the doping crisis onto the national federations. According to the anti-doping rules, 'the national federation is responsible for its athletes, regardless of its fault'. It has no authority, but it must be responsible. Of course, I do not exclude the partial fault of the national federations in what happened. But I can definitely say that there are countries which have nothing to do with the scandal. After all, their main duty is to make athletes available for testing, to help identify violators, and the rest is up to the IWF."

National federations are a significant element of the anti-doping system. They are supposed to help doping officers identify 'dirty' athletes, but do they always do it? Do federations have the opportunity to hide athletes from the close attention of the IWF?

"National federations should work in partnership with the IWF. Such cooperation, if it is effective, certainly leads to positive doping samples, to the detection of offenders. There is a paradox. If 'dirty' athletes are found, the federation is obliged to pay fines, which can total up to half a million dollars. Until these financial obligations are closed, 'clean' athletes lose the right to compete. Therefore, many federations are really scared of doping control and demotivated to do anti-doping work.

"Fearing pressure, loss of reputation and sponsorship, federations are forced to hide their 'dirty' athletes and somehow resolve issues informally. After all, the good faith fulfillment of all the requirements of WADA and the IWF by the federation will certainly be followed by fines. This paradox has largely led to the doping collapse in weightlifting. It can be said that the IWF has thus imposed a corrupt game on the federations. Although the exclusive anti-doping powers belong to the IWF."

Weightlifting is now on the verge of being excluded from the 2024 Olympics program. For fans to see weightlifting, the IWF needs to meet a number of IOC conditions and find a way out of the doping crisis. Where do you plan to start?

"The IWF needs deep reform, as does its anti-doping program. In fact, a managed system of doping has already been created in the world. If we want to fight this, we must change the rules: motivate national federations and, of course, clean countries not to use doping.

"The IWF must be completely renewed – the work must be entrusted to professionals who will be able to motivate the national federations and fight against doping consistently. The IOC must have an understanding that weightlifting will not discredit the Olympic movement, but will further emphasise the unifying role of sport. In addition, national federations should be given additional authority in the fight against doping. Perhaps even the right to initiate testing of their own athletes.

"In general, we propose not to punish national organisations for doping violations of athletes out of competition. Athletes easily get hooked on doping when they are preparing to compete, so they can build up their strength and prepare hard. They must be stopped before they harm the national team and the 'clean' athletes. This can only be done by the national federation in partnership with the IWF.

"Fines for 'dirty' athletes at international competitions should be increased. Then federations would be even more motivated to weed out doping athletes before big sporting events. Nevertheless, whatever the situation, the fault of the federation in the failure of the anti-doping program must be proven. If we notice 5-6 positive doping samples for a country in a year, it is necessary to investigate and then impose sanctions. The decision of the sanctions commission should be advisory in nature and subject to approval by the IWF Executive Committee."

Your opponents will probably say that the IWF anti-doping program is balanced. There are rules, controls and requirements - everything to combat doping. The crisis in weightlifting was caused by people who had the ability to control the system in their hands. How can we make the IWF more resistant to the doping virus?

"Anti-doping work must be more transparent. This should be striven for. Information on the athletes tested, the dates of the samples and the location, and even who carried out the tests, should be available in the form of a quarterly report on the IWF website. Professionals will understand not only the number of tests, but also their quality. Coaches and federations will understand that they test not only individual athletes, but also competitors. This will help create a level playing field and an understanding that everyone works under the same rules and under control.

"Until this is done, muddy water is created and fish are caught in it. Transparency imposes responsibility not only on the managers of federations, athletes, coaches, but also on the officers who conduct the tests. It's annoying. Therefore, the IWF needs to develop the informativeness and transparency of anti-doping work. All this will create the right background for the competition, and the probability of a 'dirty' athlete is reduced."

Why do you consider the upcoming IWF presidential election a key event in the fight against doping?

"Today it is important for us to change the culture of weightlifting. It is determined by the leaders of national federations who vote in the IWF presidential elections for a certain course of development. For many years they chose the wrong course, which led our sport into a doping impasse.

"Richard McLaren's report now gives an understanding of who and what we need to fight. But the participants in the corrupt system will not abandon attempts to integrate into the new IWF structure, which is absolutely unacceptable and dangerous. And they find leverage on the federation by destroying their opponents.

"In my opinion, world weightlifting is at the moment of making a historic decision: to become a clean sport, forever abandoning doping and corruption, or to return to the dark times, where a 'clean' athlete has no chance of success.

"National federations have demonstrated the ability to make strong and independent decisions. I hope they will be able to fight for clean sport in the future. We all need an unambiguous signal from the IWF about the advent of the era of clean sports in order to pass the 2024 Olympics in a decent and fair fight."

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Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright is publishing editor and Brussels correspondent of EU Today.

An experienced journalist and author, he specialises in environment, energy, and defence.

He also has more than 10 years experience of working as a staff member in the EU institutions, working with political groups and MEPs in various policy areas.

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