The International Weightlifting Federation's latest reforms include tightening up anti-doping rules ©Brian Oliver

The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) has tightened up its anti-doping rules and clamped down on no-shows, among other reforms, as it nears the anniversary of electing a new leadership.

Plenty has changed since Mohamed Jalood, Antonio Urso and Ursula Papandrea were voted into the top three positions at the IWF in the last week of June last year, along with a new Executive Board.

They were tasked with persuading the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to restore weightlifting to the programme for Los Angeles 2028 and beyond, and will know whether they have succeeded by September.

"A culture change" was demanded by the IOC President Thomas Bach when his Executive Board dropped weightlifting for LA2028 in December 2021.

News of doping violations at recent continental championships - with at least one more high-profile name to follow - might give the impression that the culture has not changed at all but general secretary Urso, from Italy, does not see it that way.

"This shows that system is working well," Urso said of positives by weightlifters from Turkey and Kazakhstan that were announced during the IWF Grand Prix here in Havana.

Until long-term plans come to fruition, most notably a licence scheme that will help to root out rogue coaches, doping will be diminished but not driven out of weightlifting, the IWF’s leaders believe.

"I am worried when we don’t discover positive cases," Urso said. "Problems come when we have some big results (on the platform) and cannot discover what is behind the big results.

IWF leaders at the Cuban sports university which will be an academy ©Brian Oliver
IWF leaders at the Cuban sports university which will be an academy ©Brian Oliver

"The main thing is to have a good investigation process, good intelligence to find the people who cheat this sport."

Handing over its entire anti-doping programme to the International Testing Agency (ITA) was a big step.

"Having an independent third party guarantees that everybody is under the same controls," Urso said.

That was not the case under the IWF’s previous leadership when nations would pay for cover-ups and be informed in advance of testing missions. The former President Tamás Aján was banned from weightlifting for life for his part in the corruption.

In the wake of a controversy over North Korea’s presence in the Havana Grand Prix start book - they did not turn up - the IWF Board voted in Havana to make the rules stricter.

No North Koreans had been tested since they last lifted internationally in December 2019 because the ITA said it was "not feasible" for them to gain entry for out-of-competition testing.

After the unanimous Havana vote, the IWF "may exclude countries from competing where doping tests could not be taken by the IWF or any anti-doping organisation instructed by the IWF". No testing, no competition.

The Board also brought forward to November 1 - two months earlier than planned - the implementation of "member federations’ categorisation based on their doping risk".

International Weightlifting Federation secretary general Antonio Urso at the Havana Grand Prix ©Brian Oliver
International Weightlifting Federation secretary general Antonio Urso at the Havana Grand Prix ©Brian Oliver

This means that those nations rated high risk must conduct out-of-competition testing on their own athletes at least twice in the six months before a World Championships or Olympic Games. Failure to do so will cost them their place in the competition.

"Everybody - all athletes, all nations - must be under the same controls," said Urso.

In the long term, the coaching licence programme will play a significant role. IWF President Jalood said this week: "Athletes do not decide to dope on their own, they do it because their coach tells them to."

He was speaking at the launch of a partnership between the IWF and a specialist sport university in Havana, which will follow Fuzhou in China and Sofia in Bulgaria in hosting a regional academy where coaches will be educated and licensed.

Another "culture change" is clearly needed in the attitude at some member federations towards no-shows.

After more than 400 athletes were entered for the Havana Grand Prix, only about 250 actually took part after a number of teams either stayed at home or downsized.

Whether that was because of the cost, visa problems, flight problems, injuries or whatever was never made clear in most cases, because the federations did not inform either the IWF or the Organising Committee here.

It led to Cuba losing money on accommodation and other costs. Organisers could also have shorted the competition if they had known about the no-shows.

"This is not a good culture, not a good image for weightlifting," said Urso. "It is not respectful to the Organising Committee or the sport.

The presentation of athletes is set to change in the future as part of the IWF's reforms ©Brian Oliver
The presentation of athletes is set to change in the future as part of the IWF's reforms ©Brian Oliver

"We have decided unanimously to change the rules. Countries must pay in advance for accommodation, anti-doping fees and everything else. If they do not pay within 10 days of the final entries (usually three weeks before the competition) they will be cut from the list.

"This is the first experiment with this, removing athletes. If it necessary to be stronger in the future we are ready."

While doping and no-shows are bad news, there have been signs of a culture change in other areas such as the academy programme and street weightlifting, providing optimism for the future.

Last weekend an innovative event was staged on Havana’s seafront, and plans for future mixed-gender competitions on the streets of Lausanne and Jamaica, and at Ancient Olympia, were announced.

"These kind of competitions give the message that the barbell is there for everyone, they give us a chance to show how the barbell can help to improve your health, and help you in other sports," Urso said.

"There will be more of them with more innovations, ones that touch ordinary people and reach beyond elite sport."

A more dynamic, shorter version of weightlifting - following the 3x3 basketball model - can feature at the 2026 Youth Olympic Games rather than the current senior international format, Urso believes.

Changes to the presentation of competitions are also on the way, putting athletes more in the spotlight.

"After Paris we hope to have a new way of organising a championship," Urso said. There will be different weight categories and possibly not as many as the current 10 for each gender.

Everything will be "a bit faster, more dynamic" than the current format under which athletes line up to be introduced by name only, then the technical officials come on to the platform for more of the same, before everybody sits down and waits 10 minutes for the action to start.

Cuba may host another IWF event in the next couple of years ©Brian Oliver
Cuba may host another IWF event in the next couple of years ©Brian Oliver

"We have the technology, we must make the athlete more of a protagonist in the presentation, introduce them one by one, highlight some of their achievements. We will have more details soon," Urso added.

There was more evidence of the wider appeal of weightlifting this week when one of the most famous personal trainers in the world joined the Foundation Board at USA Weightlifting (USAW).

Gunnar Peterson, a celebrity trainer whose clients include Sylvester Stallone, J-Lo and a host of sports stars, is strength and conditioning director for the LA Lakers basketball team. He said on joining USAW: "I have always believed in the importance of weightlifting."

He said he was honoured to have the chance to "bring weightlifting into the lives of all".

Urso is happy with the IWF’s progress in the year since the new leaders took over, and said "the foundation stones are there" on which to build a new, modern sport.

The next big step will be approval of a new constitution - shorter and easier to understand - at the Congress in Saudi Arabia in September, before the World Championships.

Several articles from the old version have been moved out to become bylaws, which will make it easier for the Executive Board to change them when necessary.

Urso had a special word of thanks for the organisers of the Grand Prix in Cuba. 

COVID, the economic situation here, and the withdrawals all provided challenges to a nation that last hosted a global weightlifting competition 50 years ago.

"I congratulate the Organising Committee and the Government of Cuba, who did more than their best to organise this competition, despite difficulties," he said. 

"The countries competing here are all happy."

The IWF might be coming back in the next couple of years because the resort city of Varadero is keen to host a world, junior or youth championships.