8 January 2020

IWF selectively denies corruption allegations

The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) has said that it ‘categorically denies’ allegations of corruption featured in a new documentary broadcast by ARD’s SportsChau on 5 January. However, its statement of response only denies select aspects of the documentary’s allegations, which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) described as “serious and worrying”.


The IWF denied that the the IWF had mishandled revenue received from the IOC in connection to the Olympic Games. Mark Pieth, a Professor of Criminology at the University of Basel and former Chairman of FIFA’s Independent Governance Committee, found that evidence amassed by journalists indicated two criminal offences, as well as a possible embezzlement charge. Journalists estimated that of US$23 million transferred from the IOC into two Swiss bank accounts owned by IWF President Tamás Aján, ‘at least’ $5.5 million remained unaccounted.  

Between 2009 and 2011, the IWF received exactly the same claim’, read the IWF’s statement. ‘The matter was then discussed and dealt with by the IWF Executive Board and an extensive document package was submitted to the IOC Ethics Commission for study. It was finally established that: No money was missing; The President and the General Secretary-Treasurer acted in full accordance with the IWF Constitution and provisions in effect at the time; All the Olympic revenues were accounted and duly documented in the IWF official bank accounts (none of them secret); and The Executive Board had full knowledge of the IWF assets.’

Holes in IWF testing; urine swapping & doppelgängers

The IWF also denied that a leading weightlifter previously sanctioned for doping had not been tested by the IWF outside of competition ahead of major events. Journalists found that a database of 16,000 IWF tests from 2008/17 revealed that half of 450 medalists were not tested once outside of competition by the IWF. This included two thirds of Russia’s top weightlifters.

Lasha Talakhadze’s 2013 sanction…

One of these 450 medalists was Georgian Olympic and World Champion Lasha Talakhadze, who was sanctioned with a two year ban by the IWF after testing positive for stanozolol in 2013. ‘The allegation is completely false since Mr. Talakhadze was tested three times (two times out of competition) in 2015, even during his suspension period’, reads the IWF statement. ‘Furthermore, he was tested six times in 2016 including the Rio Olympic Games, three times out of competition prior to the Games’. However, the IWF response did not explain allegations that it had not tested other medalists outside of competition.

The IWF also denied that the US Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) sole management of testing at the 2015 IWF World Championships in Houston was the reason that 24 anti-doping rule violations (ADRVs) were reported, despite athletes reporting prior negative tests. ‘The IWF wishes to emphasize that USADA was contracted in cooperation with HUNADO [the Hungarian Anti-Doping Organisation]’, reads its statement. ‘The Test Distribution Plan prepared by the IWF Anti-Doping Commission resulted in 24 anti-doping rule violations (ADRV). According to our knowledge, USADA additionally conducted doping controls according to their own test distribution plan – resulting in zero ADRVs.’

Journalists found that samples from the 24 weightlifters analysed in the Cologne Laboratory before the 2015 World Championships did not report adverse analytical findings (AAFs). Hans Geyer, a scientist at the Laboratory, told journalists that the reason it did not detect AAFs was because the urine had been manipulated.

‘We later found a number of explanations’, he told journalists. ‘There were several manipulations, in other words, urine from other sources was used for out-of-competition testing. we managed to find this out from the biological passport and using DNA analysis […] how can an officer fail to notice that urine has been swapped? It is still a mystery to us, and perhaps they themselves are involved.’

The IWF is based in Budapest, and contracted HUNADO to carry out its tests. Journalists found that HUNADO carried out eight out of ten tests contained in its database of 16,000 IWF tests. Olivier Caruso, a former weightlifter who runs the Kraftwerk Training Centre, told journalists that he had been asked by Dorin Balmus, Team Doctor to the Moldovan national team, how much it would cost to avoid a positive test.

He asked how much we had to pay to be clean in Germany”, Caruso told journalists. “I said, of course, that it’s not possible in Germany. We can’t do that in Germany. And then he kind of laughed a bit because he said it was simply not possible for a clean athlete to win a medal. But yes, it is possible. And then he said that a national test in Moldova costs 60 dollars, or 200 dollars for an international test. I was extremely, extremely… I was extremely disappointed about what he had said.”

“When anti-doping officers came, we got hold of doppelgängers – people who resembled our athletes”, Balmus told journalists in a secret recording. “They provided clean urine. And we paid up.” This could perhaps offer an explanation as to how Doping Control Officers (DCOs) failed to notice that urine had been swapped. But it also suggests serious malpractice on behalf of the DCOs. 

HUNADO ‘emphatically’ denied any malpractice. ‘We appreciate and respect ARD televisions investigative journalism work and everything it has done to protect clean sport’, read a statement from Dr. Ágnes Tiszeker, Managing Director of HUNADO. ‘That is why at all times, at the request of the investigative journalism team, we responded in detail to questions in writing. However, we are puzzled and outraged that the facts we presented did not appear in the documentary that aired on 5 January 2020, and the documented data of the Hungarian Anti-Doping Group was ignored entirely and obscured. All the actual evidence lacked malicious innuendo and false information painted the work of the Hungarian anti-doping inspectors in explicitly false and unacceptable colours.’

Tiszeker wrote that HUNADO collected samples only, and results management remained the preserve of the IWF. It said it had received no complaints regarding the activities performed by doping control officers for the IWF. It said that the last tests it carried out for the IWF in Moldova ahead of the November 2015 World Championships were from 12-14 October 2014 in the country’s capital, Chisinau, and full documentation is available to audit. It also said that it worked in partnership with USADA during the Houston 2015 IWF World Championships and during 2017, during the Anaheim IWF World Championships.

