Clean sport is the message at the EGAT Kings Cup in Thailand ©TAWA

The next 12 months will offer the Thai Amateur Weightlifting Association (TAWA) plenty of chances to show the world that they are making progress on and off the platform in their attempt to move away from a troubled past into a clean, successful future.

Between the Asian Championships starting this week and next year’s version in February there will be five staging points on the Olympic qualifying pathway before a significant sixth and final qualifier.

The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Cup, a compulsory event for anyone hoping to lift at Paris 2024, will be hosted by Thailand.

"TAWA as a team, some of them newcomers and others who have been involved for years, are all aware of the problems doping caused and the need to promote our federation," said Niwat Limsuknirun, who represents Thailand on the Asian Weightlifting Federation (AWF) Executive Board.

"We have the experience to provide a successful World Cup.

"We have hosted the World Championships three times since 1997 and the first World Youth Championships were in Chiang Mai in 2009."

The last time Thailand hosted a major event, the 2019 IWF World Championships in Pattaya, their own athletes were not allowed to lift. They were also barred from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

In the three years before a new leadership was voted in at TAWA in March 2020, there was one doping-related setback after another that led to the federation’s outgoing President saying it had all "destroyed our country’s reputation and image."

In the weeks before those elections Thailand, already banned from Tokyo for "bringing weightlifting into disrepute", featured heavily in the German TV documentary that exposed corruption in weightlifting.

Timor Leste lifter Jose Garcia is among many athletes, coaches and technical officials who have been helped by Thailand ©TAWA
Timor Leste lifter Jose Garcia is among many athletes, coaches and technical officials who have been helped by Thailand ©TAWA

Siripuch Gulnoi, a medallist at London 2012, was unaware she was being filmed when she said girls in Thailand would start doping as young as 13 for national competitions and that doping was widespread in gyms and clubs around Thailand, where weightlifting has boomed since the start of the century and produced more gold medals than any other sport.

Now, Thailand is trying to restore the damage by keeping to a new roadmap for the future, and is hoping to qualify the maximum team of six for Paris 2024.

TAWA said it has a closer relationship with its national anti-doping agency (DCAT) and a new attitude to doping, especially regarding education of athletes and coaches.

Next month Limsuknirun will meet an official from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in Thailand to discuss a collaborative approach to testing at the Southeast Asian Games in Cambodia next month.

He and TAWA now work together closely with DCAT, Southeast Asia regional testers, the IWF, the ITA (International Testing Agency) and WADA.

Screening and monitoring is a strong focus. Nobody can join the 60-strong national squads before they have undergone a six-month screening process and been educated about doping.

"In the past they would just come in and start training a few weeks before a competition," said Limsuknirun, director general at the department of physical education in Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sport.

"After the doping problems we investigated what happened in our family, not just in TAWA (the national team) but in our clubs.

"We found some clubs were trying to help lifters (in illegal ways), club coaches who don’t know what damage they are causing, who don’t see the big picture."

Young weightlifters at the EGAT Kings Cup in Phang-Nga helped to plant 300 trees ©TAWA
Young weightlifters at the EGAT Kings Cup in Phang-Nga helped to plant 300 trees ©TAWA

Another change is that when athletes win prize money for major medals - state rewards are sizeable - 10 per cent of their money, by signed agreement, goes back to their original club for development of athletes and coaches.

There was not enough out-of-competition testing before the troubles, Limsuknirun said, and "we also did not pay enough attention to checking on coaches."

At the EGAT Kings Cup that ended yesterday in Phang-Nga, a youth and senior clubs competition with about 500 entries including a few invited guests from Singapore and Brunei, testers took samples from 96 athletes.

That high rate of testing is very expensive - the bill for this competition alone was more than $30,000 (£24,000/€27,250).

A nutrition specialist is keeping a close watch on what the lifters consume, and another change is giving the lifters more chance to recover from injury.

"We take better care of them," said TAWA general secretary General Wisut Dechsakul, who like many senior officials in TAWA and other sports federations in Thailand is from a military background.

The "better care" continues after the athletes retire. TAWA is trying to keep more weightlifters involved in the sport as coaches, technical officials, fitness teachers or administrators.

