Weightlifting

Weightlifting, and the many turns of fate

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, three Bulgarian weightlifters failed doping tests. The rules said the entire Bulgarian team was thereupon supposed to be expelled. However, Galabin Boevski had already competed and, because he did not test positive, he was allowed to keep his gold medal. In 2004, Boevski was found liable of tampering with the urine sample he provided at the 2003 world championship in Vancouver. He would be banned from competition for eight years.

In October, 2011, Boevski was arrested at the airport at Sao Paolo, Brazil, while trying to board a plane to Spain. The authorities found nine kilos, or nearly 20 pounds, of cocaine, in his bags.

The cover of a new book that delves deeply into the culture of Bulgarian weightlifting

Galabin Boevski is a complicated figure and weightlifting is a complex sport, filled with intrigue and drama. On the stage, the bar does not lie. You either lift it or not. Behind the scenes, however, as a new book, The White Prisoner: Galabin Boevski’s Secret Story, makes plain, it can be an enormous struggle not just to become Olympic champion but to stay on top.

The book, written by Ognian Georgiev, sports editor at the “Bulgaria Today” daily newspaper, available Friday, offers a revealing look into a sports culture that demands further — and intense — examination.

Bulgaria has long had outsized influence in weightlifting.

Bulgaria has close connections with the unraveling doping story in Azerbaijan, where more than a dozen lifters tested positive in 2013 for illicit performance-enhancing drugs.

Indeed, the coach of the 2013 Azeri team, Bulgaria’s Zlatan Vanev, is a three-time world and four-time European champion.

Among the Azeri athletes suspended last year by the International Weightlifting Federation: Bulgarian-born Valentin Hristov, 19, the 2012 London bronze medalist in the bantamweight class.

Remarkably, Bulgaria was a weightlifting force even in the years after the break-up of the former Soviet bloc system.

As the book makes plain, for everyone everywhere in the system — athletes, coaches, sponsors — manipulation is the name of the game.

It is said that the "wily" Bulgarian coach, Ivan Abadzhiev, the famed "Senior Trainer," goes to "slaughterhouses to collect oxen testicles, so his weightlifters could get stronger."

Athletes can be “sold” to other countries.

In 1999, the year before the Sydney Games, the world championships in Athens are of course themselves a major event but will also set the Olympic quotas. In Bulgaria, there are far more athletes than there are spots, according to the book.

What to do?

Opportunity suddenly beckons. Abadzhiev, acting through the track and field mediator, Yanko Bratoev, decides to send lifters to Qatar: “The plan is clever because the motivation of his team stays high.”

The details: “The Bulgarian federation receives $40,000 a year from those transfers. The salaries of the new Qatari athletes are $800. The weightlifters keep $500. The rest go to the federation, according to the contract. Apart from that, Bulgaria receives 50 percent of the bonuses of the athletes, promised to them for success in major competitions.”

In Qatar, the coach will be Abadzhiev’s assistant, Zlatin Ivanov. The Qataris quickly issue new names and passports to the Bulgarians, among them Peter Tanev, the European middleweight champion; heavyweight Angel Popov; and super-heavyweight Yani Marchokov.

In Sydney, it all proves convoluted.

From the book, and now oxen testicles seem, well, quaint:

"The cup with pills is getting fuller. Every weightlifter has a personal one. Drugs, vitamins and amino acids are taken to a schedule. The Senior Trainer and his assistants keep close watch to see that everyone is taking their medication. A war would break out if someone threw away a vitamin C pill. Abadzhiev is strict. He wants every rule he gives to be abided by. The coach is most rigorous about medication. He keeps adding more and more to the pill cups. One of them is Orocetam -- a metabolic booster."

Orocetam is a medication made by a company called Sopharma. Orocetam is designed to help brain rehabilitation during and after illness; it improves blood flow in the brain; that can enhance mental concentration.

It turns out that, as the company acknowledges, Orocetam contains traces of the banned diuretic furosemide.

The company says it regrets the disqualifications -- to show you how important weightlifters are in Bulgaria, Boevski was the country's landslide winner of Athlete of the Year for 1999, when he dominated his category at the world championships. But it also says it should not be blamed for tiny amounts of furosemide in the drug, which it points out -- accurately -- is not designed for use by athletes.

It is also pointed out by the Bulgarian pharmaceutical trade agency that manufacturers are not required to list a component that makes up less than 0.1 percent of a drug. Here, the trace amount of furosemide is 0.003 percent or less.

