1st July 2021

Weightlifting officials ‘step aside’ following ITA Report

Nicolae Vlad and Hassan Akkus have ‘stepped aside’ as Vice President of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) and President of the European Weightlifting Federation (EWF) respectively, after they were charged with anti-doping rule violations (ADRVs) by the International Testing Agency (ITA). Both are members of the IWF Executive Board, and an IWF statement confirmed that their accreditations for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics have been withdrawn.

Due to the actions of IWF officials in covering up doping offences, the ITA has only been able to take forward 12 of over 140 unresolved anti-doping rule violation (ADRV) cases. An ITA Report (PDF below), published last week, followed an earlier Report published by Richard McLaren (PDF below), which outlined serious corruption by senior IWF officials, including its former President Tamás Aján. It is understood that the FBI and Swiss police are investigating.

In addition, the IWF has failed to approve a new Constitution, which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said is essential for weightlifting’s continued participation at the Olympics. As such, questions need to be asked as to whether the IWF is serving the athletes it purports to represent.

Nicolae Vlad 

The ITA has charged Vlad, who is President of the Romanian weightlifting federation (FRH), with complicity and tampering with the anti-doping results management process. The ITA found that he had allowed Romanian lifter Roxanna Cocos to compete at the London 2012 Olympics, where she won a Silver medal in the -69kg category, despite her being provisionally suspended twice for two separate ADRVs. 

Cocos was eventually disqualified, after reanalysis of her London 2012 sample resulted in an ADRV for steroids. However as she was subject to two provisional suspensions, she shouldn’t have competed in the first place.

The ITA found that in the weeks after being informed about her adverse analytical finding (AAF), IWF staff found that Cocos has been included on the Romanian Olympic committee’s (COSR) list of athletes to be tested prior to the Games. In other words, she had been selected for the London 2012 national team, despite Vlad being aware of her AAF.

Doppelgängers

The IWF additionally discovered that she had used a doppelgänger during anti-doping tests. This was her second potential ADRV. Dr. Tamás Aján, then President of the IWF, wrote to Vlad asking him not to select Cocos for London 2012 in order to avoid a scandal.

This method of using another person to provide an anti-doping sample on behalf of another athlete appears to have been popular within weightlifting. The ITA discovered that Dorian Balmus, a Doctor with the Moldovan weightlifting federation, had bribed doping control officers (DCOs) not to examine photo identification too closely. The ITA has also charged him with an ADRV for complicity in sample swapping cases.

It also cites evidence from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that doppelgängers were used during anti-doping tests at the Houston 2015 IWF World Championships, where 24 AAFs were discovered. The ITA also confirmed that its investigations into urine substitution via the use of doppelgängers is not over. This raises the possibility that other federations could be implicated.

‘These urine-substitution cases also raise questions as to the involvement of DCOs from certain NADOs and Regional Anti-Doping Organisations (“RADOs”)’, reads its Report. ‘More concretely, the ITA’s investigation revealed that certain DCOs were also repeatedly responsible for not showing strict adherence to the identity requirements in sample collection protocols, including allegations of complicity in changing samples, giving advance notice of out-of- competition tests to athletes and National Federations and/or turning a blind eye during sample-swapping practices’.

The ITA suspended the FRH earlier this month after retests of the samples of all four Romanian lifters that competed at London 2012 resulted in ADRVs. In its Report, the ITA confirmed that it has resumed its ADRV case against Cocos.

Hassan Akkus

Akkus was elected as EWF President at the EWF Congress in Moscow on 1 April this year, after a documentary for ARD first outlined corruption in the IWF’s management of anti-doping cases, and after McLaren published his 122 page Report. The ITA charged him with tampering during his tenure as President of the Turkish Weightlifting Federation (THF) from 2004-2012 and as a result, he confirmed that he has ‘stepped aside’ from his EWF role.

The ITA found that during two 2012 testing missions conducted by the IWF, steroids were detected in 21 samples collected from 17 Turkish weightlifters. Akkus asked the IWF not to proceed with the sanctioning process, asking if the THF could assume responsibility for the results management process.

The IWF rules allow it to ban member federations if they fail to report 3 or more ADRVs in a year…

The ITA said that this was to avoid the THF being sanctioned by the IWF under Article 12 of the IWF’s Anti-Doping Rules. The IWF can impose a ban or a fine on any member federation if three or more ADRVs are discovered by another anti-doping organisation (ADO), such as the IWF. The rule was designed to ensure that national weightlifting federations fulfil their responsibilities in sanctioning ADRVs.

The ITA said that it would be launching proceedings against the THF under Article 12, as responsibility for processing the 17 ADRVs should have remained with the IWF and not the THF. As the IWF had discovered more than three ADRVs involving Turkish athletes, the THF should have faced action under Article 12. 

It didn’t, allowing eight Turkish lifters to participate at the Poland 2013 IWF World Championships and five Turkish lifters to participate at the Tirana 2013 EWF Championships, where Ayşegül Çoban Başol won a Silver Medal in the 53kg clean & jerk. In addition, as the ITA Report points out, the identity of the 17 THF athletes was never released and as the sanctions were considered national level, ‘the 17 Athletes remained, technically-speaking, free to compete internationally’. As such, it is possible that athletes who had committed an ADRV competed at both events.

