Brian Oliver ©ITG

Canada's team of 17 athletes was one of the biggest at the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Championships that ended in Bogotá, Colombia on Friday (December 16) - only three short of the maximum 20.

Twelve of them had to pay their own way to compete.

“Look around at the other nations here, those with big teams - how many of them are self-funded? Probably none," said Craig Walker, President of Weightlifting Canada (WCH).

Among those who had to pay to compete - or rather her mother did, because she is a student - was 20-year-old Emma Friesen, a Pan American Championships silver medallist.

Deanne Whelan Friesen is secretary treasurer of Weightlifting Canada, which like every other position on the WCH Board is an entirely voluntary role, so she had to pay for herself as well as Emma.

A busy year of competitions will set her back tens of thousands of dollars.

There are times when others do the same, including one coach who pays for his athletes to compete "because they’re like my own children when it comes to weightlifting".

Weightlifting Canada has no office, no national coach, no national training centre and until 2019 it did not even have national team uniforms.

It holds its National Championships in a school in Quebec that still has the Eleiko platform from the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games, which has been used for more than 200 competitions in its lifetime.

Weightlifting’s total funding from Sport Canada for its "athlete assistance programme" is CAD154,000 (£92,000/$112,000/€106) - about the same as water skiing and karate, which are non-Olympic sports, and less than half as much as fencing, in which Canada has never won an Olympic medal.

Maude Charron won Olympic gold for Canada at Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images
Maude Charron won Olympic gold for Canada at Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images

Canada has had two weightlifting champions in the past four Olympic Games, Christine Girard in 2008 and, last year in Tokyo, Maude Charron, who was a World Championship medallist in her first try at a new body weight in Bogotá.

Charron is funded by Own The Podium (OTP), the elite athlete support body, and did not have to pay her own costs to compete in Colombia.

Her reward from the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) for winning in Tokyo was CAD20,000 (£12,000/$14,600/€13,800) - less than one fifth of what Italy’s National Olympic Committee paid the silver medallist Giorgia Bordignon.

The COC rewards are across the board for all sports, not just weightlifting.

But weightlifting has suffered a crushing lack of money over the years, and only now is it beginning to change.

This penury was a result of doping scandals way back in the 1980s that destroyed the sport's public image, and an apparent disregard by Weightlifting Canada for growth throughout most of this century when, said Walker, it effectively went into its shell and ignored opportunities to come out and rebuild.

"In the 1980s we had an office in Montreal, a full-time national coach and a small staff, but with the doping scandals all of that disappeared," said Walker.

"Now our official office is a room at my home in Calgary, Deanne runs the administration from her house in Edmonton where she has a basement full of boxes of Virus gear [the apparel sponsor] and all our meetings are online.

"Deanne is a partner in a management consulting firm, I have a mortgage to pay and a legal practice to build.

"Our Board members give what they can when they can and we make what we can of it because we love the sport.

"Places like Thailand and Armenia are going to have a much better infrastructure for weightlifting than us."

Emma Friesen's mother paid her way to Colombia for the World Championships ©Getty Images
Emma Friesen's mother paid her way to Colombia for the World Championships ©Getty Images

That is the reality: there are those in Canada who accept it for what it is and others who are especially disillusioned by the situation.

The critics include a nine-time national champion whose father is one of the biggest names in weightlifting history, a World Championship medallist who has coached in Spain and France and has two outstandingly talented children, and a highly qualified strength coach whose daughter is on the national team but who feels "like an outsider" as her coach.

For most of this century Weightlifting Canada bumbled along on income of less than CAD100,000 (£60,000/$73,000/€69,000) a year, nearly all of it from funding.

Four years ago there was a block of funding available to a range of sports, totalling CAD7 million (£4.2 million/$5.1 million/€4.8 million) "but my predecessor simply ignored it and we didn’t even hear about it," said Walker.

"Throughout this century there wasn’t a focus on looking at ways to grow the funding base.