At the Olympics, a trace is more than enough.

Boevski and Abadzhiev had long gone their separate ways in terms of training methods. Perhaps this is why Boevski's sample is clean.  

Some of the Bulgarians, like Boevski, get to compete. Some don’t.

The team is suspended. Then there is an appeal, led by the then-president of the Bulgarian Olympic Committee, Ivan Slavkov, known to his peers and colleagues as "Bateto," or the "elder brother." Slavkov had been president of the BOC since 1982. In 2005 he would be expelled on corruption charges from his membership in the International Olympic Committee; he would then be replaced as BOC president as well.

An Olympics runs for 17 days. Time is ticking.

In the heavyweight division, Alan Tsagaev, born in Russia but competing for Bulgaria, is finally cleared to compete — on the day of competition itself, and then only after the Court of Arbitration for Sport signs off on it all, saying there is no legal basis to disqualify the entire team.

He wins silver.

Popov, now Said Saif Asaad, takes bronze. He is the only one of the eight Bulgarians turned Qataris to win a medal in Sydney.

Always, as the book — and as the historical record — makes plain, in weightlifting the specter of illicit performance-enhancing drugs is about.

Three Bulgarian lifters will be banned for doping before the Athens 2004 Games.

The entire Bulgarian team will withdraw from the 2008 Beijing Games after 11 of its athletes test positive for a steroid.

Because of the scandal at the 2000 Games, one of the Bulgarian lifters, Georgi Gardev, who surely would have been a top contender for gold in his class, is precluded from taking the stage. He can do nothing while Greece’s Pyrros Dimas becomes Olympic champion for the third time, with a weight that was 10 kilograms, about 22 pounds, less than Gardev had lifted two weeks before in practice.

Gardev is perhaps one of the two unsung heroes of Galabin Boevski’s layered tale.

There is Boevski’s wife, Krasimira. She is by his side when he wins. Too, she is there for him through his many trials.

And there is Gardev — who after being denied the chance to become Olympic champion will go on, among other things, to become Italy’s coach, directing several championships. A few months ago, he opened a bakery back in his home town, Pazadzik, Bulgaria.

On stage, there is a simple truth — a man, a bar, his will, the weights. The rest of the time?

In Sydney, Gardev can only watch. At this, Gardev turns to Boevski with the line that arguably encapsulates the entire story: “Galab,” he says, using Boevski’s nickname, “look how interesting fate is.”

 

Doping echoes of East Germany

Doping in elite international sport is “rampant,” the former executive who last year exposed failings in the Jamaican testing program said this week at a conference in London, just as it emerged that the entire Azerbaijan weightlifting team’s results from the 2013 European championships were wiped out — five lifters, 14 medals — by positive tests. Moreover, those tests were for oral turinabol, the very same steroid at the heart of the 1970s East German doping system.

Four more Azeri weightlifters were also sanctioned in 2013 after testing positive for the exact same steroid. Two were teenagers -- one 17, the other 16 -- when they tested positive. The seeming star of the team is now just 19; he was a bronze medalist at the London 2012 Summer Games.

IWF World Weightlifting Championships

Speaking Wednesday at the Tackling Doping in Sport conference, Renee Anne Shirley, the former director of the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission, said, “Every time someone says, ‘We don’t have a problem in X sport or Y country, I say, ‘Oh, really?’ “

Meanwhile, the International Weightlifting Federation, based in Budapest, released an opaque statement acknowledging that the Azeri competitors and the national federation had “received punishment.” Separately, the Azeri head weightlifting coach, Zlatan Vanev, said, “I [am], frankly, shocked.”

For all the very real progress the World Anti-Doping Agency, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and others have made over the past dozen or so years, the Lance Armstrong affair, Operation Puerto, BALCO and more have made it abundantly clear that doping remains a powerful current with which sports officials, police and prosecutors must contend.

The shock is not that the current exerts its pull.

It always will do so. Human nature is what it is.

The shock is threefold:

One, the Azeri weightlifting program — an asset of a state ministry — apparently sought to enhance performance in 2013 in much the same fashion the East Germans did in the 1970s. Has nothing changed in some 40 years?

Two, the Azeris are hardly alone. Other weightlifters were also sanctioned in 2013 for using oral turinabol, including more than half a dozen from Kazakhstan.

Three, instead of making an example of such programs and those athletes, the International Weightlifting Federation opted to low-key the matter. Why?

