By Brian Oliver
LONDON (Reuters) - Weightlifting is hoping to strengthen its precarious hold on its Olympic status when "a new chapter" for the sport starts at the World Championships in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, from Thursday.gi
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has threatened the sport with removal from the Paris 2024 Games if it fails to improve its doping record and it remains on probation.
In a crackdown on doping, the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) has dropped the old weight classes while a new Olympic qualifying programme will compel lifters to compete a minimum of six times in 18 months and undergo what the IWF calls 'permanent anti-doping control'.
The IWF has banned more than 70 lifters from 26 countries from the world championships for failing to log their whereabouts on the global anti-doping database. A record field of more than 650 in 20 new weight classes will still be present.
The IWF has also adopted a tougher anti-doping policy this year under which repeat offending nations can be banned outright from the Olympics.
Countries with the worst doping record over the past 10 years have lost upto six of the maximum eight Olympic quota places, and nine nations have already served one-year bans that ended on Oct. 20.
Tamas Ajan - the Hungarian president of the IWF who has been at the helm of the sport since the mid-1970s - said he had support from the IOC for the new policies and sees 2018 as 'a turning point' and the World Championships as 'a new chapter'.
"You're seeing a changed landscape," said Phil Andrews, chief executive of USA Weightlifting. "It really is tremendous for clean athletes, clean countries, and for the sport generally."
The United States had a first female champion in 23 years and a first male medallist in 20 years at the last world championships, from which Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, China and Turkey were excluded.
Not everybody is, however, happy with the strict new regime, especially those who have been told that they will be able to send only two athletes to Tokyo because of past misdemeanours.
Maxim Agapitov, president of the Russian Weightlifting Federation, told Reuters that the IWF's new anti-doping rules "demotivate national federations and exclude clean athletes".
Agapitov felt it was unfair to ban teenagers from the recent Youth Olympic Games, which took place shortly before the one-year suspension ended.
"It's sad that youth athletes were deprived of the only opportunity in their life to take part in the Youth Olympic Games for violations that happened 10 years ago, when they had not even started training," Agapitov said.
The Russians are unhappy with the two Olympic spots - a limit also imposed on Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus. Agapitov said quota restrictions were "repressive... and have little to do with the real fight against doping".
"National federations and clean athletes are paying the price today for errors in the anti-doping work of the IWF in the past," he said. "Fundamental changes are still needed."
Kazakhstan, which has had more doping bans than any other country in the past 10 years, is challenging the IWF's new policies at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
Kazakhstan has had more than 30 positive cases since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and had five champions disqualified from Beijing and London.
Ilya Ilyin, who forfeited gold medals in 94kg at both Games, has won a legal challenge against a prospective eight-year ban, on a technicality over the timing of announcements, and will return to international competition in Ashgabat.
(Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)