Weightlifting doping scandal snarls Thai Olympic medal machine

Weightlifter Sarat Sumpradit practices cleans in July during a training session at the national team’s training camp in the northern province of Chiang Mai. Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha / AFP
Weightlifter Sarat Sumpradit practices cleans in July during a training session at the national team’s training camp in the northern province of Chiang Mai. Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha / AFP

Thai weightlifter Sarat Sumpradit eats up to 10 egg whites for breakfast, works out four hours a day, and is banned from his smartphone at night as his training shifts into high gear for the world championships.

However, the muscle-bound 25-year-old has a problem: Thailand is under a self-imposed ban from weightlifting for doping, meaning the hosts may be unrepresented at next month’s world championships on home turf in Pattaya.

After nine Thai lifters were suspended following drug tests, Thailand is facing a crisis in its most successful Olympic sport, less than a year before the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

Update: Thai weightlifters banned from event over doping

“I’m fighting for those who have been suspended,” Sarat said defiantly after his afternoon workout, his second of the day.

“There are only a few of us left (in the team).”

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With five Olympic gold medals since 2004, all won by women, weightlifting has been a rare sporting success story for the Southeast Asian nation, turning ordinary people from the rural hinterland into celebrities.

The dream turned sour last year, when Thailand was caught in a global doping crackdown by weightlifting authorities that was prompted by a threat to expel the sport from the Olympic Games.

Nine Thais including reigning Olympic champions Sukanya Srisurat and Sopita Tanasan have returned positive drug tests since the world championships in November, where Thailand finished second in the medals table.

It prompted Thailand to voluntarily ban itself from competition, ruling its lifters out of the world championships in Pattaya and next year’s Olympics.

Dozens of cheats

However, the Thai Amateur Weightlifting Association now wants athletes who did not test positive to compete in the world championships and have a shot at the Olympics.

A final decision will be made next month by the International Weightlifting Federation, which has come under sustained calls to act after a long list of doping incidents.

Nine countries, including powerhouse China, were suspended from competition after re-testing of samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics ensnared dozens of cheats.

At the stuffy training camp in Chiang Mai, where trophies cover the wall and lycra-clad lifters heave weights above their head, Sarat insisted his teammates were unfairly targeted.

“We were on the same team. We went to the Olympics together. We ate and trained the same way. But why didn’t I test positive?” he said, suggesting a conspiracy against the Thai team.

“If you can cut the Thai team, other countries might have chances.”

But he conceded the drug-plagued sport needs to clean up its act.

“The strength should really come from yourself and your determination to train.”

The men’s and women’s team sleep in dorms near the gym and eat three high-protein meals a day. At around 9:30 pm, coaches whisk away their phones to ensure a sound night’s sleep.

‘I bought my mom a house’

Thailand says the athletes who tested positive were given a pain relief gel by a former coach that — unbeknown to them — had small traces of an anabolic steroid.

Thai association honorary president Intarat Yodbangtoey also suspects the country was singled out, as many of the athletes passed tests before their samples were among others sent for a second, more stringent round of testing.

“We teach them a lot, don’t drink, don’t eat, and don’t inject anything (illegal),” he said in his Bangkok office. “Where is the justice?”

He said many of the weightlifters are from the countryside where the sport offers a way out of poverty, and that the scandal had left them feeling “hopeless.”

“It will kill them,” he said, of penalties that could be handed down after the International Testing Agency rules (ITA) rules on the cases.

The International Weightlifting Federation, which handed over testing management to the Switzerland-based ITA last year, did not respond to requests for comment.

The situation has been demoralising for the Thai team, who started collecting Olympic medals at Sydney in 2000, when women’s weightlifting made its debut at the Games.

Khassaraporn Suta became Thailand’s first-ever women’s Olympic medallist with bronze in Sydney, raising the profile of weightlifting in a country where football, boxing, badminton and golf are more popular.

The benefits can be lucrative, with Thai athletes receiving financial rewards from sponsors and government funds. Twenty-year-old lifter Jiraporn Nantawong said she has been able to help her family out of debt.

“We are more comfortable. I bought my mom a house,” she said. “Most of the team has problems with money.”

The diminutive lifter, like Sarat, said her main target now is to “preserve our dignity by performing very well”.

“No matter what, the sport will not go down.”

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