8 June 2020

History and corruption repeats itself in weightlifting

Tamás Aján

On 4 June, the McLaren Independent Investigation Team (MIIT) delivered its Report (PDF below) detailing astounding levels of corruption under Tamás Aján’s 20 year tenure as President of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF). Aján was a founding member of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and a member of its Foundation Board until 2018; and was also a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) until 5 March 2020, when his resignation conveniently precluded him from being investigated by the IOC Ethics Commission. 

As such, the IOC and WADA have serious questions to answer about whether they were aware of such corruption, which the MIIT found permeated IWF finances, elections, and anti-doping from the 1980s onwards. Especially since Patrick Schamasch, the IOC’s Medical Director from 1993 to 2012, was Chair of the IWF’s Anti-Doping Commission from 2012 to 2020.

The IOC has yet to issue a statement in response, but the matter is likely to be a topic of discussion at its Executive Board meeting on 10 June. WADA’s statement did little more than acknowledge the work of the MIIT.

KPMG, which audits the accounts of the IWF and many other sporting organisations, also has questions to answer. It requested that the MIIT sign a document that would render any information gleaned from the accountancy firm as unusable. The MIIT refused. KPMG was also FIFA’s auditor, but quit after it failed to flag huge bonuses paid to senior staff.

The MIIT was appointed by the IWF to investigate allegations of impropriety at the IWF, following the 5 January ‘Der Herr de Heber (Lord of the Lifters)’ documentary produced by journalists for ARD. Chair of the investigation was Richard McLaren, who produced two Independent Person (IP) Reports for WADA into allegations of Russian State doping. He was assisted by Chief Investigator Martin Dubbey and Financial Investigator Steven Berryman.

Serious allegations of ‘lifting’

The corruption uncovered by the MIIT team went far beyond confirming the allegations made in the ‘Lord of the Lifters’ documentary. It is so extensive that it is difficult to know where to start. It involved:

• Embezzlement involving US$10.4 million going missing;
• Secret bank accounts;
• Secret accounting books found in a safe cupboard in the IWF’s Budapest office;
• An empty cash safe in the IWF’s Budapest office;
• IWF destruction of receipt books;
• Double counting of travel expenses;
• Rigged, predetermined IWF elections, where votes were bought;
• Alteration of IWF meeting minutes;
• A fake bidding process for the Houston 2015 World Championships;
• 40 hidden adverse analytical findings (AAFs – or positive tests) involving Gold and Silver medalists;
• Cash doping fines for member federations;
• Backdating of athlete AAF notification letters;
• Delaying of provisional suspensions following an AAF;
• Advance notice of doping tests;
• Failure to follow up on AAFs.

A money laundering expert told the MIIT that Aján could be charged with embezzlement and misappropriation of funds under Hungarian law. The full extent of the corruption uncovered by the MIIT is outlined in the Twitter thread in the second tweet below. In this article, we will deal with the highlights – if it is appropriate to call them that…

Structured for corruption

The MIIT outlines that the IWF was structured around a corrupt electoral system that would keep Aján in power, facilitating his embezzlement of funding. The IWF’s Electoral Congress takes place every four years, in the year following the Summer Olympics, and is preceded by the Annual Congress. The MIIT found that the Annual Congress was utilised by Aján to rig the Electoral Congress.

Only Member Federations who had paid their membership fees by 31 March were permitted to vote at the Electoral Congress. However, at the Annual Congress – which took place after the end of March in advance of the 2009, 2013, and 2017 Electoral Congress – Aján accepted late membership fees in cash, or allowed member federations to vote at the Electoral Congress despite not having paid their membership fees. By doing this, Aján used the Annual Congress to secure votes.

In addition, the MIIT married up the dates of large cash withdrawals from the IWF’s operational bank accounts with the Electoral Congresses. Several large withdrawals before the Electoral Congress gave Aján a pile of cash with which to bribe delegates to vote for him and his preferred IWF Executive Board, which evidence indicated was predetermined before the Electoral Congresses. 