"It seemed that people were content to keep it very small and manageable.

"There was no emphasis on building relationships with institutional partners, and definitely not on trying to find new revenue streams.

"We still have a lot to do but we're starting to move out of that state of inertia.

"Now we actually have people advocating for us, a better collaboration about the way the sport can go.

"We have a much better relationship with Sport Canada, the Canadian Olympic Committee and Own The Podium.

"Own the Podium sent a consultant with us to Bogotá.

"They’ve seen the work we're doing, seen the results on the podium at Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, Pan Am seniors and youths.

"Money from Own the Podium allowed us to hire a high-performance manager, Mac Read - who was strength and conditioning coach for China's bobsleigh team - which means we have someone in that role for the first time since the 1980s."

Emily Ibanez is already lifting more than some competitors at the full World Championships ©Ciro Ibanez
Emily Ibanez is already lifting more than some competitors at the full World Championships ©Ciro Ibanez

The lack of funding and development caused problems that cannot be fixed overnight and that, not for the first time, is a concern when it comes to some of Canada's best young talent.

Emily Ibanez has just lifted 73-93-166 in the 55 kilograms category in a competition in Mexico, which was 6kg more than the last-placed finisher, from Israel, in the same category at the IWF World Championships.

Emily is 11 years old.

Then there is her brother Brayan, who broke Pan American youth records and became Canada's first-ever medallist in this age group when he was third at 73kg in the IWF Youth World Championships in Mexico in June.

Of course any number of things could halt their progress in the future, but they are very well grounded in the sport, having learned technique from the age of three then spent years in gymnastics, because they are from a weightlifting family.

Their father Ciro Ibanez, a World Championship medallist for Cuba who defected to Canada in 1987, has coached in Europe and now runs a gym in Montreal with his wife Abigail, who is Spanish.

Canada never competed at the Youth Pan Ams until 2021, and Ibanez feels there was no recognition for his son's landmark medal.

"The Government doesn’t help at all here," he said.

"There is still the mentality in Canada that weightlifting is a doping sport.

"Brayan was tested six times in two months and he's 16… Emily is 11 and she has been tested.

"They spend a lot of money on testing but nothing on the athletes, that's the situation in Canada.

"There is no development plan for youths, no national team, no vision.

"Craig Walker is trying to make some changes but there are others who don't want change.

"The kids start learning the sport too late, and the minimum youth body weight is too high, 40kg compared to 30kg in the United States.

"I'm getting tired of it - we're thinking of getting into the system in Spain."

Brayan and Emily are both eligible to compete for Canada and Spain.

Brayan Ibanez is a Youth World Championship medallist ©Ciro Ibanez
Brayan Ibanez is a Youth World Championship medallist ©Ciro Ibanez

There is an example of wasted talent in Nick Varbanov, nine times a national champion at four different weights but never once an international lifter for Canada because, he said, he could not afford it.

He is the son of Alex Varbanov, one of the all-time great weightlifters.

Varbanov has not entered a competition since the Canadian Nationals in May 2019, apart from one online event during COVID-19 lockdown.

He has continued to train, follows the sport closely with his father and reckons he would have been good enough to compete in the IWF World Championships.

"I'm not saying I'd get a medal at the Worlds right now, but I am capable of competing with these athletes at 73kg," Varbanov said.

The Varbanovs, who emigrated to Canada in 2008, run a gym in Toronto and take athletes to a summer training camp in Bulgaria, where Alex trained under the renowned coach Ivan Abadjiev and won three world titles, an Olympic bronze medal and countless other gold medals as a member of the best team in the world in the 1980s.

On this year's visit, Nick Varbanov met the Bulgarian national team and said he was told by their coach Ivan Ivanov that he was good enough to join them.

Bulgaria's national team members can earn a six-figure salary in US dollar terms.

Varbanov, a dual national, said, "I know my worth," - but WCH cannot afford to pay it.

