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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Thoughts on Russian athlete development (1)

Earlier in September 2017, along with China, Turkey and others, Russia was suspended from international weightlifting for one year. The International Weightlifting Federation handed down this punishment to those countries each producing three or more Anti-Doping Rule Violations in the combined reanalysis of samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.

The domination of Russia and, from time to time, other former Soviet States, in world weightlifting has two dimensions. First, the question of whether or not a State was complicit in a sports doping programme. Answers to that will play out as it may, but a second dimension risks being lost from sight.

Russia had and still has a long-standing athlete development system now massively compromised by doping. However, it may be worth looking at the development side of the equation to see what we can learn in the positive. The disappointing issue for the banned nations is that without doping, they (in particular Russia) may have dominated the sport anyway. We and they will never know.

So thinking back to when the Cold War was at its peak, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) drew on all the member States and applied sport to the political tool box abroad. The western sports world took umbrage at a early talent ID, full-time State-sponsored training and a focus on sports where it was thought the USSR (and East Germany) would win. This, we said, was not what sport was about.

How times have changed. We and most other western countries support high performance programmes with taxpayer funds, wrap-around services, long-term planning and targeting sports. And why not? It works! The more important question for me, however, was the 'development' side of the Soviet system and its design. Drugs are not a development tool!

The issue was not that the Russian scientific approach was especially hidden. They were readily available in publications like the Soviet Sports Review (in English) and in scientific journals. Our problem was not taking the time to look and translate.

More on the Russian approach in my next post.

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