Brian Oliver: Kazakhstan should drop potentially disastrous legal threat to weightlifting - but are they big enough to do it?


Headlines around the world described Ilya Ilyin as a "horse-meat powered Kazakh" after he won his second Olympic gold medal at London 2012.

Ilyin had told reporters that his low-fat diet of horse meat and chicken had helped him through training, and one of the biggest global news agencies thought this was more interesting than the fact that he had just broken two world records in defending his Olympic title, or that Kazakhstan now had four weightlifting golds.

It was not really so amazing, given that horse meat is widely eaten in so many countries, including France; it was just an easy-to-explain cultural difference between Kazakhstan and whichever country the headline writer lived in.

There is another cultural difference that sets Kazakhstan apart from most other countries, one that is less easy or, to some, impossible, to explain.

It concerns cheating in sport, and specifically in Ilyin's sport of weightlifting.

Kazakhstan is on top of the podium when it comes to doping in weightlifting; the nation with the most positives, the most high-profile cheats, the most Olympic titles forfeited.

It could reasonably be burdened with as much blame as any single nation for the precarious position in which weightlifting finds itself, with its Olympic status under threat beyond Tokyo 2020.

But, perhaps spurred on by some of its most powerful Government figures, Kazakhstan will go to great lengths and even greater expense to avoid taking any collective responsibility or punishment for past misdeeds.

For the second time in 18 months the Kazakhstan Weightlifting Federation (WFRK) is challenging the authority of the sport's governing body, the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF).

It lost last time when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) dismissed its appeal against a one-year suspension for "bringing weightlifting into disrepute" by having, along with eight other nations, a slew of positives among the retesting of samples from the Olympic Games of 2008 and 2012.

In that case, heard in January 2017, the Kazakhs contended that doping violations were "outside its control", argued that there was no explicit obligation on the WFRK to seek out and identify doping cheats and challenged the constitution of the IWF.

They lost those arguments, along with their audacious claim for costs against the IWF.

As the CAS ruling pointed out, "more than 20 per cent of the positive samples recorded [in the Olympic retests] were from athletes affiliated with the WFRK…cheaters, enhancing their performance by ingesting prohibited steroids.

"These weightlifters all tested positive for stanozolol, as well as oral turinabol or oxandrolone in some instances.

"The similarities in the prohibited substances ingested across the Kazakh athletes indicate, according to the IWF, that the athletes were part of a centrally dictated programme."

A year later the WFRK was able, on a technicality, to argue down the suspension of Ilyin - responsible for two of their 10 positives and stripped of both his Olympic gold medals - to two years.

Now it is contesting the new Olympic qualifying policy devised by the IWF, voted in by its Executive Board, unanimously ratified by the sport's highest power, the IWF Congress, and welcomed not just by clean weightlifters the world over, but by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in whose hands the sport's future rests.

If the WFRK wins, there will be no cause for celebration even in Kazakhstan - because that outcome would be a disaster for weightlifting, one that could cost it its Olympic status.

The Kazakhs are effectively going head to head with the IOC, which wants the Olympic programme to stay just as it is: rewarding "clean" nations, restricting the presence of athletes from countries with the most positives since Beijing 2008 - the period in which weightlifting's reputation has suffered the most damage - and compelling individual athletes to compete so frequently in the qualifying period that they will be tested time after time after time.

The qualifying policy makes sound sense, given the situation the sport is in, and more than ever the IWF needs unity from its member federations.

Those nations that remain suspended until October 20 are very unhappy, as they made clear at a recent IWF Executive Board meeting in Lausanne, which was attended by senior IOC officials.

But, despite their frustration and their pleas to be allowed to return to international competition, the others have not gone to such lengths as Kazakhstan.

So why is Kazakhstan pursuing CAS case number 2018/A/5722, in the name of four individual Kazakh athletes, which amounts to a fundamental challenge of the IWF's decision-making process, and to an anti-doping programme supported by the IOC?

Because, in Kazakhstan, cheating is seen differently.

The guilty weightlifters are portrayed as victims and Ilyin is still a national hero feted by his friend, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and the local media.

Their case may be, in their stated view, about the perceived unfairness of punishing clean athletes who will be unable to compete in Tokyo because of past violations by others.

But for how many years did Kazakh weightlifters punish clean athletes from elsewhere by doping?

If a national federation cannot be held responsible for the actions of its athletes, who are representing that federation, then who can?

There will have been many innocent victims of the scandals that engulfed Volkswagen and BP in the past decade, for which those companies were punished years after the event.

If global corporations can be held responsible and take their punishment long after misdeeds were committed, why not sporting federations?

Zhanat Tusupbekov, the powerful businessman who took over as President of the WFRK in 2013, told his fellow IWF Executive Board members in Lausanne that he was aware of the potentially catastrophic outcome of the CAS case.

Tusupbekov has suspended his Presidency of the federation to distance himself from the proceedings, making a viable claim that the push to continue the lawsuit is no longer in his hands.

There are those in Kazakhstan who believe the main backer of the legal challenge is Timur Kulibayev, the billionaire president of the National Olympic Committee, vice-president of the Olympic Council of Asia, and son-in-law of President Nazarbayev.

CAS case number 2018/A/5722 is due to be heard in October.

The most influential figures in Kazakhstan sport can ensure it is not, and give weightlifting a big push in the right direction, by dropping the case.

But are they big enough to do it?

Brian Oliver, author of '"The Commonwealth Games: Extraordinary Stories Behind the Medals", and a former sports editor of The Observer, was weightlifting media manager at London 2012 and Glasgow 2014.

InsideTheGames, 25.08.2018


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