"I am living in a country where I'm good enough to represent them well internationally, I'm following in the footsteps of one of the best, if not the best middleweight of all time and I'm pretty sure I can go out there and really put Canadian weightlifting on the map.

"I want to go and compete, but I don't have the resources to do that.

"I have been involved for 13 years now and I think me and my father have been put through quite a lot, which is where I can compare my situation to Brayan and Emily.

"When we emigrated it was hard to get by, we were and still are still growing our business.

"I was a student when I won all those national titles.

"Without any support it was hard as a little kid to face reality and be told yes, you’re good enough, but you’re not rich enough.

"They asked me to cover CAD12,000 (£7,200/$8,700/€8,200) of costs when I was 16 years old - which 16-year-old has that money? 

"It's ridiculous."

Nick Varbanov says the money is not there for him to lift internationally for Canada ©Nick Varbanov
Nick Varbanov says the money is not there for him to lift internationally for Canada ©Nick Varbanov

Varbanov said he performed well from 2017 to 2019 and should have competed at the IWF Junior World Championships in Tokyo in 2017 and Tashkent in 2018, and the senior World Championships in Thailand in 2019.

"In total I would have to spend close to CAD30,000 (£18,000/$21,900/€20,700) to go," he said.

"The opportunity to be a full-time athlete is not there in Canada."

Varbanov is 23 and is set to compete again next year - "the plan is to go into the United States and get some competitions done there" - but the chances of him representing Canada are slim unless a big pot of funding suddenly appears.

"My dad had a few head coaches from multiple countries asking about me competing for them - I'm not going to say anything more than that they were Latin American countries.

"Slowly but surely weightlifting is becoming like soccer, athletes are being traded.

"We're already seeing it start, with Lesman Paredes and Gor Minasyan going to Bahrain.

"They put in so much work, they want to be paid what they’re worth and there's no reason they shouldn't be."

Would he compete elsewhere?

"Yes and no… until I'm able to prepare properly I don't want to think about who I would be competing for.

"I have a career here, I spent three years studying to be a massage therapist, put a lot of money towards it, but competing [internationally] is not out of the picture for me.

What would have to happen for Varbanov to change his mind and compete for Canada?

"First of all a complete reform of Weightlifting Canada, that would set the tone for change.

"I don’t think Weightlifting Canada represents its athletes very well, and not many athletes in Canada take the sport seriously.

"Weightlifting is not a sport in China, it's a job… in Canada it's a hobby because you don't get anything for it.

Sport Canada funding for weightlifting is comparable to that which non-Olympic sports such as karate receive ©Getty Images
Sport Canada funding for weightlifting is comparable to that which non-Olympic sports such as karate receive ©Getty Images

"My friends in the Bulgarian national team are not in a similar position at all, they know exactly what's going on every day, what's expected of them, they have discipline, they have regimen and they're under a very tight leash.

"A big part of an athlete's success is the people he surrounds himself with.

"If you're not put in a shark-tank environment where you're feeding off everyone's energy, trying to keep up with the pace of these hungry young lions, you'll never have the incentive to get better, to persevere through the hardships.

"The environment in Canada is as far away as it can be from a shark tank.

“We need athletes speaking out.

"Every problem needs to be exposed to be dealt with… if it's kept in the dark nobody will know or care.

"You can build weightlifting to become a much bigger sport.

"It’s both the National Federation and the Government at fault.

"The federation hasn't done enough to get themselves out there and show why they should get more funding.

"If they said 'we’ll fund an Olympic quad for CAD30,000 a year' I think I would win them a medal.

"Canadian weightlifting doesn't use its resources the way it can, like my father and Ciro.

"They’ve been around the world, they know about weightlifting, won World Championships medals.

"It's crazy to me that you have these former Olympians, these people who know so much about the sport and you're not doing anything with it.

"Hopefully Brayan is in a better position than I was, but if the Government or whoever is responsible for funding don't change, it's only going to get worse.”

