By Brian Oliver
FORDE, Norway (Reuters) - Weightlifting took a significant step on Friday toward becoming the first sport to hand over control of its governing federation's anti-doping program to WADA, after enduring six months of relentless bad publicity.
The congress of the European Weightlifting Federation (EWF), meeting in Forde, Norway, voted unanimously in favor of a proposal to transfer the sport’s worldwide doping control system to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
The global governing body, the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), will vote on Europe’s proposal in June.
“Four or five years ago I was laughed at when I suggested this should happen,” said Christian Baumgartner, the German scientist, and president of his nation’s weightlifting federation, who proposed the change.
“There was not enough funding at WADA and there was no political will.”
Recent revelations of systemic cheating in a range of sports prompted the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to announce last December that it was in favor of making anti-doping independent of all Olympic sports.
If doping control was handed over to WADA then the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), sport's highest court, would be given the task of imposing sanctions on those who fail tests.
"Weightlifting is leading the way in this respect,” said Baumgartner. “I did not imagine, a few years ago, that I would be saying that.
“I am sure our international federation will adopt the proposal in June.”
When the IWF announced it had banned Bulgaria from the 2016 Olympic Games in November, after 11 of their lifters tested positive at a training camp, it was the start of a long run of negative publicity.
At November's world championships in Texas, there were 24 positive tests -- about 10 percent of all samples taken -- including the Russian super-heavyweight (+105kg) winner Alexei Lovchev, who had set two world records.
Olympic champion Kim Un-guk of North Korea also tested positive at the worlds as well as 22-year-old Valentin Hristov, a Bulgarian-born lifter who was competing for Azerbaijan and had already served a two-year ban for an earlier offense.
Former world champion Andrei Rybakov from Belarus was this month provisionally suspended after becoming the first weightlifter to test positive for meldonium.
Organizers of the European championships, which start in Forde on Sunday, are desperate for some good publicity.
The competition, in which about a quarter of the near-400 competitors can expect to be tested, is one of the last big events in the Olympic qualification cycle.
“People outside the sport know weightlifting for the wrong reasons, only for all the positive tests,” said Antonio Urso, the Italian who was re-elected president of the EWF on Friday.
“We need to change the image of weightlifting, to promote our heroes. We must focus more on the human side of our top athletes.”
Among those who, Urso hopes, will provide good news in Forde is Tatiana Kashirina, the Russian world champion in the women’s heaviest category (+75kg). Kashirina is close to becoming the first woman to lift 200kg.
(Editing by Toby Davis)