Thai doping

The IWF said that it would investigate, after Rattikan Gulnoi implicated herself and other Thai weightlifters as having doped in a secret recording. Gulnoi, a Bronze medallist at the London 2012 Olympics, spoke about which nutrition plans are needed when using doping substances. She said that Thai weightlifters today take substances that become undetectable after 24 hours. She also admitted doping with stanozolol at the London 2012 Olympics, stating that she stopped taking the anabolic steroid before the Games in order to avoid testing positive.

‘The IWF has immediately followed up with the Thai Federation’, read a separate statement. ‘The IWF has also requested copies of ARD’s materials. The widespread abuse of the same anabolic agent, especially among juniors, in Thailand would appear to be indicative of an organised system of doping that may have extending beyond the sanctioned athletes themselves. This impression would appear to have been reinforced by the apparent confession secured by ARD. The IWF will now confer with WADA and the International Testing Agency, in order to establish whether a wider investigation may be appropriate.’

Gulnoi was coached by Intarat Yodbangtoey, who is Vice President of the IWF. His wife, Boossaba Yodbangtoey, is President of the Thailand Amateur Weightlifting Federation (TAWA) and General Secretary of the Asian Weightlifting Federation (AWF). 

The IWF defended its handling of doping in Thai weightlifting, including a 2016 decision to award the country hosting rights to the 2019 IWF World Championships.

The IWF’s statement confirms that 17 AAF cases against ten Thai athletes have resulted in ADRVs, with sanctions between 18 months and four years issued. The ADRVs were based on samples from the 2018 IWF World Championships in Ashgbat, and did not initially return AAFs. However, analysis of the Athlete Biological Passports (ABPs) for the athletes concerned resulted in retesting of the samples for anabolic steroids. 

The IWF said that following revelations of widespread doping amongst Thai weightlifters, a number of whom were juniors, Thai athletes were withdrawn from international competition, including from the 2019 IWF World Championships. The IWF also added that Supatchanin Khamhaeng, who originally won Gold in the Girls +63kg category at the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games, has now been sanctioned for an ADRV.

To recap, the IWF Vice President coached an athlete who admits systematically doping. Thai children as young as 13 are doping, journalists were told. Action was only taken against certain Thai athletes after sample reanalysis, which did not affect the athlete which the IWF Vice President had coached. This raises questions as to whether Gulnoi was protected, or just had good advice on how to avoid reporting a positive. And the person likely to have given her such advice would be her coach. And his wife runs the national federation.

Next steps

It is understood that the IWF Executive Board will meet soon to consider the provisional suspension of Tamás Aján. The Hungarian has been President of the IWF since 2000; was an honorary IOC Member until 2010; and has participated in Foundation Board meetings of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). WADA has also confirmed that it is investigating.

“I can’t believe it”, Lidia Valentín Péréz told journalists. “It’s scandalous information. And I ask myself why. Why not them, but possibly us? Or Germany, or France, England, clean lifters? Not Kazakhstan or Russia – why weren’t they tested? It’s not fair…well I think I know the answer. There were no tests because they knew they would be positive.”

In 2016, the Spanish weightlifter was awarded a Silver medal in the 75kg category at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, after two athletes who finished above her were disqualified for doping. Valentin was also crowned as London 2012 Olympic Champion in 2016, after two athletes finishing above her were disqualified for doping. Canadian weightlifter Christine Girard, who found herself in a similar situation, may well be asking the same questions.

‘Any individual found to have aided or encouraged the doping of the Thai team, especially of minors, ought to be sanctioned severely’, read a statement (below) from Phil Andrews, CEO of USA Weightlifting. ‘A similar investigation also ought to take place in Egypt [in December, the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld the IWF’s decision to suspend the Egyptian Weightlifting Federation due to multiple ADRVs]’.

‘Similarly, the WADA I&I unit must investigate the allegations raised by Moldovan doctors against the Hungarian Anti-Doping Agency. We strongly recommend the ITA engage with alternative testing agencies while any investigation is ongoing. Moldovan officials involved in any alleged bribe, and any other nation involved must clearly also be held to account under the WADA Code, as well as any other nation highlighted during the investigation. Finally, we call on the IWF to explain the allegations regarding the management of finances of the Federation.’

The IWF Executive Board is separate from the IWF Congress, and it remains to be seen whether it will accept the explanation of the IWF regarding the alleged missing millions. The IWF statement argued that the issue had been investigated by the IOC Ethics Commission which had found that there was no case to answer, however the IOC appeared to cast doubt on this claim. 

“The IOC wants to clarify that – contrary to what ARD is claiming – it was not in possession of ‘most of the documents’ on which the film is based”, a spokesperson told AFP. “This applies to the documents regarding the doping statistics and those regarding the alleged financial irregularities”.

There are parallels with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which has recently changed its name to World Athletics in what cynics might consider as an attempt to escape its past. If the allegations are true, it would appear that the major countries keeping Aján at the helm of the IWF were able to escape doping bans. And it would appear that the IWF had HUNADO in its pocket in order to enable it to do this.

Of course, the IAAF would deny that it knew that Russian athletes were being extorted in return for the covering up of positive tests, despite the fact that its Treasurer at the time was Valentin Balakhnichev, President of the Russian Athletics Federation (RusAF). The Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) was complicit in engineering a system – the disappearing positive methodology – which allowed this to happen. 

It would be naive to think that such a system existed only in athletics. Journalists now appear to have uncovered a similar system in weightlifting, with an apparently complicit NADO prepared to overlook ‘doppelgängers’ and differences in urine samples, as well as national gaps in the IWF testing programme. 

Could that be where the missing millions ended up? Only a proper criminal investigation will be able to answer that question. And the criminal investigation into the IAAF has been going on for over five years…

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