It is already doing well in that respect and has more International Technical Officials than any other nation in Asia, mostly former athletes and 40 of them category one.

Giving youngsters an education as well as specialist coaching has long been part of the programme in Thailand.

Among those who attended the EGAT Kings Cup were 2004 Olympic champion Pawina Thongsuk, now a senior Government official working with Limsuknirun at the department of physical education, and coach Pensiri Laosirikul, a bronze medallist at Beijing 2008.

A view over Phuket from one of the competition hotels for next year's IWF World Cup ©TAWA
A view over Phuket from one of the competition hotels for next year's IWF World Cup ©TAWA

Laosirikul coaches 24 athletes in a neighbouring province plus José Garcia, the only current lifter from Timor Leste. He is trying to get a tripartite place at Paris 2024 but cannot train at home because there are no coaches in Timor.

That is an example of what Thailand often does, Limsuknirun said - helping other nations.

"We have given coaching assistance to Bhutan and Nepal, we helped Laos when it hosted the Southeast Asian Games, we are often asked and always keen to help."

TAWA welcomes the new IWF coaches licencing programme, in its pilot stage in Europe, which might have kept them out of trouble if it had existed six years ago when Thailand appointed Liu Ning as a coach.

Liu, from China and operating without the knowledge of the Chinese Weightlifting Association, took the blame for the scandals of 2018 when 10 young weightlifters, mostly female, tested positive.

Nine were at the IWF World Championships and one at the Youth Olympic Games - four had won gold medals.

The coach admitted administering steroids via a pain-relieving gel.

TAWA’s key leaders at the time, Major General Intarat Yodbangtoey and his wife Boossaba, said they were unaware of what Liu was doing and blamed him for the national team’s woes.

Intarat and Boossaba hold honorary roles in weightlifting but are no longer in elected positions.

The women’s team is coached by Thais now, as are the men with input from a core strength specialist from Indonesia.

The main competition arena for the IWF World Cup at Phuket Rajabhat University, where Paris 2024 qualifying will end ©TAWA
The main competition arena for the IWF World Cup at Phuket Rajabhat University, where Paris 2024 qualifying will end ©TAWA

Improved results by the men is one of the noticeable changes since Thai athletes returned from suspension in May last year at the IWF World Junior Championships in Greece.

As ever, there are some talented young women too.

Next week one of them, Thanaporn Saetia, makes her first appearance in senior weightlifting at the Asian Championships in Korea.

While 17-year-old Saetia is not expected to win a medal this time, her team will be hoping to improve on last year’s effort by winning at least one continental title.

Before the Asian Championships finish the Southeast Asian Games begin in Cambodia, where Thailand also expects to win plenty of medals.

The clash of dates means two teams from Thailand will be lifting in two countries, a sign of strength in depth. More than 40 lifters, coaches and other team personnel will be in action in Korea and Cambodia.

TAWA failed with an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport over its Tokyo ban two years ago, and was told that it had been "negligent" in failing to vet coaches and educate athletes.

TAWA general secretary Wisut Dechsakul tends a tree planted in his name ©TAWA
TAWA general secretary Wisut Dechsakul tends a tree planted in his name ©TAWA

The ban was due to end on April 1 this year but was reduced when TAWA met a wide range of conditions that showed evidence of "culture change."

As for hosting the IWF World Cup next year, plenty of work has been done in finding a suitable venue at Phuket Rajabhat University, where a 3,000-plus-capacity competition hall and a huge training area will be close to each other on the campus.

In the expectation that athletes, other team personnel and officials will take the number of visitors beyond 1,000, TAWA has chosen three hotels in the same area of Phuket and has plans for a lavish Opening Ceremony. It is waiting on the IWF to finalise the contract.

The IWF’s own reforms include a new sustainability policy, due to be announced this year.

Thailand was ahead of the game in that respect at the competition in Phang-Nga.

TAWA’s main sponsor is the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, whose own sustainability plans include planting a million trees throughout the country in a reforestation project.

In the grounds outside the main competition hall in Phang-Nga 300 trees, some of them with plaques naming them after prominent TAWA officials, were planted between sessions by young weightlifters.