Tamás Aján

Tamás Aján, former IWF President, has been charged for his part in all of the above situations, but also due to his dealings with the Azerbaijan weightlifting federation (AAAF). The ITA found that he had covered up 23 Azerbaijani ADRVs in 2013, in order to allow the country’s lifters to compete at the Poland 2013 IWF World Championships, the 2013 IWF Grand Prix, and the Baku 2013 International Cup. 

The IWF spent £30k on a luxury suite for the President of the Azerbaijan federation…

The ITA also found that the Aján extended an invitation to the President of the AAAF to attend the London 2012 Games, providing him with a luxury suite at the Millennium Hotel Mayfair at a rate of £1,358.46 per night, costing the IWF £30,000 in total. This was the only luxury suite that the IWF paid for during the London 2012 Olympics.

IWF case management

The ITA Report was also highly critical of both the IWF’s general approach to anti-doping, and of its unwillingness to assist with its investigations. It pointed out that 29 unsanctioned ADRVs cannot be prosecuted because the Statute of Limitations had expired. Under the World Anti-Doping Code, anti-doping organisations to inform an athlete and begin procedures against them within ten years from the date of the offence. As the IWF didn’t take cases forward and therefore didn’t inform the athletes, this meant that older cases cannot be pursued.

The ITA points out that in June 2019, it was appointed to prosecute ‘new’ ADRVs. ‘Since the ITA’s mandate only concerned “new” cases, the IWF did not inform the ITA of, or hand over, its ADRV archives or pending files’, reads the Report. The ITA also found that the IWF deliberately avoided matching doping control forms (DCFs) with sample codes, so that AAFs couldn’t be linked to athletes in WADA’s Anti-Doping Administration and Management System (ADAMS). 

Under WADA’s International Standard for Laboratories (ISL) in force at the time, samples were only required to be retained for three months (this has now been extended to six months). As such, the ITA found that ‘the majority of samples in the WADA List were discarded by the respective Laboratories within months of sample collection, thus in certain cases preventing the ITA from pursuing the matter further’. 

Results

A total of 146 unresolved cases of potential ADRVs were identified by WADA between 2009 and 2019 (142 were on a List published in August 2020, and four were added later). Of these 142, the ITA was able to instigate or resume just 12 potential ADRV cases. 

The ITA found that 67 of these had been ‘properly resolved’; six were not under the jurisdiction of the IWF; 23 cases were properly processed by the ITA between its appointment by the IWF in June 2019 and December 2019; five cases were determined not to be ADRVs; and 29 cases were not processed and could not be actioned due to the Standard of Limitations having expired.

The ITA’s findings highlight the value of independent investigations into anti-doping, but also the limitations of sport’s ability to police itself. Both the McLaren Investigation and the ITA Report were a reaction to Der Herr der Herber (the Lord of the Lifters), a documentary produced by investigative journalists for ARD. Without that documentary, it is likely that corruption in weightlifting would be continuing today.

Tamás Aján was a founding member of WADA and served on its Foundation Board until 2018. As with Russia, questions need to be asked about whether WADA senior management were entirely oblivious to what was going on in weightlifting. 

As with Joesph S. Blatter’s governance of FIFA and Lamine Diack’s tenure as President of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF – now World Athletics), a ‘cash culture’ made corruption easy to engineer. Rules are made to be broken, so the saying goes, but questions need to be asked as to whether certain aspects of anti-doping rules need to be strengthened.

Given what happened in Russia, at the IAAF, and now at the IWF, is it still acceptable for international federations and national associations to assume responsibility for anti-doping? A national federation has an active interest in covering up ADRVs involving key athletes, and an international federation has an active interest in covering up ADRVs that could financially damage the sport. Which international or national federation will be next?

This is exactly why the ITA was formed. To remove that conflict of interest. And also to ensure that some samples are retained for future testing and not thrown away by Laboratories after the mandatory six month retention period. If all the samples disappear after six months, this makes corruption of the anti-doping system easy to engineer.

It is also significant that Nicolae Vlad and Hassan Akkus have only ‘stepped aside’ and have not resigned, given the seriousness of the allegations against them. There are signs that the IWF is resisting efforts to reform. 

Maxim Agapitov of Russia has replaced Akkus as President of the EWF. He is currently a member of the IWF Executive Board, but would be ineligible under a draft IWF Constitution. This bans people convicted of an ADRV from serving on the IWF Executive Board, and Agapitov served a two year ban for a 1994 ADRV. A proposed age limit of 75 would also bar many IWF Executive Board members from serving. This is perhaps why the IWF Executive Board failed to approve the Constitution at a specially convened 30 June Congress. 

Indictments issued by the US Department of Justice (DoJ) showed just how many former FIFA officials were aware of corruption. There are legitimate questions about whether corruption at the IAAF was confined to the Diacks and their immediate circle. Despite an apparent warning from the IOC about withdrawal of Olympic accreditation if the Constitution is not approved, the IWF doesn’t want to adopt it. 

Once again, the IWF situation illustrates that sport cannot be trusted to reform itself. Self interest and self preservation can often obscure the true purpose of a federation – to administer the sport fairly for competing athletes. In weightlifting’s case, this self interest and self preservation could keep athletes out of the Olympics. How many more times will we see this pattern repeat itself?

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