THE BIG PICTURE: McLaren Report paints picture of ex-weightlifting chief Ajan at top of a criminal empire

Not only validating, but going well beyond the charges leveled in January’s “The Lord of the Lifters” documentary on German television, an independent report commission by the International Weightlifting Federation slammed ex-federation chief Tamas Ajan (HUN) with numerous criminal acts.

The report, released on Thursday, started with this remarkable statement:

“Dr. Ajan’s autocratic authoritarian leadership of the International Weightlifting Federation resulted in a dysfunctional, ineffective oversight of the organisation by the Executive Board, which had an ill-informed understanding of the organisation. This was achieved through various control mechanisms. As a consequence, Dr. Ajan disabled anyone other than himself from understanding the overall affairs of the IWF.”

In the following pages, the report of independent investigator and Canadian law professor Richard McLaren’s noted:

“The foundational control mechanism used by Dr. Ajan was the tyranny of cash. Cash collected, cash withdrawn, and cash unaccounted for, which Dr. Ajan was the sole collector. The primary sources of this cash were doping fines paid personally to the President and cash withdrawals of large amounts from the IWF’s accounts, usually withdrawn before major competitions or IWF congresses. It is absolutely impossible to determine how much of the cash collected or withdrawn was used for legitimate expenses. The McLaren Independent Investigation Team has determined that $10.4 million USD is unaccounted for.”

“Weightlifting has a history of use of performance enhancing drugs. Over 600 lifters in the past decade have tested positive. While Dr. Ajan has impermissibly interfered with the IWF Anti-Doping Commission, the real problem is the culture of doping that exists in the sport. The investigation uncovered 40 positive Adverse Analytical Findings hidden in the IWF records. This includes gold and silver medalists who have not had their samples dealt with. This information has been passed on to WADA for further investigation.”

“The two most recent Electoral Congresses were rampant with vote buying for the President and senior level positions of the Executive Board, despite monitoring. Such actions are a fundamental violation of the sport’s By-Laws on Disciplinary and Ethics Procedures.”

These are, in criminal terms, allegations of bribery, fraud, theft and more. In his 122-page report – released just 125 days after his appointment – McLaren, on behalf of his team of seven staff members goes on to detail information and evidence considered to be “reliable and firmly established” and which is based on documents and more than 50 interviews.

(1) Despite “stepping down” from his position as IWF President, Ajan continued to run the organization as if nothing had happened. “Dr. Ajan effectively blocked the Acting President from fulfilling her position, granted to her by the Terms of Reference, which authorised her management and supervision of the activities of the IWF and of the Secretariat. She did not even have a key to the office of the Secretariat until the day before the visit. Despite assurances to the contrary, Dr. Ajan did not provide her signatory authority to the Hungarian OTP account as necessary for the effective running of the organisation. Furthermore, he failed to make a full disclosure of bank accounts to the Acting President and to the [investigators].”

(2) Although there were comments that doping cover-ups went back as far as the 1980s, the report focused on the period from 2009-19, where better records were available. Even for this period alone:

“As the investigation progressed, the MIIT [McLaren Independent Investigation Team] became aware of activities that demonstrated possible criminal conduct, with millions in cash unaccounted for and not entered in the books of the IWF. The MIIT however, has reported separately, on a strictly confidential basis, to the [IWF Oversight] Commission on these matters.”

And the team’s verdict on Ajan’s conduct was clear:

“The IWF is an organisation in need of resuscitation and fundamental foundational restoration. It has been held together for nearly 45 years by the iron grasp of Dr. Ajan, one of the longest serving sports federation presidents. Failure for the organisation to act on the [report’s] recommendations has the potential to cause irreparable harm to an organisation facing constitutional, governance and membership challenges as a result of his reign.”

First among the 17 recommendations was a full-scale audit “of the last ten fiscal years, including information uncovered in this investigation and with full access to all accounts. In this regard, an immediate examination of the books and records held in two ‘safe’ cupboards in the Budapest office discovered 2 weeks ago.”

(3) Ajan acted as not only the IWF President, but also its head of finance. The report states that from 2009-19, Ajan received cash payments of about $27.8 million, of which only $17.4 million can be accounted for as paid out or otherwise accounted for. That leaves a gap of $10.4 million.

