-By Monica Nelson
Monica is a Master’s student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.
I’ll start this blog post with a declaration that should not surprise anyone who knows me: I am far from a well-rounded sports fan. From the day I first tried the Olympic lifts in 2014, I’ve framed my entire life around training and competing in Olympic Weightlifting, and am now studying it, thanks to PCS. I’ve lived so long in my Olympic Weightlifting bubble that I (frequently) forget that the sport that occupies most of my thoughts is an extremely marginal one. To be fair, I can understand its unpopularity in the U.S., and why people tend to find it funny or weird rather than awe-inspiring. I still remember the first time I ever saw an Olympic Weightlifting competition: I happened to walk by a TV playing the men’s superheavyweight session during the 2012 London Olympics and was amused by the way that the competitors grunted and yelled during heavy lifts. Lo and behold, a few years later, I became one of those red-faced, straining, yelling weightlifters – albeit moving significantly less weight and in a significantly lower tier of competition.
In forgetting its peripheral location in the realm of global sports, I also forget that not everyone knows just how corrupt (and frankly, doomed) Olympic Weightlifting is. We experience the sport in a cycle that repeats every few years: we idolize a number of incredibly strong weightlifters, fawn over their successes and world records, proclaim them the greatest of all time, find out they have tested positive for steroids (after years of negative drug tests!), and then move on to the next rising star – and we believe that this time, unlike every other time, the new fan favorite is completely steroid-free. Admittedly, this is a common process in other sports with high-prestige competitions, not just Olympic Weightlifting (Tour de France, anyone?).
The difference between Olympic Weightlifting and other sports is the scale at which this process occurs. Of all sports contested at the Olympics, Olympic Weightlifting consistently has among the highest number of positive steroid tests (63 since 2008 – tied with Athletics), and you can reliably expect that about a month after every World Championships, a wave of positive drug tests will come to light. The ninth-place finisher is awarded a belated bronze medal, world records are reset, star athletes disappear under the weight of a long-term sanction, and the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) asserts (as they do every year) that they are making promising headway in promoting clean sport. The cycle repeats endlessly, and we continue to barely remain in the Olympics.
Historically, our explanations for this rampant steroid use tend to manifest from the individual and their represented country. The athlete wants to succeed and to provide for themselves and their families, while their respective country wants to establish an identity of athletic superiority to reflect national strength and dominance. The aims of athlete and country align: so long as they are not caught, both parties (literally) profit.
We are all familiar with Russia and their state-sponsored doping scandals, of which Olympic Weightlifting is not exempt: there have been an immense number of Russian Olympic Weightlifters caught doping in the last few years. But so have a large number of weightlifters from a massive number of countries. Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Turkey, and China were all banned from the 2017 Olympic Weightlifting World Championships due to their high number of doping offenses, while many others were simply sanctioned with athlete bans and monetary fines. More recently, Thailand’s and Egypt’s Olympic Weightlifting federations completely lost their spots in the 2020 Olympics due to high numbers of positive drug tests. The doping problem is clearly bigger than Russia’s state-sponsored doping ring. Aside from these eleven sanctioned countries, athletes from thirty-one other countries (!!) had positive drug tests in just the last Olympic quadrennial. How many of these forty-two countries do you think had elaborate schemes designed to bypass drug tests, allowing them to sneak past detection for years before being caught? Or were these countries thoughtlessly injecting their athletes with steroids despite recent International Olympic Committee (IOC) crackdowns on steroid testing and threats to remove Weightlifting from the Olympic program? Neither of these explanations stack up. Yet we continue to blame athletic and national greed for Olympic Weightlifting’s steroid problems, while holding on to the assumption that the overarching sporting institutional structure is completely unbiased and uncorruptible.
On January 3rd, 2020, the German public broadcaster ARD (who exposed the Russian doping system in 2014) released a 45-minute documentary that offered an alternate explanation to the high doping rates in Olympic Weightlifting: the IWF has created a system in which they profit both from positive drug tests and fake-negative drug tests while upholding an appearance of virtuosity to countries that commit to clean Olympic Weightlifting (the United States, Canada, Spain, Italy, and Germany being a few of the most notable).
At the center of this quagmire is long-standing IWF President, Tamas Aján – who the filmmakers name “the Lord of the Lifters” in reference to his long tenure in positions of power. A former sport administrator from Hungary, Aján has been the undefeated leader of the IWF for the last 20 years, after having served as the IWF general secretary for 24 years prior to his current position. At Aján’s insistence, the IWF contracts with a Hungarian anti-doping agency, HUNADO, for nearly 80% of its in-and out-of-competition drug tests. This would not be a problem, barring a couple of minor (read: major) details.
Theoretically, the IWF is supposed to send HUNADO to perform steroid tests on high-performing athletes from all countries, both in and out of competition. Out-of-competition tests are to occur randomly, without warning the athletes or countries that the doping officials will be showing up. This is in order to ensure that the athletes are not using steroids in long intervals between major competitions. The HUNADO officials must be incorruptible, treating every athlete and country equally and doing their best to ensure clean sport. ARD revealed that this heuristic could not be further from the truth.
