Brian Oliver

In the past decade weightlifting has had its share of doping, corruption and transgender scandals and controversies. 

Now it is in the news again because athletes from North Korea are back and, much to the dismay of athletes, coaches and federation officials around the world, able to go straight into the qualifying programme for Paris 2024.

North Korea had effectively "disappeared" not just from weightlifting but from all sport for three and a half years due to its COVID-19 restrictions. 

When North Korea became the only nation to withdraw from the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, citing COVID and "'hostile forces’ moves" in April 2021, it was banned until the end of last year by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Its absence opened up medal opportunities for others. It is worth pointing out that, while North Korea’s unpredictable behaviour will work against athletes worldwide for Paris, it went in their favour in Tokyo.

Less than two months after their ban ended, North Korea’s Weightlifting Federation contacted the sport’s governing body, the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) to ask about the rules for trying to qualify for Paris 2024.

It wanted to send a team to the IWF Grand Prix in Cuba in June, the last entry point for athletes hoping to qualify. The IWF immediately informed the anti-doping authorities and took legal advice.

There was no rule to stop North Korea competing.

Whether the IWF or somebody else is to blame for that is open to question.

All the complaints in the past few days, from an Olympic champion, the head coach of India, a Hall of Fame coach from Australia, the chief executive of USA Weightlifting and countless weightlifting fans on specialist social media sites, are entirely justified. The IWF said as much in a statement responding to the criticism.

The news that North Korean athletes are able to return to the weightlifting fold has caused anger within the sport this week ©Getty Images
The news that North Korean athletes are able to return to the weightlifting fold has caused anger within the sport this week ©Getty Images

While the rest of the world’s weightlifters have been tested and strictly monitored by anti-doping agencies since North Korea last competed in December 2019, the North Koreans have not.

During the three and a half years since a North Korean last made a lift in international competition, three-quarters of all positive samples that led to weightlifters being suspended were taken out-of-competition.

No North Koreans have been tested out-of-competition at all in that time, nor will they be until next year. This is beyond the control of the IWF and other International Federations.

The International Testing Agency (ITA), which carries out all anti-doping procedures for the IWF, said it was "not feasible" for it to conduct unannounced testing in a country that is effectively closed to the rest of the world.

About a third of the IWF’s budget goes on anti-doping. At a cost of nearly $3 million (£2.4 million/€2.7 million), the ITA runs the weightlifting testing programme independently - and rightly so - but being paymaster does not give the IWF the right to tell the ITA who to test and who not to test.

No other Olympic sport has anti-doping rules as strong as weightlifting’s, with good reason after what happened in the past. Doping violations are less frequent now but are still happening, so after handing over its entire programme to the ITA, and taking its advice, the IWF is making the rules even tougher.

Its Executive Board has approved changes that were described by IWF general secretary Antonio Urso as "a historical change of direction in our fight against doping."

The Board voted unanimously in January to exclude countries that do not allow independent testers in to do their work.

"All countries with blocked borders will be out, not just from qualifying competitions for Paris but from any international event," Urso said.

But because of financial and operational challenges those new rules cannot be applied until January 1 next year. Regardless of that, changing the rules after Olympic qualifying has started, in a way that might affect individuals’ chances, is not straightforward: it sounds like a lot of work and money for lawyers.

Another change, in intelligence-gathering, is effective already because there are no complicating factors. Investigators have been given new powers allowing them to make demands of athletes and others involved in the sport; failure to comply with a demand can lead to a six-year ban and other sanctions.

IOC President Thomas Bach on a visit to Pyongyang in 2018 to meet Kim Jong Un ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach on a visit to Pyongyang in 2018 to meet Kim Jong Un ©Getty Images

More importantly, as far as North Korea is concerned, there will be a categorisation of Member Federations based on their level of risk in doping.

They will be rated A, B or C, with A the "highest risk" category into which North Korea is expected to fall, based on its past record and current testing difficulties.

Category A federations must ensure that at least two out-of-competition tests are undertaken in the six months before a World Championships (junior and senior) or the Olympic Games, and must hold a mandatory education course for all athletes.

