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Weightlifting: Cynical Colombian might not have to wait long to hit Olympic podium

Richie Patterson's placing at the 2012 Olympics has climbed to 12th. Photo / photosport.nz
Richie Patterson's placing at the 2012 Olympics has climbed to 12th. Photo / photosport.nz

One of the year's more cynical but realistic sporting quotes came from weightlifter Mercedes Perez.

The Colombian came fourth in the 63kg event at the Rio Olympics, yet her enthusiasm was not dimmed.

"We have to wait for the doping tests," she said. "Being fourth is the best because if something happens, I'll just climb on that podium."

Perez is yet to do so but, if this week's events are a gauge, the chances are promising.

The men's 94kg event from the London Games exemplifies why Perez is confident. The original ninth-place finisher, Tomasz Zielinski, eventually took bronze because six athletes - yes, six - failed drug tests.

Compounding the problem was Zielinski's positive test for the banned substance nandrolone in July. He was booted off the Polish team for Rio.

Elsewhere, in the women's 75kg class from the 2012 Olympics, all three medal winners have been disqualified because of illegal drug-taking.

Those vignettes sum up a sport which, on one hand, has become a farce. The counter argument is at least cheats are getting caught, albeit eventually. The sport is guaranteed a place at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics but, with such systemic cheating, the future beyond is under threat.

Few current deterrents, outside introducing imprisonment, look capable of stemming the tide. Any retrospective pursuit of dopers is welcome, but what happens to their fraudulent earnings?

The IOC stores samples for a decade to test with improved technology, or analyse as yet unidentified performance-enhancing substances.

The number of weightlifters who have had their 2012 Olympic medals stripped has risen to 12. Eight of those came from the women's events. In addition, 12 of the 45 on podiums at the 2008 Games have had their performances annulled.

The most recent IOC denunciations included nine weightlifters from Russia, Moldova, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia or Kazakhstan. Six of the nine were medallists.

Add the ban of Bulgarian and Russian weightlifting teams from Rio after recidivist doping, while lifters from Poland, Taiwan, Cyprus and Mongolia failed tests either during or shortly before the Games.

Describing the problem as rife leans towards understatement.

Dating back to the 1972 Munich Olympics, weightlifting has provided the most dopers of any sport. The fiasco serves as a warning, even to New Zealanders, as to why pursuing medals sometimes forces officials, coaches and athletes to succumb to temptation.

For three-time Olympian Richie Patterson, news of myriad bans is cold comfort. He's spent a career knowing he shared the call room with cheats. The 33-year-old is currently 15th in the 85kg class from Rio after starting in 16th; and 12th in London after originally finishing 14th.

"It's tough getting critiqued for your placing [at the Games] when, unlike others, you know what you're up against.

"You can't bridge the gap with cheats because they're so reliant on the muscular influence of anabolic steroids.

"You put your livelihood on the line competing against those without the same sporting values, and miss out on PEG [top 12 taxpayer performance enhancement grant] funding, which is not recognised retrospectively."

Patterson says it's hard when sporting heroes become glorified villains.

"Systematic doping is not just confined to Russia. When it was announced they would be checking for trace substances [from past Olympics], every weightlifter knew a shit storm was coming. It's a curse and a blessing in a way, but could have far reaching repercussions for the sport's future.

"It's a slow process with B samples and appeals, but the IWF [International Weightlifting Federation] has a policy that if a member nation has three positive tests in a year, they face a 12-month ban."

This week's news is bittersweet for David Howman, the former director-general of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

"It certainly provides an answer to those who say you shouldn't store samples.

"Weightlifting has always been in the high-risk category and, if they're catching cheats as a result, they probably have an effective [anti-doping] programme.

"The last few years, [the IWF] have done a reasonable job with tight [zero tolerance] rules and strong penalties.

"However, some of those banned substances have been around a while, so it's a concern they were not detected originally."

The onus now goes on weightlifting, one of the more dramatic, telegenic and popular sports of the Olympics, to clean and jerk itself from the mire.

- NZ Herald

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