Brayan Ibanez could dich Canada in favour of competing for Spain ©Ciro Ibanez
Brayan Ibanez could dich Canada in favour of competing for Spain ©Ciro Ibanez

Walker queried Varbanov’s CAD30,000 estimate and said, "Mr Varbanov declined to participate in international competitions where he would have been a funded athlete.

"The average cost per athlete for the competitions he cites were between CAD2,500 (£1,500/$1,800/€1,700) and CAD3,000 (£1,800/$2,200/€2,100).

"Mr Varbanov was likely eligible for 80 per cent funding given the national rankings at the time, so it's unclear why he chose not to compete.

"The growing costs of attending competitions is a concern for all participants.

"For well over a decade, WCH has funded the top two male athletes and top two female athletes at 80 per cent of costs for junior and senior international competitions.

"If he ranks in the top two males for any given international competition on our calendar, he is eligible for that funding unless he is separately funded by Own the Podium.

"He would have to come out of retirement and compete at a high level - including internationally - to be eligible for this funding."

Clance Laylor, a former sprinter and now a highly-qualified strength and conditioning coach, is taking legal action against WCH over its decision not to fund his trip to Colombia as Maya Laylor's personal coach at the World Championships.

He paid his own way, and said, "If the goal of Weightlifting Canada is to develop athletes and win medals, shouldn't everything be directed towards that?

"The biggest problem is money.

"USA Weightlifting is more resourceful than us in marketing, sponsorship, membership income, coaching revenue.

"They are advancing their programme with someone who knows, Pyrros Dimas.

"Here in Canada we have two people in our back yard, Alex Varbanov and Ciro Ibanez, just sitting there.

"We should be paying Alex Varbanov to be in charge of performance development, we should be using Ciro's knowledge and expertise."

Weightlifting Canada would not fund Maya Laylor's personal coach's travel to the World Championships ©Getty Images
Weightlifting Canada would not fund Maya Laylor's personal coach's travel to the World Championships ©Getty Images

Walker said, "Weightlifting Canada posted a full-time high-performance manager position earlier this year.

"Neither Mr Varbanov nor Mr Ibanez applied for it.

"We understand that Mr Ibanez is not permitted to coach at Quebec weightlifting events.

"The grant funding WCH receives is ring-fenced, meaning it must be directed towards the purpose for which it is awarded.

"Some grants go towards athletes' safety, others towards policies and alignment with the provinces, while other blocks are directed at national team athletes.

"Our track record over the past few years suggests we are moving in a positive direction in athlete development."

The bank balance has improved because of the COVID pandemic, thanks to "recovery money" from the Government, and Weightlifting Canada is not only gearing up to send teams to at least eight competitions next year, there is talk of Canada hosting an international competition in the next few years.

"That’s an aim – we’ll look at a Commonwealth Championships first, then maybe something for the IWF from 2026 onward," Walker siad.

"I live in Calgary and the tourism board loves the idea of hosting a big weightlifting event."

One coach with a different viewpoint is Hani Kanama, who was funded to take his athletes to world and continental junior championships this year but has put many thousands of his own dollars into weightlifting over the years.

Kanama paid his own way to Bogotá, where his athlete Shania Bedward made all six lifts to finish eighth in the women's 76kg.

He is a former national junior champion in Syria who emigrated to Canada 36 years ago, and whose dedication to the sport is evident from his schedule this month.

He went to Orlando, Florida for the World Masters from December 3 to 5, then straight to Colombia, and as soon as he got off the plane in Toronto yesterday he headed for the Ontario Junior Championships to coach.

President Craig Walker insists Weightlifting Canada is developing, but starting from a very low base ©Getty Images
President Craig Walker insists Weightlifting Canada is developing, but starting from a very low base ©Getty Images

"Weightlifting is my life," said Kanama.

"I had an athlete at the first Youth Worlds in 2009.

"He quit when he got a bit older, found there was no money in weightlifting and had to start work.