If the tests are not carried out, that federation is automatically ineligible to compete.

Which is where an apparent contradiction comes into play.

North Korea’s National Anti-Doping Agency (NADO) has been deemed "non-compliant" by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) since October 2021 (and also for a spell in 2019), for "non-conformities in implementing an effective testing programme" - in other words, for not doing its job properly.

The ITA’s testers cannot gain entry to North Korea, so any out-of-competition testing will be conducted by the North Korea NADO. Yes, the "non-compliant" one.

Being non-compliant is not a barrier to conducting tests. In fact it might help a non-compliant NADO to become compliant again (it is an ongoing review process), although there is no chance of that happening any time soon in North Korea.

From January 1, North Korea will have to conduct out-of-competition testing on its weightlifters. The IWF and the anti-doping authorities will have to take it on trust that the tests comply with regulations because there will be no way of policing them.

A WADA spokesman said that North Korean athletes have remained subject to testing and "notwithstanding its non-compliant status, the relevant NADO has been conducting testing, including on weightlifters, and sending the samples to a WADA-accredited laboratory in China for analysis."

North Korea's Kim Un Guk, London 2012 Olympic champion and world record holder, was banned for doping at the 2015 World Championships ©Getty Images
North Korea's Kim Un Guk, London 2012 Olympic champion and world record holder, was banned for doping at the 2015 World Championships ©Getty Images

Quarterly testing figures are published by the ITA on the IWF website, starting from January 2021. Nobody from North Korea appears on any of the nine available reports.

WADA pointed out that, "International Federations, under their own rules, have the ability to require member countries and athletes to meet certain anti-doping requirements to be eligible for entry into their events."

The IWF is already stricter than other federations on this and is becoming stricter still, ensuring that all athletes provide whereabouts information three months before every IWF competition, rather than just the most important ones.

Effectively, because there are qualifiers in June, September, December, next February and next April, North Korea’s weightlifters will have to be available for testing right through to the Olympic Games in Paris in August 2024.

Yes, the IWF might arguably, with a degree of foresight not shown by anybody else involved, have put a "North Korea clause" into its Olympic qualifying rules to try to prevent the situation that has arisen.

But is it right that a single sporting federation should take on that task when North Korea might just as easily have returned from exile in judo, wrestling, boxing or gymnastics?

Weightlifting is its number one sport in terms of results but North Korea has won Olympic gold medals in those four and shooting, too.

While WADA suggests the IWF and other International Federations could make up their own rules to deal with North Korea, the IWF points out: "The current rules do not allow the IWF to suspend athletes for the failure of their national authorities and their NADO to implement a proper framework allowing independent unannounced testing on their territory.

"Moreover, the establishment of a compliant anti-doping programme in PRK (North Korea), including granting access to international Doping Control Officers, is not within the realm of the IWF’s control."

North Korea's return to weightlifting has attracted headlines around the world ©Brian Oliver
North Korea's return to weightlifting has attracted headlines around the world ©Brian Oliver

In other words: "This is a global issue, not a weightlifting issue."

Another complication is the IOC’s keenness, despite the ban imposed in 2021, on having a team from North Korea at the Olympic Games. Its President Thomas Bach has visited Pyongyang and met "the supreme leader" Kim Jong-un.

For the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China starting in September, North Korea has entered a large multi-sport team. 

The ITA has partnered up with the Olympic Council of Asia for that event and will "collaborate with participating International Federations and relevant NADOs to promote pre-Games testing efforts".

It will be interesting to see how those efforts, and the reaction to them, compares to North Korea’s return in weightlifting.

There is one way to ensure this can never happen again.

"If signatories to the World Anti-Doping Code and other stakeholders feel it (creating rules to stop this happening again) should be addressed within the World Anti-Doping Code itself, it can be raised as part of the upcoming global consultation and review of the Code and international standards that will start in September 2023," said WADA.

Something for the IWF to consider, if they can persuade other "signatories and stakeholders" that it would make sport fairer for all concerned.

As things stand, every complainant is right: North Korea’s presence in weightlifting’s qualifying programme for Paris is not fair.