Corruption in weightlifting: scornful laughter on the titanic

Christian Baumgartner believed he could reform the world weightlifting federation. He failed against Tamas Ajan, the president of the IWF.

Chinese weightlifter at the 2019 World Championships Photo: Zhang Keren/imago

Maybe it’s also because of Christian Baumgartner’s job that he likes to take a close look. The veterinarian specializes in "raw milk analysis," and it’s not that far from this field to doping analysis in sports. Baumgartner is the managing director of the Bavarian Milk Testing Ring, responsible for "the implementation of the Milk Quality Ordinance in Bavaria. So he looks at whether things are running cleanly, and because he used to lift weights in his youth, it somehow happened that he made a career in the German Weightlifting Association and even ended up in the post of president at the end of 2012.

The electorate wanted someone who was not "soft-spoken and opportunistic," as he himself says. From then on, Baumgartner took care of the implementation of the Sport Quality Ordinance, so to speak, which is a tricky business, because the federation sport is not only highly complex, but also often a matter of muckrakers and part-time potentates like the president of the International Lifting Federation (IWF), the Hungarian Tamas Ajan, 80, who has been running the business in Budapest since 1976 and has created a system of nepotism and corruption over the years.

Funding from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in the millions has disappeared into two Swiss accounts. The anti-doping program always sounded ambitious on paper, but implementation by the Hungarian testing agency Hunado was severely lacking. However, those who were caught using muscle fattening agents, and in the past twenty years that numbered more than 600 athletes, often had to pay Ajan’s adjudicators, preferably in cash.

A bubbling source of income

If there were three or more doping violations, the national federation responsible was banned, but it could buy its way out with a fine of 50,000 dollars. If nine or more dopers were caught in one year, which actually happened, the IMF sometimes sent out a bill for $500,000. The federation not only tested sloppily, it also enriched itself by collective punishment of those who got caught in the control net. In the 2012 Olympic year, for example, Russian lifters were not tested at all for doping substances during training, although Tamas Ajan had promised two training checks per athlete.

Christian Baumgartner, official

"People trust that things will be sorted out internally in the sport"

"At the time, I really considered it a mockery," Baumgartner says today. "From that point on, it was clear to me: You can talk all you want, in the end, what’s supposed to happen will happen." That is to say: what happened was what Tamas Ajan took advantage of. Last weekend, the ARD documentary "Der Herr der Heber" (The Lord of the Lifts) once again illuminated all facets of the Ajan system. It puts the sinister goings-on of Fifa in the shade, as the soccer world federation strives to establish good governance standards after public pressure, the IWF still has a long way to go in this regard – and not only Baumgartner believes that fundamental reforms can only be realized after the demise of the Hungarian.

Lord of the lifters: Tamas Ajan, President of the IWF Photo: Igor Kovalenko/epa/dpa

At the time, when Christian Baumgartner was elected to the executive board of the world federation in 2013, he tried to shed light on the financial flows. At the head of the movement that sought clarification and transparency was the Italian Antonio Urso, who is still the head of the European lifters’ association. He dared, after an internal IMF commission failed to get through, to turn to the international sports court Cas in Lausanne. Urso wanted to know whether the IOC should not intervene and sanction the IMF if IOC millions disappear in the professional association.

Refusal of the IOC

But the Cas judges felt they had no jurisdiction, apparently taking their cue from a letter the IOC sent to Rome in May 2011: "Out of respect for the autonomy of the international professional federation, the IOC will not interfere in the debate." The IOC president at the time, Jacques Rogge, refused to involve the Olympic Ethics Commission. In doing so, they gave Ajan a free hand and legitimized his actions.

Baumgartner saw this as a hack: "If you read the charter and the principles of the IOC, you would think as a layman that the IOC would have to get involved. We were very disappointed that that didn’t happen." The German raised the issue again at the IMF board, but his colleagues echoed Ajan’s appeal that cohesion and federation peace were more important than proper accounting. "Up to a certain point, the argument caught on with me, too, because there was nothing more to be gained," Baumgartner says in retrospect, "with the financial issue, the lid was simply off at that point."

The insurgent camp failed to take further legal action against Ajan at the time, but Baumgartner acknowledges that even the Cas advance was an unheard-of occurrence in world sports. Why? "You don’t do something like that. Rather, one trusts that things will be settled internally in sport. Autonomy is sacred to many, after all, but it also leads precisely to the fact that such networks as in the IMF are built up and are basically no longer subject to any control."

Baumgartner then came to terms with the circumstances in the IMF, rather taking a "neutral position" because he wanted to work on "factual issues." With this attitude, he became somewhat sidelined. In the IMF, with its "dramatically hardened fronts" between the Urso camp and the Ajan people, one is actually doomed to make a decision: "Either you are for Ajan or against him."

In the last presidential election in 2017, 58 percent of delegates were in favor of a "carry on. "The Ajan camp prevailed," says Christian Baumgartner. Italian Antonio Urso was a bit more outspoken. He said, "The newly elected officials look like the Titanic orchestra, enjoying each other’s sinking of the ship."

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