If you are even remotely interested in Olympic weightlifting and you have not heard about him you must have been living under a rock for the past 8 years. Ilya Ilyin, weightlifting prodigy, twice-Olympic champion, four-times world champion. He has never, ever been defeated in any competition. His extravagant, rock star personality combined with a unique style made him a superstar in his home country. A friend of Nazarbayev himself, the Kazakh president, Ilya was featured on Kazakhstan’s 2013 stamp. When Kazakhstan hosted the World Championships in Almaty, Ilya’s incredible personality brought huge crowds to the event. It is there, where after 2 consecutive successful world record attempts, he was forced to lift an astounding 242 kilograms in clean and jerk. Against all odds and probably even laws of physics, Ilya’s lift was successful. Just 2 years before the next Olympics, he seemed unstoppable.
Once thought to be indomitable heroes, Bulgarian weightlifters’ reputations are now in ruins. In the wake of 11 of their lifters being banned for doping, the entire federation was excluded from this year’s Rio Olympics. Disgraced athletes are forced to pursue less legitimate careers. Faced with a crumbling, post-communist economy, some of them were pushed to organized crime to make ends meet. The GDP per capita of Bulgaria was close to $7500 in the year 2013, which is 3.8 times lower than that of poorest US state, Mississippi. For many of the talented, athletic young people of Eastern Europe, weightlifting is their only chance to escape extreme poverty or jail. In Poland, winning an Olympic medal qualifies you for a whopping $600 a month of retirement. There, it is enough to put everything on the line.
Earlier this month the IWF reported that 5 of the Kazakh lifters got caught in what is to be the biggest scandal of weightlifting in history. It was the IOC that stepped up and decided to do retests, which is peculiar, to say the least. In total, 55 athletes were caught doping, including 5 Olympic champions. Not much later, rumors surfaced, mentioning a male, Kazakh Olympic champion from Beijing as one of the culprits. There was only one athlete that matched that depiction: the great Ilya Ilyin.
This was one of the many scandals in sport related to Eastern European athletes that unfolded recently. In November of last year, the IAAF published a report unveiling state-sponsored doping in Russia. Sources reported that many prominent political figures, including Vladimir Putin himself, were involved in that case. IOC involvement in this IWF case was a clear political message, indicating that no special treatment for any country will be tolerated. Ilya, in his defense, alluded to “politicking” as a reason for his demise.
The truth of the matter is, many people in Poland knew exactly not only that Ilya doped, which is obvious, but also exactly what he took. I have heard from more than one source exactly the name of the substance that was allegedly his favorite flavor of anabolic, which was one of the three substances he was caught using. The same rumors must have alerted IOC officials, who had no incentives to save Ilya. My theory is that many people in the IWF must have known as well; they just chose to spare the goose laying golden eggs. Eastern Europe does not have a secretive culture. Most of the people are open to sharing all of the information about their drug usage to almost anyone. Anabolic steroids are legal, easily available and not as stigmatized as in the rest of the world. They are perceived as another piece of the puzzle.
With political winds regarding marijuana and other drugs blowing to the left, one would think that we should revisit our “abstinence only” policy regarding steroids. In the USA, most of the Democrats, as well as some of the Republicans, are in favor of more liberal drug laws. The rationale is simple: legalization gives the control of drug distribution back to the government. The same reasoning applies to sports: devoid of governmental control over who uses drugs, many teens end up using them and getting caught. Anabolic steroid use among youth is undoubtedly cringeworthy, yet it is fairly common. Long before they can even give consent, young athletes face an impossible choice: the prospect of a lucrative career, or the tough reality of their countries. As someone who has never faced such a choice, I do not have the right to judge them.