Saturday, July 12, 2008
Doping overshadows weightlifting again
STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- The spotlight should be on the "Iranian Hercules," Turkey's "Little Dynamo" or China's prospects of winning 10 gold medals, one for each of its competitors.
Instead, the sport of weightlifting yet again is sullied by doping scandals ahead of an Olympics.
Bulgaria has withdrawn its entire team after 11 athletes tested positive for steroids, and Greece is only sending four competitors after 11 Greek weightlifters were suspended for doping.
Both teams are repeat offenders. Bulgaria, a weightlifting powerhouse, was roiled by a doping scandal at the 2000 Olympics, when three athletes returned their gold medals after positive drug tests.
In Athens four years later, Greek weightlifter Leonidas Sampanis was stripped of his bronze medal in the 62 kilo (137-pound) category for taking a banned substances.
The repercussions go far beyond the guilty individuals, because they cast suspicion over the entire sport.
"The scandal that is happening now could mean the actual end of weightlifting in Greece, at least as we knew it," said Vassilis Galoupis, a Greek sports commentator and doping specialist. "No medal in the future, no success in the future will mean the same thing to the hearts and minds of people."
Weightlifting has the dubious distinction of being the most doping-ridden of Olympic sports, in competition with cycling.
That's not surprising because when it comes to lifting barbells loaded with heavy plates, performance-enhancing drugs can make a huge difference. Some technical skill is involved, but raw muscle power is essential on the mat.
The latest scandals have even triggered calls for the sport to be dropped from the program in future Olympics, but officials are hoping it won't go that far.
"Weightlifting is a basic sport," said Dobor Dezso, International Weightlifting Federation spokesman. "It was on the program for the very first games in Athens (in 1896). The scandals are very disappointing, but I don't think it will result in weightlifting being taken off the program."
Suspicions aside, there will be some tantalizing competition in Beijing.
Iranian superheavyweight Hossein Rezazadeh is going for his third Olympic gold medal. The "Iranian Hercules" was outstanding in Athens in 2004, lifting a total of 1,041.7 pounds in the two events -- snatch and clean and jerk.
However, the world-record holder hasn't competed on the international stage since injuring a knee in a traffic accident last year. Rezazadeh appeared on state TV on July 1, saying that he is in good health and that "good preparations are under way" for the Olympics.
Bahram Afsharzadeh, a top official at the Iranian Weightlifting Federation, said Rezazadeh has reached the "required level of preparedness."
Among Rezazadeh's strongest challengers is world champion Viktors Scerbatihs of Latvia, runner-up in 2004. Scerbatihs took a time-out from his day job as a lawmaker in the small Baltic country's Parliament to prepare for Beijing.
"I had to appeal to the top sports authorities so that they would get the government to give me permission to train for the European championship and the Olympics," Scerbatihs told The Associated Press in an interview.
He has kept up his momentum, winning the European championships in April ahead of Germany's Matthias Steiner.
In the men's lightest division -- 56 kg (123 pounds) -- Turkey's Halil Mutlu will try to win a fourth Olympic gold medal, which would be a first for the sport. Nicknamed "Little Dynamo," Mutlu has returned from a two-year doping suspension, insisting he never knowingly took steroids.
In the women's competition, China probably would have been able to sweep the gold medals in every weight class. However, each country is allowed only 10 lifters: six men and four women.
That means the Chinese coaches must make some tough decisions on which lifters to use. For example, will it be world champion Chen Xiexia or world-record holder Yang Lian in the women's 48 kilo (106 pound) category?
In last year's world championships, Chinese women won five of seven weight classes, and got silver in the other two.
The United States, which once dominated the sport, is sending six weightlifters to Beijing, four women and two men. Superheavyweight Cheryl Haworth, bronze medalist at the Sydney Games, and Melanie Roach, in the 53 kilo (117 pound) weight class, have outside shots at the medals but would need to put in outstanding performances to reach the podium.
Associated Press writer Ali Akbar Dareni in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.