First, bribing HUNADO officials for clean drug tests for both athletes and teams is both rampant and beyond easy. ARD reporters discovered that the Moldovan team brought in doppelgangers of their athletes to provide clean urine samples in front of a HUNADO official, while paying between $60 and $200 for HUNADO officials to look the other way.
Second, that bribery only occurred when the IWF requested out-of-competition tests at all. ARD found that half of the Olympic medalists between 2008 and 2012 were not tested out of competition at any point, particularly those from Russia. The winningest countries and athletes in high-level competitions were simply not tested for steroid use, eliminating the need to create complex doping schemes. A country could easily bypass out-of-competition testing; in the rare event that HUNADO officials show up to give drug tests to doped-up athletes, the officials can be bribed to look the other way.
Vital in this drug-testing system is the appearance of virtue. Both the IOC and countries committed to a drug-free Olympic Weightlifting (i.e., the U.S., Canada, Spain, Italy, Germany, and a number of others) ardently object to the idea of steroids, meaning, the IWF must at least pretend to adhere to its own rules for their sake. So while athletes from countries that use steroids are rarely tested out of competition, athletes from countries who attempt to train and compete clean are tested frequently – giving the impression that the IWF is strict about its doping. As long as athletes from untested, steroid-heavy countries don’t spill the beans, of course.
In the event that an athlete is actually caught taking steroids, the IWF has an iffy track record of actually announcing positive drug tests. In 2013, Azerbaijan had 18 athletes test positive for steroids prior to the World Championships… which Azerbaijan also happened to host that year. Instead of banning the positively-tested athletes, they were all allowed to compete and inevitably win medals in front of their adulating home crowd. The IWF eventually announced the positive tests, serving the athletes sanctions and Azerbaijan a $500,000 fine – but only after the conclusion of Worlds.
This last point is the most important one: the unexamined hypocrisy of an international sport agency that subtly encourages widespread steroid abuse while simultaneously projecting an air of cleanliness for the goal of spectacle and popularity. The IWF knows that Olympic Weightlifting is nowhere near being a global mainstream sport, outside of a few former Soviet nations. To pump up viewership, star athletes attempt to push the limits of the human body to wow audiences with unbelievable world records and dramatic battles for the podium. Yet, every time a world record is set, an even greater amount of effort is needed to raise the bar (literally and figuratively) to set the next world record. Steroids are almost inevitable; at a certain point, every human body reaches the limit of its ability to quickly adapt to the stress of the weights being applied to it. Progressing past this limit requires one of two things: many additional years of injury-free training, or heavy steroid use. At the same time, the Olympics is the perfect platform to draw attention to the sport, but requires athletes to test negative for steroid use, in and out of competition. From the dual aims of pushing the limits of the body and meeting the requirements necessary to retain Olympic eligibility, an institutional doping system is born: star athletes only need to test clean until the Olympics, when they roll the dice and hope their doping methods can beat the constantly-improving IOC drug tests.
Now, let’s take a moment to discuss the human cost of this long-standing corruption, because this is critical.
Also included in the ARD documentary is an interview with a Thai weightlifter who won bronze at the 2012 Olympics. She discusses the doping system in Thailand and includes the age at which she began doping: 18. While we may think this is an unacceptably young age, she notes that her 7-year tenure on the international team (which is longer than average) was because she began doping “so late” – many of her peers began using anabolic steroids as young as 13. Egypt was recently found to use a similar system: its weightlifting federation lost its Olympic eligibility after a number of young teenagers tested positive for illegal steroid use. Rampant doping is far from a new phenomenon, especially considering the suspiciously early deaths of weightlifters from earlier eras of glory – many with autopsies that reveal internal organs pickled from years of steroid use and abuse. However, allegations of child doping are a relatively new phenomenon. What high price will these athletes pay for their involvement in the sport? Did they even understand the ramifications of the choices they were making? Were they given a choice on whether to take the steroids?
By failing to uphold a universal and transparent process of drug testing, the IWF profits directly from the hopes and desperation of athletes and their home countries to secure a hunk of metal on an international stage. In doing so, the IWF draws eerily similar parallels to the NFL’s profiting off of increasingly hard-hitting plays and ever-shortening lifespans of their brain-damaged stars. The differences between the IWF and the NFL lie only in their popularity and visibility: while critical scholarship and popular writing have condemned the NFL for its relationship to CTE and high-profile athlete deaths, no such parallel exists for strength sports and Olympic Weightlifting.
Accompanying the unpopularity of strength sports is the absence of academic engagement around the rampant unchecked corruption that determines which athletes win, which athletes lose, and which athletes die young. If this blog post is anything, it’s a call to attention. Pay attention to the lower profile sports. Though the NFL and the CTE crisis deserve every bit of our attention, so do sports clinging to the periphery of the public gaze. The extent of steroid use and corruption have been an open secret in Olympic Weightlifting for a long time – after all, Olympic Weightlifting was the first Olympic sport to make use of steroids. But what might have started as a steroidal arms race between countries vying for medals and glory slowly transitioned into a two-faced institutional structure that simultaneously denies and incentivizes that arms race, regardless of the human cost – and it took until 2020 for us to notice.