USA Powerlifting has been effectively been told that 171 of its doping suspensions are invalid and has been ordered to restructure its anti-doping programme by the sport’s global governing body, the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF).
As a result the Americans, by far the most successful and profitable nation in powerlifting, who regard themselves as the most committed to a drug-free sport, are considering resigning from the IPF to focus instead on local and national competitions.
A meeting of the USA Powerlifting (USAPL) Board, who are believed to be overwhelmingly opposed to the IPF’s demands, is likely to be held in January or February.
The IPF believes it has no other option but to make the demands of the Americans if it is to continue its long-term efforts to gain official recognition from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
That appears to be their top priority, even if it results in the US no longer being part of international powerlifting.
This year the IPF gained Tier One accreditation from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for the first time, and also earned acceptance into world university sport with the announcement last month of place on the next World University Championships programme.
The IPF wants change in the US because it sees its primary goal as maintaining that Tier One status from WADA, which is important in its long-term efforts to gain official recognition from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Unless all its Member Federations are compliant with the WADA Code, that IPF status is under threat.
WADA is conducting an investigation into the anti-doping programme in American powerlifting, which features the use of independent, non-accredited individuals and laboratories in order to keep costs manageable.
Neither the IPF nor USAPL would make an official statement on the situation, which both described as "delicate".
In a recent statement on social media USAPL said it would not change its business practices, had not seen any evidence of WADA’s investigation, and would continue to drug-test at all levels “as we have for 38 years”.
The Americans say they carry out more WADA-compliant tests than the IPF - more than the whole of the rest of the world.
Many of those 171 American suspensions, imposed within the past four years, resulted from tests carried out in unaccredited laboratories, or were otherwise unacceptable to WADA because samples may have been collected by unaccredited individuals.
An American source said the IPF had sent an action plan to USAPL which pointed out that any analyses carried out by a non-WADA laboratory were not defensible, and that decisions of USAPL’s anti-doping hearing panel were “invalid”.
That would make all suspensions invalid too, a point that has been taken up by some suspended athletes who are already seeking reinstatement.
One source involved in the dispute said, "It’s a tight spot but we are all friends, we want to resolve this in an amicable way and everybody hopes we can find an amicable solution."
A spokesman for WADA said, "I cannot comment on WADA investigations that may be ongoing but I would point out that WADA does not have jurisdiction over a National Ffederation such as USA Powerlifting.
"As the IPF is a signatory to the WADA Code, it is responsible for ensuring that the policies, rules and programmes of its national federations and other members are in compliance with the Code."
The situation baffles USAPL, which has nearly 20,000 members and a registered testing pool of around 400 powerlifters, compared to the IPF’s 29 from some 2,000 regular international competitors.
The IPF cut its testing pool, apparently on the advice of WADA, to an "affordable" size, focusing on those lifters thought to be most vulnerable to doping.
Now the Americans have been asked to do something similar, cutting right back on testing to focus on elite athletes - but given USAPL’s long-held commitment to trying to keep the sport clean, that could be a step too far for them.
American officials are concerned that the IPF is going beyond the WADA Code as regards the US anti-doping policy, while failing to undertake enough tests themselves.
One American pointed out that weightlifting, which is itself under close scrutiny from the IOC, carries out eight to nine tests for every one by the IPF.
There are about 375 powerlifting competitions a year organised by USAPL, with some 2,000 drug tests - of which roughly a quarter are done by WADA-accredited laboratories.
Many of those 171 suspensions, imposed within the past four years, resulted from tests carried out in unaccredited laboratories, or were otherwise unacceptable to WADA because samples may have been collected by unaccredited individuals.
An insider in the sport in the US said, "We are the most prominent and powerful nation in the IPF, we send three times as many athletes to international competitions as any other country.
"The USA market is the biggest in powerlifting, and if we left the IPL it would surely be very damaging to the sport as a whole."
The same source estimated that if it maintained the same high level of testing at the far more expensive WADA-approved laboratories, the costs would amount to USAPL’s entire annual income.
Another complaint by USAPL is the fact that so many nations – about two thirds of the IPF’s 115 members – carry out no tests at all, and many of them do not complete annual anti-doping reports.