The 2015 weightlifting world championships are due to come to Houston, in November. The sport will get far more attention in the U.S., and indeed the western, press then than it typically does. The months between now and then offer a window for the International Olympic Committee to take a long, hard look at weightlifting and to assess, meaningfully, whether weightlifting deserves its place in the Summer Games.

Wrestling got such a review in 2013. Now it’s weightlifting’s turn.

Should a sport with such a demonstrably poor record in the anti-doping campaign keep getting a free pass when it comes to staying on the Olympic program? Shouldn’t weightlifting have to meet real metrics, and prove to the IOC that — as a prerequisite for staying on for 2024 and beyond — it is serious about cleaning up?

Some background and context:

For all the widespread public focus on sports such as cycling and track and field, weightlifting is where the most concentrated work in the anti-doping campaign needs to be done.

Numbers do not lie.

According to the WADA's 2012 report, the most recent year for which figures are available, weightlifting showed 159 “adverse analytical findings” — that is, positive tests — from 3,893 in-competition urine tests worldwide, for a return rate of 4.1 percent.

For comparison:

Across all sports, there were 1,546 positive in-competition tests, out of 102,102, a return rate of 1.5 percent.

Weightlifting also had —by far —the most out-of-competition positives, 91, out of 4,299 tests, a rate of 2.1 percent.

The sport with the next-most, track and field, had only 38, out of 10,952 samples, a rate of 0.3 percent. Cycling? 24 positives from 6,797 tests, 0.35 percent. Swimming, just as another example? 11 positives from 6,444 tests, 0.1 percent.

Across the board, there were 280 positives in 71,349 out-of-competition samples, 0.4 percent.

That report also details what happens when you inject real money into the equation.

As part of the lab process, officials can use a far more refined analysis —it’s called the carbon-isotope test —to look for evidence of doping. Each use costs about $400.

Around the world in 2012, officials used the carbon-isotope test 318 times to search for evidence of doping in weightlifting. Figuring $400 per test, that’s just over $127,000.

For $127,000, here’s what you got:

—108 in-competition samples, 17 positive tests, 15.7 percent.

—210 out-of-competition tests, 32 positive tests, 15.2 percent.

Combined, that’s 318 tests, 49 positive tests, a return rate of 15.4 percent.

To be super-obvious, 15.4 percent blows away the “normal” rates of 4.1 or 2.1 percent.

Statistically, no other Olympic sport is nowhere close to weightlifting’s 15.4 percent return rate. Cycling, thought by many amid the revelations of the Armstrong case to be simply filthy? 4.97 percent, on 543 carbon-isotope tests. Track and field, 5.75 percent.

If you know where and how to dig through the IWF’s website, you find even more disturbing figures.

Deep within that site are the IWF’s lists of “sanctioned athletes.”

Up now is the list for 2013. It shows the IWF sanctioned — to be clear, these are cases in which a positive test produced action — 76 athletes around the world, 53 from in-competition tests, 23 out-of-competition, the vast majority, whether in- or out-of-competition, for steroids.

A full 43 of those 76, or 56.5 percent, were for stanozolol. That is like taking a ride on the way-back machine to 1988. Because that is the same steroid that got Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson busted at the Seoul Games.

Twelve of the 76? From Kazakhstan. Seven of those 12 — busted for oral turinabol as well.

Uzbekistan? Seven, all but one stanozolol.

These sorts of numbers underscore two big-picture trends.

The first can be traced to the eruption roughly 10 years ago of the BALCO affair in the United States. That, in turn, prompted a rules change that had the practical effect of swinging would-be cheats away from designer steroids — such as THG, the substance at the heart of the BALCO matter — and back to the basics.

Like stanozolol, oral turinabol or straight testosterone.

The second is an advance in testing technology.

As a German television station reported last year, scientists at the Moscow and Cologne, Germany, labs have developed a new testing procedure — known as the “long-term metabolites method” — to extend the detection window. Officials from those labs told the TV station that a sample that would have produced a negative result as recently as 2012 would in 2013 glow positive more than six months after it was taken.

Two track and field athletes, for instance, tested positive for oral turinabol at last summer’s world championships in Moscow: Ukrainian javelin thrower Roman Avramenko, who finished fifth, and Turkmenistan’s Yelena Ryabova, who failed to make it out of the heats in the women’s 200 meters.

The IAAF, track and field’s governing body, made sure everyone knew about these positive tests.

The IWF?

That statement about “punishment”? Indeed, it was put out front Wednesday on the IWF website. But not under “doping” or “Azerbaijan” or another similarly suggestive keyword. The trick was to look for “official communication.”

