21st December 2018

Canada’s first Olympic weightlifting gold – six years after London 2012

On 3 December, Canadian weightlifter Christine Girard stepped onto the podium to receive Canada’s first Olympic weightlifting Gold. It had taken her a lifetime of dedication, personal sacrifice and training to get to this point. However the ceremony didn’t take place in an Olympic Stadium, but at a special event in Ottawa, Canada. On 3 December 2018, Girard was awarded her London 2012 Gold Medal and her Beijing 2008 Bronze, after initially receiving Bronze in London and finishing fourth in Beijing. 

Girard was upgraded after two of her London 2012 and one of her Beijing 2008 competitors were disqualified for doping. Her journey to becoming an Olympic medalist had taken an extra ten years after Beijing 2008. As outlined in her recently released book, De la Défaite à la Victoire (From Defeat to Victory), she had paid a heavy price for the denial of that first medal, which had led to one of the toughest periods of her life. 

“It is very hard to describe how I feel”, she told the Toronto Star after winning Bronze in the Summer of 2012. “Four years ago in Beijing I came fourth, and since then I have spent the past fours years training through injuries and various changes in my life to get to this moment. All I have been thinking about is getting on the podium. Now I have reached it, it feels good. I should say my wedding comes close, but this is completely different.”

Girard’s story is a microcosm of how reverberations from the Russian doping scandal have affected clean athletes. The Sports Integrity Initiative spoke to her at UEFA’s Anti-Doping Symposium in November.

OTTAWA, ON – DECEMBER 03: Christine Girard receive her Olympic gold and bronze medals from London 2012 and Beijing 2008, Cérémonie des médailles d’or et de bronze de Christine Girard on December 03, 2018, at the National Art Centre in Ottawa, ON (Photo by Vincent Ethier/COC)

Background

Girard’s complicated situation is the result of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) retesting programme for samples given at the Olympic Games. Girard said that she first found out about the situation through her husband, Walter Bailey, who is also her coach.

“My husband received notification of the release of the retests, so he told me about the change in my medals”, said Girard. “Once I was at the doctor with my baby, and another time I was coaching, so I always found out at random times. But it was always from my husband.”

The notifications about the retests happened in the Summer of 2016, but the change in medal status took time. “It was in the same summer, but it involved three different announcements”, explains Girard. “My Bronze became Silver; then the Silver became Gold; and then the fourth place became Bronze. So it was a few months of change.”

In November 2015 and January 2016, the two Independent Commission (IC) Reports produced for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) found that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) had conspired with the Russian Athletics Federation (RusAF) to cover up widespread doping. In April 2016, as a result of these findings, the IOC began retesting samples given at Beijing 2008 Olympics.

In May 2016, the IOC announced that 31 athletes from six sports could be banned from competing at Rio 2016 as a result of retests on 454 samples given at Beijing 2008, using analytical methods not available at the time. In October 2016, the IOC announced the disqualification of eight athletes from London 2012. Six of these eight disqualifications involved weightlifting and one involved Maiya Maneza of Kazakhstan, who took Gold in the 63kg category. This meant that Girard’s London 2012 Bronze had been upgraded to Silver.

It also had the potential to upgrade Svetlana Tsarukaeva’s medal to Gold, but the Russian’s sample had yet to be retested. As things turned out, she was allowed to bask in the glow of her retrospective Gold for almost a year. 

In July 2016, the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) announced that retests on her sample had resulted in an adverse analytical finding (AAF). However Tsarukaeva refused to accept her AAF and requested the opening of her B sample. During delays due to difficulties with filing explanations, in January 2017 the IOC informed Tsarukaeva that a second sample she had given had also returned an AAF. Tsarukaeva also contested this result, but as with the July 2016 sample, the opening of the January 2017 B sample confirmed the AAF. 

The IOC Disciplinary Commission decision reveals that despite two AAFs for dehydrochlormethyltestosterone (turinabol) being confirmed through the opening of two B samples, Tsarukaeva did not accept either AAF. It may be that she was doped without her knowledge. For Girard, what it meant was that the IOC could not disqualify Tsarukaeva’s London 2012 Silver until April 2017, after the process outlined above had been completed.

In the intervening period, Girard was awarded a bronze medal from the Beijing 2008 Olympics, where she had finished fourth. The IOC disqualified a Silver medal won by Irina Nekrassova of Kazakhstan in November 2016. 

Incidentally, Maiya Maneza of Kazakhstan was also disqualified from Beijing 2008 after a retest of her sample returned an AAF for stanozolol. This was the same substance that led to her London 2012 Gold being stripped, resulting in Girard being awarded the Silver. This suggests that some of Girard’s competitors had been using prohibited substances in competition over more than one Olympic cycle.

For Girard, the upgrading of her Beijing 2008 fourth place was the hardest to take. Had she been awarded bronze in the summer of 2008, she would have received Canada’s first ever female Olympic weightlifting medal, and Canada’s first weightlifting medal in any category since the 1984 LA Olympics. She would also have received support and funding, rather than having to train in a garage.

“The first medal was as a result of the first wave of retests, so that was interesting; then silver to gold, that was a bit bigger, and then I learned that fourth place was being upgraded to bronze”, states Girard. “That one was a little harder for me to take. Those four years were the hardest of my life. It brought back to mind the life I would have had if I had come back from my first Olympic Games as a medalist, the first medalist for my country as we didn’t win any medals during the first week of Beijing 2008. It would have been huge for my country. It would have meant a lot of support and money which I didn’t have, and I ended up training in a car port. That one was harder for me to take.”

