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Column: IOC must wield big stick to clean up weightlifting

PARIS (AP) — No carrots. To save weightlifting from the rot of doping, the International Olympic Committee must continue to wield the big stick. When initial drug testing came back negative from the most recent world championships, it fleetingly seemed that weightlifting might be starting to turn a corner. Perhaps the fight launched against the sport's steroid culture, laid bare by more than 50 positive tests from the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, was bearing fruit? Maybe IOC pressure and a vague threat to possibly exclude weightlifting from future Olympic competition had helped steer dopers away from their needles and pills?

Wishful thinking. When those world championship drug-test samples were then subjected to deeper scrutiny using additional laboratory analysis and sophisticated computer algorithms, a grimmer picture emerged that shot holes in the notion of a sport on the mend. The follow-up testing snared at least eight lifters , all from Thailand, including three who won world titles in November and four others who also won medals. Two of them are Olympic champions from the 2016 Rio Games, including one who had previously been banned for steroid use for two years.

Clearly, then, some lifters still aren't getting the message that because of systematic doping, they and their sport are on a slippery slope toward becoming an irrelevancy and a joke. That's a shame, because the sight of huffing, puffing lifters heaving monstrous weights has long been one of the great Olympic spectacles, with boisterous and admiring crowds. The sport offered medal opportunities for countries, such as Thailand, that aren't Olympic powerhouses. But when anti-doping tests later reveal that much of the show is a fraud, the question must be asked: Is the IOC aiding and abetting steroid abuse in weightlifting by keeping it in the Olympics?

Fresher, younger sports can make solid arguments that they set a better, cleaner example and so are more deserving of inclusion in the games. Part of the appeal of skateboarding, climbing , surfing and karate, all making their Olympic debuts at the 2020 Tokyo Games, and of breakdancing, being proposed for inclusion in Paris in 2024, is that Olympic audiences should be able to enjoy them without the nagging doubt that many medals may have been won with doping and could be stripped when lab results come back.

Nearly half of the 45 weightlifting medals from the 2012 London Olympics were tainted by doping in one way or another. Some medalists were belatedly caught when the IOC subjected samples it had stored away to improved testing that uncovered widespread use of the steroids stanozolol and turinabol among lifters from former Eastern Bloc nations. Kazakhstan lifter Ilya Ilin, who won gold in the men's 94-kilogram category in 2012 and at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, had the dubious distinction of later being stripped of both those medals after retesting revealed him as a steroid user.

Others medalists escaped that IOC net but were then unmasked by testing elsewhere. North Korea's Kim Un Guk, for example, has kept his 2012 Olympic gold from the men's featherweight competition but is banned until the end of this year following a positive test in 2015. The 2012 gold in the 85-kilogram class remains with Poland's Adrian Zielinski. But he then tested positive in 2016 and, after the Court of Arbitration for Sport recently rejected his appeal , is now serving out his four-year suspension.

On the women's side, the shocking case of Cristina Iovu, in particular, has weakened the argument that anti-doping suspensions have a deterrent effect. IOC retesting found that Iovu used turinabol when she won a bronze medal for Moldova in the 53-kilogram class in 2012. She also failed a test in 2013, having switched allegiances to Azerbaijan, and was banned for two years until 2015. In what could now be a third strike for Iovu, and for a third country, the International Weightlifting Federation announced in December that the athlete, now lifting for Romania, is again suspended while being investigated for another suspected anti-doping violation.

In short, those who paid for weightlifting tickets at recent Olympics might have a case for a refund. Getting medals to rightful owners has taken years. Spain's Lidia Valentin Perez waited a decade for her silver medal from the 2008 Olympics, reallocated after IOC retesting unmasked three lifters who'd kept her off the podium in the 75-kilogram competition in Beijing. Robbed of her Olympic podium moment again by three steroid users four years later in London, the Spanish lifter finally had the gold medal from 2012 placed around her neck at a ceremony in Madrid this month.

Weightlifting's anti-doping efforts were reviewed this week by IOC executives. In a decision the IOC may come to regret, and despite the ugly rash of drug-test positives from the world championships, the Olympic board opted Tuesday to confirm weightlifting's place at the 2024 Paris Olympics , signaling the end of its probation.

That was misguided. The smarter course of action would have been to sustain the pressure that previously helped jolt the sport into treating its doping problem as a life-threatening illness. Nine countries with the most positives from the 2008 and 2012 Olympic retests were suspended for a year from 2017 . The worst doping offenders, countries with 20 or more cases since 2008, are being limited to just one male and one female lifter next year in Tokyo. Thailand has banned itself from 2020 Olympic weightlifting entirely.

The Thai cases showed that weightlifting's doping disease isn't beaten. Instead of prematurely rewarding the sport, the IOC should have kept it on probation until lifters have grasped that each additional doping positive inches them closer to farce. Get the Tokyo Olympics out of the way first. Re-analyze weightlifting's samples from the 2016 Rio Games. Then, the IOC could evaluate whether weightlifting is worthy for 2024 and no longer doing more harm than good to the Olympic brand.

If not, there's no lack of attractive alternatives to take its place. __ John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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