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Oliver: Only One Winner in Complex Case of ‘Lance Armstrong of Weightlifting’

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Ilya Ilyin celebrates winning a second Olympic title - but both gold medals have now been taken from him. However, he is still in line to compete at Tokyo 2020. Photo: Reuters

The appalling abuse of American Olympic gymnasts, North Korea’s Winter Olympic participation and Russian dopers have all been making the headlines this week.

There is another Olympic-related story that has not been aired much beyond the specialist media and in Kazakhstan, but you can bet your life it will be a big talking point when Tokyo 2020 comes around – and the sport of weightlifting will likely take a lot of flak that should be aimed elsewhere.

Last Tuesday (January 23), the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) posted an explanation as to why it had suspended Ilya Ilyin for only two years, which means he can compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games despite him having to return two Olympic gold medals for doping.

This is, as far as most people within weightlifting are concerned, a terrible decision – morally wrong, bad for morale, and sure to damage the reputation of a sport that is already under threat, because of doping, of losing its Olympic status.

They are right. But so are those who point out that legally, the IWF had no other option – and the laws by which they are hamstrung are not their own. The IWF was following the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code.

Ilyin, 29, a national hero in Kazakhstan despite his reputation in the wider world, has been called “the Lance Armstrong of weightlifting” because he is the most high-profile athlete in his sport to have been identified as a probable serial doper.

On the IWF’s results database Ilyin has 10 career results listed between 2005 and 2015.

He had 10 straight wins until two of those results became”DQ” for doping – at Beijing 2008 and London 2012.

Both were in the notorious and soon to be defunct 94 kilograms category in which Ilyin could justifiably claim, judging by retest results, that all his main rivals were doping too.

His positives, for stanozolol, came up when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) retested samples from Beijing and London a few months before the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, from which Ilyin was subsequently suspended.

Confirmation of the 2012 positive was sent by the IOC to the Kazakhstan Olympic Committee in June 2016, seven days before news of the 2008 positive.

And therein lies the problem – because two offences then became one.

The IOC and WADA were leading this process, and when the IWF became involved at the sanction stage it was compelled to follow the WADA code applicable at the time.

Under this code, drawn up in 2009, the London violation could not be treated as a second case because Ilyin had not already been informed of the Beijing violation.

Chronologically, an athlete must be informed of a first positive before any subsequent positive is treated as a second offence: the athlete must be given a chance to modify his or her behavior after the first offence has taken place.

Whether Ilyin and his rivals ever had any intention of modifying their behavior is open to question, but because the IOC sent the notifications to Kazakhstan “the wrong way round” Ilyin was able to take advantage of a loophole that nobody could have foreseen when the WADA code was drawn up, when there was no such thing as reanalysis of stored Olympic samples.

One day after the 2012 notification was sent, Ilyin’s 2008 B-sample was analysed. Might the IOC have waited and sent those notifications in the “right” order for the two cases to be treated separately, which would have led to Ilyin being banned for eight years?

Or, even better, might the IOC have carried out the retests way back in 2014, by when the “new” testing science was already available, in order to complete the legal process before Rio? Why wait until 11 weeks before the Olympic Games to start looking at the B-samples?

Who knows, because the IOC does not wish to talk about the cases.

Besides, it might have made no difference, because there was another factor in Ilyin’s favor, that of precedent.

At the time when Ilyin’s samples were being tested so were those of Maiya Maneza, another Kazakh who tested positive in both Beijing and London in the retests.

Her case was similar, as were the timings, and she was also suspended for just two years starting on June 10, 2016 – the date when her London positive was confirmed. This had already happened before Ilyin’s suspension.

There was no loophole for a third Kazakh who was disqualified from gold medal position in London. Svetlana Podobodeva also tested positive twice but because her first offence, when she competed for Russia in 2008, had already been dealt with she was banned for eight years.

In official documents about Ilyin’s disciplinary proceedings the IOC said the evidence “more than suggests that the athlete has been repeatedly using prohibited substances throughout his career”.

So, a presumed career doper is disqualified twice from the Olympic Games and ordered to return two gold medals, yet he will be able to compete in Tokyo, when he will be 32.

Does that sound right?

All the IOC will say is that “the decision was deemed appropriate”, while the Kazakhstan Federation has not responded to questions sent by insidethegames.

Those who blame the IWF are aiming at the wrong target.

Yes, the IWF could and should have taken a hardline stance against doping many years ago, and can be held to account for not doing so.

WADA must close the loophole that led to this situation, should it ever arise again, and until that happens the IOC needs to take more care over its timings. The IWF has written to both bodies to ask them to change the rules.

But at least the IWF has toughened up on dopers now, whatever this decision might suggest, and when Ilyin does return he can expect to set yet another world record – as the most tested weightlifter in history.

By Brian Oliver

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz

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