Speaking at the UEFA Anti-Doping Symposium, Girard illustrated just how close she was to the medal podium at Beijing 2008. She explained that as the athlete finishing fourth in Beijing had lifted 3kg more than her, she was a “chihuahua” away from the podium.

Girard speaking at the UEFA Anti-Doping Symposium…

She said that on return to Canada, she was seen as “almost good”, despite being only a small dog away from standing on the podium. “It is a different feeling”, she explained. “It is bigger than just receiving the medals. I will never get that moment back, but I will also never get back the support and funding I might have received during the four years leading up to London 2012. All the visibility, the sponsors…it’s a lot that I missed out on. It’s too much to be able to say it, as we will never know, but it’s a lot.”

“A lot of people will tell me how much I missed out on, as we mentioned. But what I want is for this to be beneficial for everybody else, and that is what I am gaining now – a voice and a message. I think that the IOC can never do enough to promote that message throughout the world to all athletes, to show that they value athletes who do things the right way.”

Promoting a positive message

Girard sees her story as providing a positive message to young, aspiring athletes that they can succeed in their chosen sport, even when the odds seem stacked against them. “When I was a girl, I truly believed it to be impossible for a Canadian weightlifter to win a medal, because of the context we were in”, she explains. “There were so many athletes doping and so many cheaters, because of the nature of my sport. But now, if I was that little girl and could see somebody from my own country winning not one, but two medals including a Gold, I would not have that negative belief, and I would have no hesitation. The sky’s the limit, and I would not have put limits on myself. So I think that the message is quite positive, about the importance of believing in yourself as an athlete, and working really hard to make this possible.”

So are the IOC promoting Girard’s positive story? When this article was published, the IOC’s internet site contained no record of Girard’s medal reallocation, and listed her as winning a Bronze and a Silver medal, which it had failed to upgrade to Gold. In contrast, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) has promoted her story and message.

As previously explained, it would appear that the delays were largely due to Tsarukaeva not accepting her AAFs. As the IOC only announces AAFs and not negative tests, this delay was compounded by a need to retest Girard’s samples using the new analytical methods. 

“All the medals come from reanalysed samples”, explains Girard. “I started being tested at 14 years old and I’ve been regularly tested since. They still have those samples, so they did retest those samples. They didn’t confirm this to me, but I’m sure that they would have retested them. They have my sample from Beijing and they have my sample from London. They don’t say that they will retest, they say things when there is something wrong with the sample, and I’ve never heard anything.”

The IOC outlines that the following steps must be taken to reallocate a medal:

• Exhaustion of all legal remedies;
• Where such samples are available, at least one sample from any athlete bumped up should be reanalysed and confirmed negative. If no sample is available to be reanalysed, then the athlete is given the benefit of doubt;
• Athletes must return their original medals to obtain their new medals;
• There should be no lower limit on the original finish position of an athlete who could be considered for an Olympic medal reallocation;
• All final decisions will be taken by the IOC Executive Board with the International Federations being responsible for the final result and ranking of the Olympic competitions in accordance with the Olympic Charter.

So delays are perhaps unavoidable. Given issues that Russia has recently outlined in lacking leverage over retired athletes to force them to return Olympic medals, it is perhaps remarkable that Girard made it onto the podium at all. Girard remains positive about her experience, given that it has taken ten years for her to receive her Beijing Bronze and six years to receive her London 2012 Gold. As such, one might have expected the IOC to make more of her story.

“I learned about this in the summer of 2016, and I’ll be getting my medals next weekend”, Girard told The Sports Integrity Initiative at the end of November. “I learned about it during the birth of my second child and now I have three – it was long enough for that! I do not understand why it took so long, but I do respect the fact that there’s a lot of paperwork and a heavy legal side to this. But I look forward to having the medals next weekend to finally put closure to this, for now anyway…”

A strong anti-doping advocate

As previously mentioned, Girard remains a strong anti-doping advocate. While she is under no illusions about the fight against doping, she is also passionate about holding federations to account that have failed to protect clean athletes. Weightlifting is currently only conditionally included in the programme for the Paris 2024 Olympics, due to the large number of anti-doping rule violations reported by the sport. 

Girard says that exclusion from the Olympics would be hard for her, both due to her love of the sport and because of its history. “Weightlifting has been my life for so long”, she explains. “It is also an old sport. It has been there forever. It is a baseline sport, because athletes from other sports will use it to improve at their own sports. 

“To have a sport that is so close to that baseline gone would be really hard to take. That being said, I’m not unaware of the position of my sport regarding doping. We’ve had a lot of problems and there are still issues that need to be addressed. If my sport needs to be kicked out to address those issues, unfortunately I would have to respect that decision, but it will definitely make me sad.

“The reason that they are considering doing this is because somewhere along the way, the international federation somewhere along the way didn’t do their job right. Because out of the retests, we had a big percentage of positives from my sport, which means that in my international federation, something that went wrong, I believe. So if they need that kick in the butt to do their job right, that will eventually protect clean athletes. 

“Clean athletes in my sport have not been protected in the last ten years. I joke about it, but I competed against girls who had a deeper voice then my dad. I was not protected in those years. So if they need to be kicked out to protect the next generation of clean athletes, and to produce more clean athletes, then it will be worth it!

“It is not a question of doping. Doping exists, it will always exist, but there is a fight against it and we are part of the solution when we train hard and do things the right way. That is the message I want my medals to have.” Hopefully, this interview will go part of the way towards putting that message across.

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