"Of course there should be a youth development programme - look at the coaches who produce youth lifters, support them and the athletes, and fund training camps."

He cites Yvan Darsigny, one of the coaches who is frequently funded for Canada's international competitions, as one who develops lifters from a young age.

Charlotte Simoneau, who is trained by Darsigny, won the best youth lifter award at the recent Pan American Youth Championships in Guatemala City.

Darsigny and Kanama coach five of the six Canadians who are expected to lift at the World Junior Championships next year.

"Support is really needed when an athlete gets to 20.

"You might be a very good junior but the support is not there and you have to start a career.

"I have a lot of youth and junior lifters and from my business [he is a distributor for Nike in Canada] I fund them to compete overseas.”

His next trip will be to the World Youth Championships in Albania in March, with his athlete Natalie Cerna.

Weightlifting is my life," says Hani Kanama ©Brian Oliver
Weightlifting is my life," says Hani Kanama ©Brian Oliver

"We need to grow like the USA has done, for sure - in similar ways, more athletes, more income from coaching education, more sponsors.

"I've been involved 20 years in Canadian weightlifting.

"Is it better now? 

"In some ways - there's a bit more funding and now we have a team uniform!

"But there are some strange decisions. 

"There was a pre-World Championships training camp in Montreal, at the same time when two of the coaches were at the Pan American juniors.

"What I would say is this: everybody has to make sacrifices. 

"If you have a passion for weightlifting, keep doing what you are doing, there has to be self-sacrifice and good things will come your way.

"You can't look for support before you have done anything.

"People want reward from weightlifting but they shouldn't be looking for financial reward.

"We live in Canada, we’re not going to die.

"The reward is seeing your lifters do well.

"I help my lifters with everything, not just coaching, to take the stress out of their lives.

"If their car breaks down I’ll fix it. You have to support them from every angle – support is not just funding."

Daniel Robitaille, who lifted for Canada in the 1970s, was national coach from 1981 to 1999 and is now one of IWF's top technical officials, said, "Definitely the new executive at Weightlifting Canada is opening the door for more Canadians to compete internationally, especially youths and juniors at Pan Ams and Worlds.

"In the past three years we actually look like a team - before that there was no thought about it, lifters from Quebec and Ontario in different colours, it made us look ridiculous.

"When I represented Canada as an athlete in and as national coach we did not have to pay to compete, all I had to pay for was my bubblegum.

"I have such admiration now for those who train to compete, and their coaches, and pay from their own pocket - and the Board and technical officials too. 

"They are completely invested in it."

Maude Charron was only Canada's second Olympic weightlifting champion ©Getty Images
Maude Charron was only Canada's second Olympic weightlifting champion ©Getty Images

Walker said, "We restructured Weightlifting Canada about a year and a half ago.

"For the first time ever, in June next year we will have a Youth National Championships.

"It will be online so parents don’t have to pay a lot of money to travel."

The Junior Nationals will be extended to two days to cope with 150 entries.

"Chasing down funding, creating a youth and juniors committee, building policies at national and provincial level and aligning them with COC and Safe Sport, developing online competitions to cut travel costs - all of this takes time, it takes years.

"Ciro thinks we can just add water and everything’s fine, but it’s not like that.

"One of biggest challenges has been an inverted pathway into weightlifting, a lot of people coming into it in their 20s.

"We still want them of course, as they can contribute after being athletes.

"Now we have more clubs focusing on youth and junior development across Canada.

"The priority over the next few years is to get them in at a young age to learn technique, and add the weight later on."

Another challenge is increasing the number of lifters, which dropped sharply during the COVID pandemic.

"We're down to about 2,300," said Walker.

"They’re on the rebound but we lost a lot during the pandemic.

"The numbers are part of the reason why we don't get more funding but not all of it.

"In the past the attitude was 'once we get to 5,000 we’ll get more money'.

"We never got there… we just didn’t try."