Bribed delegates were even sent a sheet indicating who to vote for (see header), and were requested to photograph their ballot sheet in order to prove that they had voted as requested. Only then would they receive their bribe. Even so, things didn’t always go as planned.

Bribed delegates were ‘quarantined’ from the rest of the Electoral College in a separate hotel to prevent them being influenced. After the elections, they queued in the corridors to receive their bribes.

Amazingly, the MIIT found that under the IWF Code of Ethics, the buying of votes is not considered an offence. This allowed it to happen at the 2019, 2013 and 2017 Electoral Congresses, as described above. And it would appear that the IOC was unaware. 

The potential involvement of many national federations in this process over a number of years perhaps explains why the MIIT had such difficulty in getting anybody to give evidence. It would appear that the entire IWF was built around a corrupt system.

Anti-doping wriggle room

Records retrieved from the IWF’s Budapest offices contained 40 hidden AAFs involving Gold and Silver medalists. The MIIT has passed this headline grabbing information to WADA. But perhaps more disturbing is how Aján turned what was viewed as a positive anti-doping development to his advantage.

Details of doping fines as stipulated in the IWF Anti-Doping Rules…

Under Article 12 of the IWF Anti-Doping Policy, member federations whose athletes report three or more anti-doping rule violations (ADRVs) in a year from tests conducted by an anti-doping organisation other than the member federation or its national anti-doping organisation (NADO) can be fined, or suspended from international competition. This has often been held up as an example of good practice by WADA. 

“The IAAF doesn’t have such a rule – in fact, no other federation has that rule”, Dick Pound, the Founding President of WADA told The Sports Integrity Initiative in 2016. He added that WADA would consider making such a rule mandatory for international federations. “It is possible”, he said. “During the next go-round of the Code, we ought to say that all signatories ought to have such a rule that is reasonable in the circumstances”.

Fortunately for WADA, such an eventuality didn’t come to pass. The MIIT found that this system of fines, lauded by Pound, was used by Ajan as another form of embezzlement, and to keep himself in power by securing promises for votes in lieu of payment.

For example, it appears that Aján induced the Albanian Weightlifting Federation to breach the national laws of two countries in order to pay an anti-doping fine. Incredibly, it appears that four Albanian Weightlifting Federation officials split $100,000 between them and drove from Tirana to Budapest via Belgrade, breaching Albanian and Serbian legislation by taking such large, undeclared sums across national borders. Aján had told the Federation that it wouldn’t be allowed to compete at the Rio 2016 Olympics unless the fine was paid.

Flowchart detailing the backdating of Azeri weightlifting suspensions…

Equally incredibly, the MIIT found that in 2016, the President of the Azerbaijan Olympic Committee wrote to Aján thanking him for delaying the suspensions of weightlifters who had returned AAFs, so that their suspensions wouldn’t prevent them from competing in the Baku 2017 Islamic Games. The IWF’s delays involved 18 Azeri weightlifters, who were allowed to compete and win medals despite testing positive.

As mentioned, the MIIT found details of 40 hidden AAFs, AAFs that were not followed up, and delays in notifying athletes about AAFs which allowed them to continue competing. In some cases, the MIIT found that athlete notification letters were backdated in order to make it appear that they had been sent earlier. In the case of Bulgarian born Azeri weightlifter Snejev Hristov, delays in following up his AAF allowed him to win a Gold medal at the 2013 Baku International Cup in December, despite an 11 April 2013 AAF. Hristov wasn’t notified about his AAF until 9 April 2014, almost a year after testing positive.

Under Articles 7.4 and 7.5 of the World Anti-Doping Code, the IWF is required to follow up AAFs and provisionally suspend athletes who report AAFs. Article 7.3 of the Code mandates that signatories shall notify athletes about an AAF ‘promptly’, although what this entails in practice is not defined. 

