Brian Oliver ©ITG

Weightlifting is wasting 60 per cent of its potential, says the man who is coordinating plans to transform the sport by distancing it from its troubled past and taking it into a new era.

Antonio Urso, who described the recent International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) elections as "a circus" before being elected general secretary by one vote in bizarre circumstances, said, "We have a roadmap, and we know we cannot move from it.

"Either we change course or Paris 2024 will be the last chapter in our Olympic history."

The first steps towards a new future must be taken within four months.

That is why Urso is working up to 15 hours a day, trying to meet the deadline imposed after he and Mohamed Jalood, the new IWF President, met with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently.

The first big qualifying event for Paris 2024 will be the IWF World Championships in Colombia starting on December 5 and tougher anti-doping rules must be in place by then.

In the two days before the lifting begins, there will be an IWF Board meeting and a Special Congress, at which members will be asked to support a range of projects on the roadmap, the aim of which is to regain and secure weightlifting's place on the Olympic Games schedule after Paris.

Key points include the proposed exclusion from the Olympic Games of countries that do not cooperate with out-of-competition anti-doping tests, bringing new life to the way the sport is presented, overhauling of the way the IWF operates day-to-day, and asking members - for the second time in less than two years - to adopt a new Constitution.

The weightlifting presentation a Birmingham 2022 has drawn praise ©Getty Images
The weightlifting presentation a Birmingham 2022 has drawn praise ©Getty Images

The IWF is also seeking to recruit professionals from communications, marketing and law before it appoints a new chief executive.

The Board's hope is that all of this and more, if successful, will finally change the image of weightlifting and its status within the Lausanne headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Urso said.

The reforms will be made in agreement with the IOC, which removed weightlifting from the schedule of Los Angeles 2028 last December and will not change its mind until it sees "a change of culture" at the IWF.

Jalood told insidethegames at Birmingham, where nine Board members attended the hugely successful weightlifting competition at the Commonwealth Games: "We are going to change, we will make it happen.

"Yes, there were a lot of problems in the past, but that was the past and we cannot be blamed for that.

"We are doing so much work to build a better future for this sport."

Urso and Jalood have been told what "a new culture" is expected to look like.

Rooting out dopers, and possibly their entire national teams, is top of the list.

Transforming the IWF's governance and adopting a completely new Constitution, rather than a different version of previous ones, are also essential.

"We have a lot of projects for the future and without governance reform those projects are not possible," said Urso.

Antonio Urso believes weightlifting is only
Antonio Urso believes weightlifting is only "operating at 40 per cent of its potential" ©Dan Kent/IWF

"We had a unanimous vote at our last Board meeting for changing the Constitution.

"We have taken previous versions and changed lines here and there but we need a new one, we need a 21st-century Constitution for a modern sports federation."

There have been plenty of "new era" comments in the past couple of years, by the IWF’s Former Executive Board, but it was empty talk that made no impression on the IOC and was not followed up by actions.

Urso said, "Weightlifting is operating at 40 per cent of its potential.

"It has so much more to offer, but it cannot do it until it moves into the 21st century."

Urso is focusing on how weightlifting can become more vibrant, more attractive to its audience, to sponsors and the media.

He learned a lot, in this respect, from his visit to Birmingham, where nine members of the IWF Board watched the weightlifting.

Jalood praised the way the audience were drawn into the action by two presenters and a DJ, and said the atmosphere was "like a football stadium".

Maude Charron, Canada’s Olympic champion, said, "I’ve never heard so much noise at a weightlifting competition."

Urso was impressed by the work of the presenters, recruited by the sport competition manager Jo Calvino, and said, "I learned a lot here.

"I congratulate the Organising Committee and I’m thinking it’s possible to do more like this.

"Think of the technology involved in a big music event, lights, sound, changing the view of the stage, everything changing all the time… so much potential."

New IWF President Mohamed Jalood was impressed with an atmosphere
New IWF President Mohamed Jalood was impressed with an atmosphere "like a football stadium" at Birmingham 2022 ©Dan Kent/IWF

A new Weightlifting Sport Commission will be created to tap into some of that 60 per cent unused potential in terms of presentation and audience engagement.

"One event [lift] every minute or every two minutes, it's completely different to the constant flow of most other sports, especially football and basketball," Urso said.

"The task of the new commission is how to reduce the time lapse, or how to make the sport attractive during the time lapse - to use that time in a way that engages the audience.

"The first step is internal.

"We will appoint weightlifting people to come up with ideas and plans, then we will seek help from external people, from professionals involved in presenting events, in audience engagement."

Eventually, governance reform will be needed all the way down to each member federation.

"When we adopt a new Constitution, which will be next June at the latest, in agreement with the IOC, then we will want continental federations and member federations to copy it so that everybody is speaking the same language.

"This is like a big company, the IWF, with more than 190 members.

"In any big company the first step is to have clear rules for everybody, so we are all speaking the same language, working towards the same goals.

"There must be transparency for all, from the top of the IWF structure to individual athletes and member federations, the same rules for everybody."

That is why tougher anti-doping rules are being drawn up, as reported elsewhere on insidethegames.

Another area where rapid improvement is needed is in media and communications.

Canada's Olympic champion Maude Charron won another gold medal at Birmingham 2022 ©Getty Images
Canada's Olympic champion Maude Charron won another gold medal at Birmingham 2022 ©Getty Images

"For the media we have to clean up the sport, and that does not just mean clean of doping, it means in terms of transparency," said Urso.

"The other priorities are to create interest in the media, and to modernise communications.

"We need results on this as soon as possible, and we talked about it a lot at the last Board meeting."

It is very much a team effort for the Board and the IWF’s members to transform their sport but nobody will be busier than Urso.

He has twice been beaten by Tamás Aján in Presidential elections, in 2013 and 2017, and also failed when the votes were cast in June at this year's Electoral Congress in Albania, only to then win by one vote four days later when it transpired that the original "winner", Jose Quinones, had not polled a clear majority.

Urso had resigned from the "crazy and destructive" IWF Board in 2020 saying "the corruption is bigger than me".

Since 2009 he had been a lone voice complaining about financial misdeeds during the reign of Aján, now banned for life from weightlifting, who ran the sport "like his own personal project".

Urso was President of the European Weightlifting Federation for the maximum term of 12 years and has experience of making successful reforms, having overseen a 10-year project in his own nation, Italy, which is ongoing.

It reaped rewards last year when Italy won three Olympic medals and Antonino Pizzolato became the first Italian weightlifter to set a world record, on total, for 100 years, which in turn led to commercial success with new sponsorships and support.

Tamás Aján, who led the IWF for two decades until 2020, has now been banned from weightlifting for life ©Getty Images
Tamás Aján, who led the IWF for two decades until 2020, has now been banned from weightlifting for life ©Getty Images

The "Italian system" focused on treating the athletes "like humans rather than machines" and took a huge amount of planning, including one meeting in 2012 that lasted for three days.

The Italians "invested a lot in research, in technology, and culture of coaches," and appointed two psychologists to the support team to work with the coaches rather than the athletes.

"The key was to improve the capacity of coaches to manage the human resource, manage the talents.

"In a clean sport, anybody can win with good training, good culture, good professionalism - there are possibilities for all."

The same sort of innovative thinking will be crucial as weightlifting moves from point to point on its roadmap.

Of all the plans and projects, which does Urso see as the most important?

"All of them," he said.

"They are all interconnected, all part of the big plan to change our image.

"Weightlifting has so much potential.

"Once we stop operating at 40 per cent we can win over the IOC, we can be a really successful modern sport."