Weightlifting: When cleaners come with dirty hands

Michael Irani, interim president of the International Weightlifting Federation. Photo: EyeOpening Media

Chaos reigns in international weightlifting. A new reform-bound president and an anti-corruption advocate have retired from the IWF board, and remaining members are focused on protecting own interests. The proof is in internal documents read by the two journalists who revealed weightlifting’s endemic corruption earlier this year.

All companies have secrets. Confidential information is often the lifeblood of a business. Unique ideas are the foundation of all trade, are they not? But what about international sports federations with monopoly status in their sport and roots in a membership democracy?

What information do they have to protect – and from whom?

For some days now, a "Confidentiality Agreement" has been circulating among the ruling Executive Board of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF). It reads as if someone wants to protect a super patent, worth billions.

A huge amount of information concerning "the business, affairs, assets and/or interests of IWF or any of its affiliates" is to be declared a secret in the future. It warns “in particular” against “members of the media”.

The consequences of any breach would be dire: from "legal action" to “immediate termination” of “involvement” with IWF.

This document is not to be signed by employees but, most unusually, by the Executive Board members, elected officials at the top of IWF. IWF is not a company, but an association under Swiss law.

However grotesque this attempt of casting a wide net of silence over weightlifting’s turbulent affairs may seem – it follows a certain logic, deeply embedded in the mindset of old-school sports officials when under pressure. The IWF is the latest to follow in the footsteps of the dinosaurs at the Olympic movement after FIFA, IAAF or AIBA, at least since details on the mafia-style leadership of the former president Tamás Aján, a Hungarian who dominated the IWF since 1976, were exposed.

Even the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – compromised by the actions of Aján, one of their valued members for two decades – has issued statements on three occasions in October alone, demanding reforms. IOC threatens, barely veiled, to remove weightlifting, one of the oldest sports, from the Olympic programme.

So, rather than genuinely change, the latest response of the IWF is to keep quiet and close ranks.

Reform resistance
In spring, things looked differently: After we and journalist Hajo Seppelt made our ARD film "The Lord of the Lifters" on the IWF president Aján in January, the Executive Board commissioned an investigation led by Canadian law professor Richard McLaren, the same man who has helped expose the Russian doping scandal.

They also got rid of Aján, who has served as general secretary and later president since 1976 in exchange for a position as ‘Honorary Ambassador’. The Executive Board then appointed American Ursula Papandrea as interim president.

When McLaren in June presented a report that was shocking even for insiders, the road seemed cleared for reform to continue.

In the first place, the IWF changed its so-called anti-doping system, that produced a record number of positive cases but at the same time covered up numerous others. That job is nearly done – anti-doping is outsourced to the International Testing Agency (ITA).

But other parts of the reforms brought a backlash: A new constitution including athletes’ voting rights in the committees, and the involvement of independent experts in creating new governance, ethics and – most of all – integrity rules.The first victim of the resistance against reforms was the interim president, Ursula Papandrea, who was dismissed in October without any public explanation.

Then Antonio Urso, Italian and president of the European Weightlifting Federation, withdrew from the Board of the IWF. More than ten years ago, Urso took up the task of fighting corruption in weightlifting: He tried to clear up the whereabouts of several million dollars unaccounted for in the IWF’s balance sheets. Recently, he said goodbye with damning criticism of the Executive's "crazy and destructive policy".

Papandrea followed and gave up her post as vice president. Although she still supported Aján in the last elections in 2017, she has acted differently since.

"My attempt for comprehensive reform has been usurped by actors within the Board who sought to control and intentionally delay the process", she now explains. And she warns against the mentality of the remaining IWF leadership: "They believe that ‘We don't have to actually reform, we just have to start the process of reform’. Of course, the rhetoric publicly is different.”

Cleaning is no priority
We have rummaged through several hundred pages of documents from recent months: Transcripts, minutes, proposals and resolutions from Executive Board meetings, e-mails.

What we have read confirms: Cleaning up of the IWF is hardly the target for the majority of the current Executive Board. If there ever was a sigh of relief after Aján’s departure, it had nothing to do with a wish for a new culture at his court.

The same Executive Board that the McLaren report calls "corrupt persons or status seekers", are still in charge of deciding about their own future. No Electoral Congress is scheduled until March, despite the demands of some member federations and athletes.

Let’s have a look at the personnel that now represents weightlifting and seems to risk the Olympic future of their sport.

At the helm of weightlifting is the duo that has just sent out the excessive Confidentiality Agreement – Great Britain’s Michael Irani, who is the IWF's new interim president, and the Iraqi Mohammed Jalood, who acts as secretary general.

President Irani has been on the Executive Board since 1992, where he chaired the meaningless Medical Commission. When we asked him at the last World Championship in September 2019 whether Aján was the right man to lead the Federation, he was full of praise:

"Absolutely. He's done nothing wrong. Yes, he's the right chap." Now, he did not respond to a list of questions on the current situation of the IWF.

The elected Secretary General Jalood has limited knowledge of English, the official language of the IWF – perhaps one reason why Aján had chosen him for the position of secretary general and treasurer. Jalood has never shown any noticeable interest in his powers to scrutinise Aján’s financial dealings. As secretary general he receives $150,000 annually.

These two men rather form the somewhat presentable façade for the cast of 17 men and one woman, whose main interest – according to the documents available to us – seems to be self-preservation and/or the enforcement of advantages for their national federations.

Vote broker and first vice president
The next comrade is a prime example of both: Intarat Yodbangtoey, the first vice president of the IWF, from Thailand. Described in the official McLaren report as the vote broker for Aján in the last presidential election in 2017, "distributing the $5,000 USD cash bribe from a bag in his possession" to several delegates. He is yet to face any investigation about this.