It would appear that the Code provides anti-doping organisations with wriggle room in notifying athletes about an adverse analytical finding (AAF). An AAF – or positive test – is not the same as an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV). It involves sending a letter to an athlete stating notifying them that they have tested positive for a prohibited substance, after which investigations start into whether the AAF constitutes an ADRV. 

There are situations in which an AAF doesn’t develop into an ADRV, such as the holding of a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) to use certain prohibited substances. WADA’s 2017 Testing Figures Report revealed that 4,596 AAF were recorded, 1.43% of 322,050 samples analysed. However, less than a third (1,459) of these AAFs resulted in an ADRV being recorded against an athlete, WADA’s 2017 ADRV Report reveals. Taking the two Reports together, just 0.45% of doping tests resulted in an ADRV during 2017.

The IWF’s former President, Tamás Ajan, is a political scientist. Somebody knowledgable about the World Anti-Doping Code would be needed to spot that the it doesn’t define time limits for notifying an athlete about an AAF. The Code specifies IWF’s Anti-Doping Coordinator is the person responsible for ensuring that AAFs are followed up. In the IWF’s case, this person was Patrick Schamasch, the IOC’s former Medical Director.

It appears that WADA at least had an inkling about what was going on. A spreadsheet recovered from the IWF’s servers, which had been sent by WADA to the IWF identified 109 samples from 2009-2013 that had not been finalised and uploaded to WADA’s Anti-Doping Administration and Management System (ADAMS). In addition, the MIIT discovered a 2016 email relating to 45 outstanding cases from between 2009 and 2014, which had also not been uploaded to ADAMS.

But in contrast to situations involving Romania and Russia, WADA didn’t commission a Report into the IWF. After initially rejecting allegations of misconduct, the Hungarian National Anti-Doping Organisation (HUNADO) produced a 44 page Report, which it sent to WADA. The Report reiterates HUNADO’s position that it has not acted improperly.

In addition, the Report (PDF below) dismisses the allegations that the reason so many AAFs were reported at the Houston 2015 World Championships was because the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) was chosen to conduct doping control rather than HUNADO, the IWF’s partner for the last ten years. It points out that HUNADO worked in partnership with USADA on Houston 2015. Yet this is disputed by the journalists who produced the ‘Lord of the Lifters’ documentary. In addition, the MIIT was told that a ‘fake bidding process’ had operated for the right to host the 2015 World Championships.

Despite this disagreement, the MIIT found no impropriety in HUNADO’s actions regarding its anti-doping partnership with the IWF. However, a ‘very late’ piece of evidence regarding sample swapping at the Georgia 2019 World Cup has been passed to WADA to investigate. 

‘World Cup’ banking

Aján was collecting cash payments for late membership fees, as well as doping fines that were – in some cases – paid in cash to him directly. The MIIT found that Aján was regularly collecting cash in excess of the €10,000 that can be carried over European borders. It would appear that hiding the money became a problem. It didn’t appear in the IWF accounts and apparently disappeared. How?

The IWF’s complicated array of secret bank accounts…

The answer is through secret bank accounts. The MIIT found that the IWF’s assertion that it had three bank accounts to be ‘blatantly and wholly untrue’. A complicated web of accounts was discovered, some of which were held with Hungary’s OTP Bank and named ‘Vilag Kupa’ – Hungarian for ‘World Cup’. These accounts were never disclosed to the MIIT, and it appears that Aján lied about their true purpose.

Witnesses also told the MIIT that cash payments were kept in a safe at the IWF’s Budapest offices. When the MIIT managed to open the safe on 8 May, it was found to be empty. However, it did discover books and records held in a safe cupboard at the Budapest office, which it requested should be examined immediately. 

The IWF countered claims of creative accounting by arguing that its accounts were audited by KMPG. However, it appears that the accountancy firm, along with the IWF bookkeeper and financial advisor (Alain Siergrist) didn’t know about its secret accounts. And when the MIIT team came knocking, KPMG attempted to get it to sign a disclaimer that would render any information gleaned unusable.

