LANE ONE: Ajan steps down as International Weightlifting Federation head for now, American Ursula Papandrea named interim chief

Then-newly-elected IWF Vice President Ursula Papandrea (USA) and IWF President Tamas Ajan (HUN) in 2017 (Photo: USA Weightlifting)

One of the seemingly eternal figures in international sport, Hungary’s Tamas Ajan, agreed to “step away” from his position as the elected President of the International Weightlifting Federation while an investigation into charges against him is mounted over the next 90 days.

This decision was reached during a marathon emergency meeting of the IWF’s Executive Board, in Doha (QAT) on Wednesday. Equally stunning was the naming of an American, USA Weightlifting President Ursula Papandrea, as the interim head of the IWF.

How big a deal is this? It’s extraordinary. Please consider:

● Ajan, 81, has been deeply involved in international weightlifting since 1968 and has been an officer or director of the IWF since being elected as Vice President in 1970.

● He was the IWF Secretary General from 1976-2000, but was clearly the man in charge of federation affairs while Austria’s Gottfried Schodl was President.

● He was elected IWF President in 2000 and has been re-elected four times, the last in 2017, meaning he has been the effective head of weightlifting for 44 years.

● Ajan was a member of the International Olympic Committee from 2000-10, and despite all of the doping troubles associated with weightlifting, was a member of the Board of the World Anti-Doping Agency for many years.

Friendly, outgoing and with a ready smile no matter how bad the situation got for weightlifting, Ajan has been a popular member of the Olympic Movement – and a major player in Hungary – going into a sixth decade. That he is not the head of the IWF – for any reason and for any length of time – would be almost unthinkable at any time except now.

While not much publicized outside Olympic sports circles, Ajan’s public image was seriously called into question in a documentary by the German public television network ARD on 5 January. In that program, titled “Secret Doping – Lord of the Lifters” – Ajan was accused of hiding some $5.5 million in IWF funds and as head of the organization, allowed lax oversight of the drug-testing of the sport’s major stars and failed to find evidence of organized doping in Thailand, which was admitted by a Thai lifter during the show.

What is all the more amazing about this is that the IWF has just escaped from being thrown off the Olympic program for Paris in 2024, and restored by the IOC in March 2019. But the IOC’s announcement also included a provision for continued monitoring:

“Should any issues be noted in this ongoing implementation [of new anti-doping procedures], these will be reported to the IOC EB for it to consider any appropriate action, including with regard to further reviewing the place of weightlifting on the Olympic programme.”

So the IWF is back in hot water and the senior member of the IOC, Canada’s Dick Pound – the first head of the World Anti-Doping Agency – told ARD that if the allegations are proven, the logical follow-up is to remove weightlifting from the Olympic program.

The timeline:

26 March 2019: IOC Executive Board confirms weightlifting as a sport for the 2024 Paris Games, subject to continued monitoring of its anti-doping efforts.

5 January 2020: ARD documentary “Secret Doping – Lord of the Lifters” airs and accuses Ajan of multiple offenses, with first-hand admissions of heretofore unknown doping of teen lifters in Thailand.

6 January 2020: The International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency issued statements, with the IOC calling the ARD allegations “very serious and worrying.” The IWF statement rejected the program’s assertions, including “The IWF has to express its shock and dismay at the program as it contains many insinuations, unfounded accusations and distorted information, and it categorically denies the unsubstantiated and very serious accusations made against it by the show.”

19 January 2020: ARD follows up with an added segment that includes senior IOC member Pound calling for weightlifting’s suspension from the Olympic program of the allegations made are shown to be true.

20 January 2020: An emergency meeting of the IWF Executive Board was called for 22 January, in Doha (QAT).

22 January 2020: Ajan agreed to “step aside” for 90 days while a four-person “Oversight and Integrity Commission” will hire independent experts to review the charges made by ARD.

The lessons to be learned? The impact of investigative journalism is still quite strong, and where money was the catalytic factor in the ongoing trial of former IAAF chief and IOC member Lamine Diack (SEN) in France, the cover-up of doping programs has been the central focus of ARD’s work with Russia in 2014 and now with the IWF.

Moreover, the speed with which the ARD allegations turned into a full-scale investigation of Ajan and IWF activities – 17 days – is remarkable and shows that even a smaller federation within the not-widely-covered Olympic Movement is hardly immune from harsh scrutiny and internal rebuke. And Ajan’s long reign has been not appreciated by some within the IWF, who have been only too happy to demand his resignation.

Equally amazing is that of all people to head the IWF during the investigative period is an American woman. It may be hard to believe today, but the U.S. was the world’s leading weightlifting power in the 1950s, but faded in the 1960s as (chemically-enhanced?) Eastern European lifters took over. Women only joined the Olympic weightlifting program in 2000 and Papandrea became an IWF Vice President only because the IWF’s rules were changed in 2016 to mandate two female members of the Executive Board (one to be a Vice President).

Papandrea is steeped in the sport, having been a longtime lifter and coach, in addition to being a full-time faculty member at Austin Community College in Texas. And even if her term as head of the IWF is brief, it’s still fairly rare these days to have an American head of an International Federation.

And Ajan? He told the Web site that he looks forward to being vindicated:

“I have no doubt that independent experts will validate my position and the IWF position. It is worth it to wait a little longer to have this validation, in a way that is compatible with the best governance.”

He may be correct, but the IWF will never be the same.

Rich Perelman

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