The investigation uncovered two accounts, one in Hungary and one in Switzerland, over which Ajan had total control and which the IWF’s own accountant did not include as part of the federation’s records!

The IWF receives much of its funding from its share of the IOC’s television rights payments. The McLaren team was able to reconcile these IOC amounts from 1992-2009, but after questions were raised about the veracity of the IOC’s financial reports in 2009, funds suddenly started disappearing once the monies moved from their initial landing place in the IWF’s Swiss accounts to Hungarian banks over which Ajan has sole control. From 2009-19, Ajan had $12.5 million withdrawn in cash (!) without any documentation of the use of such funds.

McLaren’s team found two undisclosed Hungarian accounts, and was able to obtain records for only one of them. More than $13.2 million flowed into one account from 2010-20, with $8.3 million in cash removed, all outside of the IWF financial reports.

The report heavily criticized Ajan’s insistence on doping fines and other payments being made in cash, on which he repeatedly insisted. There are still many questions to be answered in this area.

(4) While Ajan was elected to the IWF Presidency five times, beginning in 2000, the investigation showed that

“His successful tenure however has not been the result of a fair or democratic process. To have and maintain a strong power base and control of the administrative hierarchy, Dr. Ajan had to ensure his own re-election to the office of President, together with the election of his favoured candidates to the senior positions of influence within the IWF. His re-election was assured through his supporters causing the manipulation of the results in the Electoral Congresses.”

Ajan exercised control with threats of uncovering doping positives from a particular country, or possibly excluding a country’s team from the Olympic weightlifting competition, among other tactics.

The report noted that bribery was commonly used and noted that “Corruption was rife with rampant cronyism and outright bribery. The buying of votes was accomplished through individuals acting on behalf of the President as ‘vote brokers.’” and

“Documentary evidence supported through witness testimony, indicates that a considerable amount of cash was spent at the 2013 Moscow and later the 2017 Bangkok Electoral Congresses in order to guarantee votes for Dr. Ajan and his team through bribes.”

The report specified that bribery efforts were focused on federations in Asia, Africa and Oceania, with payments ranging from $5-30,000 each in 2013 and 2017.

(5) On doping and cover-ups, the report found that while some of the allegations made against Ajan were unfounded, “The behavior of Dr. Ajan is what the MIIT refers to generally as ‘meddling’. The President would gain access to the confidential and independent functioning of the [IWF anti-doping group], in order to frustrate its operations.”

Ajan tried and was sometimes able to obtain prior notice of testing dates or targeted countries. In cases where doping positives came back, Ajan would delay the announcement of the positives, sometimes for months, or even a full year. There were also 109 doping positives from 2009-13 which were not submitted into the World Anti-Doping Agency’s tracking software, and another 45 cases from 2009-14 which were apparently not submitted either.

The reporting team has forwarded its information to WADA for further investigation.

These revelations are all the more stunning in view of the lack of cooperation that McLaren team received from senior IWF officials. Only two of the five IWF Vice Presidents, two of the eight elected members of the Executive Board and one of the five area presidents offered testimony. Of the 20 member federation heads or chief executives that the investigators asked to speak to, “only four responded and ultimately only one of those provided information of significant value.” And:

“The appetite for Members and stakeholders of the IWF to come forward was practically non-existent. Only one current athlete spoke with the [team of] investigators.”

Nevertheless, the report places weightlifting at a crossroads once again. The International Olympic Committee released a statement, noting it is “studying it very carefully. The content is deeply concerning.”

WADA also issued a statement, including “Once WADA has had the opportunity to review that evidence as well as the report in full, the Agency will consider the next appropriate steps to take.”

In simple terms, this is a mess. While Ajan is the immediate loser, the future of weightlifting in the Olympic Games has to be reconsidered once again.

The only winner appears to be ARD and its investigating team of Hajo Seppelt, Nick Butler and Grit Hartmann, whose work tore the cover off of Ajan’s control of a federation whose Olympic pedigree goes back to 1920 … and may effectively end in 2020.