Mohamed Yousef Al Mana, the President of the Asian Weightlifting Federation, told the January 2020 IWF Executive Board meeting that he had two receipts relating to $200,000 received by Aján. However when approached by the MIIT, the Qatari declined to be interviewed. On another occasion, the MIIT found that Aján demanded almost $15,000 to cover a flight.

Details of unaccounted for cash, as found by the MIIT…

However, astoundingly, the MIIT Report only scratches the surface of the IWF’s accounting malpractice. The picture (right) details how the MIIT came to the conclusion that $10.4 million remains unaccounted for. The full reports from the MIIT investigators have been passed to the IWF’s Oversight and Integrity Commission, and a full Report may follow.

It’s getting very repetitive…

Aján sat at the top table of sport, alongside former WADA President Sir Craig Reedie as a member of the WADA Foundation Board. He was a respected IOC member, as illustrated by the IOC Executive Board explaining that it ‘had to accept’ his resignation with the ‘greatest respect’. He was awarded a trophy by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in October last year in recognition of his ‘hard work’ as President of the IWF.

Aján continues to deny all the allegations against him, despite the above evidence, as indicated in a recent statement to AroundTheRings. On 3 June, the day before the MIIT announced the results of its investigation, he took part in a council meeting of the Hungarian Olympic Academy. He was Secretary General of the Hungarian Olympic Committee, which has yet to issue a statement regarding the MIIT’s findings, from 1989 until 2005.

Once again, a long term President of an international sporting federation has been been implicated in serious corruption allegations. Ajan’s 20 year tenure at the helm of the IWF tops Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter’s 17 year tenure at the helm of FIFA. FIFA, which set up a company, International Sports & Leisure (ISL), to broker bribes connected to television rights. Aján operated on a smaller scale, using cash collected from membership fees and doping fines. Both tolerated bribery at elections. Both employed KPMG as auditor.

There are also similarities between the two men. Both are over 80, and both continue to deny wrongdoing despite the weight of evidence against them.

But there is also a key difference. The Olympic movement has always regarded professional football as an errant uncle – one whose behaviour is questionable, but tolerated at parties. No such social distancing is in place for Aján and weightlifting, which are unquestionable wholly part of the Olympic movement.

As the corruption outlined in the MIIT Report is so extensive, it appears highly improbable that only Aján was aware of what was going on. The IOC’s former Medical Director was Chair of the IWF’s Anti-Doping Commission for eight years. During his tenure, the MIIT’s evidence indicates that anti-doping procedure was torn up and rewritten. Was he not aware of this? If not, why?

The MIIT found that $23.3 million was paid into IWF accounts by the IOC between 1992 and 2008; this was not fully declared in the IWF’s accounts; and Aján personally withdrew $1.8 million in honorarium payments from the IOC in cash. Despite being told about such issues, the IOC decided that it couldn’t interfere in an international federation’s autonomy, and left the IWF to deal with the situation. It didn’t deal with the situation.

A statement from the IOC indicated that it doesn’t consider the matter closed. But this statement was only issued after journalists uncovered the issue for the world to see in the ‘Lord of the Lifters’ documentary. The IOC didn’t act.

WADA also didn’t act. As previously mentioned, it sent a spreadsheet to the IWF detailing AAFs that had not been followed up, as well as an email detailing additional outstanding AAFs that had not been dealt with. WADA’s Founding President had held the IWF system of fines for ADRVs as an example of good practice. That Aján personally used this system to embezzle money is therefore doubly embarrassing.

Scrutiny may now fall on those international federations whose aged Presidents have been in power for long periods of time. Sport has to adapt and change in order to survive – especially in today’s environment. Can the aged head of an international federation who has been in charge for 15 years provide the innovation and dynamism that is necessary to take sport into the future, or do they remain in power for some other reason?

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