The statement named no names of anyone sanctioned. Nor to be found was the name of the IWF president, its general secretary or anyone from its executive office.

Too, the statement leaned heavily toward passive voice: “In this process, in 2013 several anti-doping violations were disclosed …”

Even allowing that it took nearly an entire year -- the 2013 European championships were staged last April, in Albania -- why no allocation now of responsibility for the disqualification of an entire team and its marks?

More of the same: “The relevant procedures of anti-doping violations by multiple weightlifters from Azerbaijan have now been closed.” By whom? When? How? Were there appeals? Were any appeals contested?

The statement said immediately thereafter that those lifters who tested positive at the 2013 European championships and subsequently in out-of-competition testing had been sanctioned and results lists updated. Incredibly, the statement did not identify the lifters or provide links to the “before” or “after” results.

The notice also said the athletes and the Azerbaijan Weightlifting Federation itself had received punishment “following the sanctions stipulated in the IWF Anti-Doping Policy.” Did that mean the federation was fined? How much? The policy suggests that nine or more violations equals a $500,000 fine.

If so, when is the fine due? How will anyone know the federation paid such a fine? If it’s not paid, will the Azeri federation — as the policy suggests — be suspended for four years? Again, how will anyone know? What would trigger the start of such a suspension?

The statement went on to say, “The Weightlifting Federation of Azerbaijan is one of the most active also as the home of a Weightlifting Academy and host of various significant events. Drawing the conclusions of last year they now have the obligation to turn a new page and build a new, clean national team.”

What about any of this offers the sort of transparency and forthright reporting an international federation dedicated to genuinely and meaningfully reporting and addressing, much less cleaning up, its significant doping issues would present?

As a start, the rules mandate that the names of athletes who are sanctioned be made public.

So here, via cross-referencing in the IWF website, are the nine Azeri lifters sanctioned in 2013. All, according to the site, tested positive for the steroid dehydromethyltestosterone. That steroid’s brand name, according to three knowledgeable figures in the anti-doping community: oral turinabol. 

The list from the European championships:

— Valentin Hristov. Just 19, born in Bulgaria, he won bronze in the bantamweight class at the London 2012 Games.

— Intiqam Zairov. A 28-year-old London 2012 Olympian.

— Sardar Hasanov. Also 28, another London 2012 Olympian.

— Zulfugar Suleymanov, 31, who missed the London Games because of a prior ban.

— Silviya Angelova, 31.

Intiqam Zairov, Day 8, London Olympics // photo Getty Images

 

Also sanctioned in 2013:

— Kamran Ismayilov, 20. The DQ erases results from the European Junior Championships.

— Alona Kiriienko, 26. Gone are her results from the Summer University Games in Kazan, Russia.

— Marziyya Maharramova. When she tested positive last September, she was just 17. She turns 18 on April 14. Her two-year suspension runs until September 2015.

— Kseniia Vyshnytska. Even younger. Her birthday: Jan. 16, 1997. She was 16 last year, just turned 17 a few weeks ago. Her suspension runs until April 2015.

Eight of the nine received two-year suspensions. Suleymanov was banned for life, having been suspended once before.

Ismayilov and Kiriienko were caught in out-of-competition tests. The other seven positives were in-competition tests.

Baku, it should be noted, is due to play host to the 2015 European Games. Those Games are intended to serve as a coming-out party, a symbol of prestige for Azerbaijan.

With Baku aiming yet for bigger things — it has bid for the Summer Games before and presumably has a bid for the 2024 or 2028 Games in its sights — the question is obvious: how can the weightlifting program have been operating so recklessly?

Unlike the United States, where sports and government are separate, in Azerbaijan, the Ministry of Youth and Sports oversees Olympic sport. So the question perhaps ought to be framed differently: who in the Azeri ministry is responsible for the weightlifting program and what did that official know, and when? Further, is it credible to believe the weightlifting program was operating independently of political or governmental control?

If Baku wants to be a serious player on the world stage, it has to take these questions -- and provide answers -- seriously.

The same applies in equal measure to Kazakhstan. Almaty is firmly in the race for the 2022 Winter Games.

“I know nothing,” Vanev, the Azeri weightlifting coach, was quoted as saying. “That’s all I can say for today. Someone went to the site and there is something written,” apparently a reference to the IWF website.

His quote then concludes with these words, which surely carry unintended meaning: “It boggles the mind.”