Recently, when the IWF was looking for a new external auditing company, he came into focus once again. KPMG, blind to the mismanagement in the IWF for a decade, had dropped out. Many other auditors refused, fearing reputational damage.

The company that was ready to do at least a due diligence came back with two "red flags", so called "politically exposed persons". One was Yodbangtoey – who already in 2008 was found guilty of election fraud, as the leader of a political splinter party in Thailand.

According to the Draft Minutes of the IWF Board meeting in September, where the new revelation was discussed, Major General  Yodbangtoey told his comrades that he wanted "to receive the accusations in writing but confirmed it was fake news, and also said he would like to find the person spreading those fake news [by asking] the Thai police and Interpol."

President for a day
The Executive Board in mid-October briefly made Yodbangtoey interim president after Papandrea was voted out of office. He immediately informed the Olympic world proudly about his plans:

"I will do my best to make our weightlifting sport in transparency and fairness for everyone." His appointment was swiftly reversed after 24 hours of bemused criticism in the media. Later versions of the minutes of the meeting left out the embarrassing episode.

As for “fairness”: Yodbangtoey’s Thailand is currently unable to participate in international competitions due to no less than ten cases of doping (and the suspicion of systematic doping) at the 2018 IWF World Championships.

This does not prevent him from continuing to make decisions in the Executive Board: The IWF holds the same view as many other Olympic federations: Punishments usually do not affect officials, only athletes. Yodbangtoey has only one interest: To get the ban against his country lifted.

The second “red flagged“ official: José Carlos Quinones, IWF Vice President and with Aján's support President of the Pan American Weightlifting Federation since the beginning of the year.

Quinones was once President of the National Olympic Committee in Peru. At the end of 2016, he was barred from all offices in sport for five years by a sports court in Lima after allegations of financial mismanagement.

When asked, Quinones told us that the ban applies only nationally, not internationally - which is right. Nevertheless, he gradually left all other posts in international sport. Aján kept him and secured a devoted follower.

In the “red flag”-debate, according to the documents available to us, Quinones did not tell his Executive Board colleagues that the original verdict against him is still in place. His appeal in Peru is pending.

He was one of the most cautious in the internal debates on the establishment of an independent Integrity Commission:

"I agree with doing this”, the transcript of the meeting reads. “But I want to be careful not to make a mistake … ". After all, an Integrity Commission would control Executive Board members like him.

The IWF leadership has made more progress with another oversight body: The IWF Ethics and Disciplinary Commission. Some independent members were appointed a few days ago, although the rules they will operate under aren’t clear yet.

WADA investigates Vlad’s federation
One of the most influential Executive Board members to be scrutinised will be Nicu Vlad, president of the Romanian Weightlifting Federation, also IWF vice president. He could be facing a problem in the near future. A recently published report by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) reveals "provisional findings" in weightlifting.

The report exposes Romania with allegations of an organised doping and protection scheme, where select weightlifters benefitted from "trafficking of prohibited substances, advance notice of testing missions and urine substitution" to avoid detection.

Allegations included the involvement of "officials". Two aspects seem to point to Nicu Vlad. WADA cooperated with Australian authorities because Vlad has Australian citizenship, too. And the codename of the investigation: "Operation Heir". Vlad, a Romanian legend, won medals at three Olympic Games. A similarly successful heir is still being sought.

Vlad leaves our queries about the WADA accusations unanswered. He also ignores the question of whether the Romanian law enforcement agencies contacted him. According to WADA, they are dealing with the case.

Vlad convened the "emergency meeting" that ousted Papandrea. And he is the driving force behind attempts to change the qualification system for the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo retrospectively.

Romania is threatened with exclusion if four more positive cases, all from the Olympic Games retests, are confirmed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. These rules were created by a former IWF Clean Sport Commission – and a part of the leadership tried to overturn them.

A spoils system
Vlad’s ally is the Australian Sam Coffa. Coffa had been serving faithfully under Aján since 1988, praising his "highly appreciated financial activities" when others asked critical questions. It was not until the last presidential elections in 2017 that he turned away from the Hungarian.

The 84-year-old Coffa is the newest member of the Executive Board, appointed by his buddies in October. According to draft minutes of a meeting he told his colleagues, "it was patently clear that the Olympic Qualifying System as known now was null and void, obsolete".

An email from an anonymous person, widespread among the lifters, accused Coffa of just wanting a favour for his family: A change of rules to bring a promising young athlete to the Games, who is being trained by his brother. Which he disputes.

“This is not one or two people”, says Papandrea about the figures in the governing IWF body. Except for a few members, “it is a spoils system and it is more empowered and brazen as days go by.”

The spirit of Aján
The remaining Executive Board has no real interest in cleaning the house. Instead, a few Board members made it their priority to get access to information that potentially implicates some of them in corrupt or possibly criminal activities. Information contained in a second, secret report by McLaren’s team.

This report is to be dealt with later by the “Integrity Commission” of independent experts – if they are ever appointed. For now, the Executive Board has only set up a “special task force” with half a dozen of their own colleagues to select the “independents” and decide what powers they should have.

These are tactics learned from the very President whose actions should have prompted change. They didn’t. Even if Aján is no longer around in person, his spirit is very much alive. 

Grit Hartmann is a German freelance journalist. Nick Butler is an investigative journalist at the EyeOpening Media company. They reported on the IWF together with Hajo Seppelt for German broadcaster ARD.


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