Ilya Ilyin took another small step towards the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in the unlikely setting of Ricoh Arena in Coventry, England when he suffered another defeat but made his best total since his suspension for doping at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympics.
While the domestic highlight of the day at the British International Open, running concurrently with the British Championships, was Zoe Smith’s narrow victory in another close 64kg contest with Sarah Davies, the focus worldwide was on Ilyin.
The 31-year-old Kazakhstani is still a long way below the form that earned him gold at both those Games – before he was disqualified and stripped of his medals – and is more than 55kg short of his career highs – 407 in the 94kg class in 2011 and 437 as a 105kg lifter in 2015.
He admits that he has “a 0.1 per cent chance” of standing on top of the Olympic podium again but is working hard towards his 2019 aim of winning a medal at the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Championships in September and moving up the Olympic rankings.
Ilyin made made 165-185-350 in the 96kg at the British International Open, an Olympic qualifier, and given his pre-event target that was a success.
He said he wanted 5-10kg more than the 345kg he lifted in April at the Asian Championships in Ningbo, China, where he finished fifth, 56kg behind home winner Tian Tao.
His next stop will be the Olympic test event in Tokyo in July, where he intends to compete at 109kg – though he is clear that he will go for the 96kg in next year’s Olympic Games, should he qualify.
Ilyin was cheered on to the stage but made a bad start, missing his first snatch attempt at 150kg.
He recovered well to make 155kg, then upped his third attempt to 165kg and was clearly very happy to make it and finish first ahead of Kyril Pyrohov, of Ukraine.
But Pyrohov did better in the clean and jerk, finishing on 351kg with six from six, while Ilyin surprisingly missed his final lift at 190kg.
The British champion was Edmon Avetisyan on 329kg.
In that 64kg women’s contest, both winner Smith (225kg total) and runner-up Davies (101kg snatch) set British records.
Smith finished 1kg ahead of Davies, just as she had one when she won a European Championships bronze medal in April.
Elena Toma, the European champion at 64kg, competed at 71kg for the first time and won with career-high numbers in snatch and total, finishing 113-131-244.
In a wide-ranging interview with Vesti back home in Kazakhstan before he flew to England, Ilyin explained how difficult it had been to return after nearly two years without training.
When he was provisionally suspended in 2016 it seemed he would be banned for eight years, as he tested positive twice – but escaped with a two-year ban.
The International Olympic Committee sent notification of his 2012 positive to the National Olympic Committee of Kazakhstan in June 2016, a few days before they then sent news of the Beijing positive.
Because the notifications were the wrong way round, Ilyin avoided, on a technicality, what would have been effectively a lifetime ban.
As soon as he heard, he went straight into action early last year at a training camp set up by the Kazakhstan Weightlifting Federation in Romania, where he trained with Rio 2016 77kg champion Nihat Rahimov and Zulfiya Chinshanlo, who is also struggling in her comeback from a ban for doping at London 2012.
“It was hard for me, especially psychologically,” he said.
“For about two years I didn’t really train – I went to study, and to clean up.”
“The first five months were going well, I was gaining momentum, there were good results.
“And then, unfortunately, everything began to fall.
“I am older now and apparently it is necessary to train in a different way because I do not withstand the loads of that (old) system.”
He and his coach, since replaced by Anton Moiseyev, did not know what to do.
Ilyin over-trained and “old injuries manifested themselves”.
His back pain persisted after victory in the Kazakhstan national championships and the doctor told him if he pushed too hard, he could have severe spinal problems.
That led to Ilyin weighing in without competing at two events, the IWF World Championships and the Qatar Cup, to ensure he was eligible for Tokyo.
“I would hardly be competing,” he said.
“To go to the platform with my body in such a state… it’s better not to go at all.”
In February this year, he went to train in Sochi, Russia, to prepare for the Asian Championships in Ningbo, China in April.
He was in “a pit of despair, at the bottom” because of that earlier over-training, and at that point he appointed Moiseyev – “he understands me, he knows when I need to rest” – as coach.
Ilyin expected to finish seventh or eighth in Ningbo, having finished first in every competition he had entered since 2005, he said “going out there knowing I would lose was the most difficult thing”.
When he finished fifth with that 345kg total, he was “surprised and happy”.
The Coventry result will help too, but Ilyin said: “I used to say with 99.9 per cent certainty that I would win, and I won, but now I am 0.1 per cent.”
He said the public would never again see the Ilya Ilyin of old, but that “I will do as much as possible".
Nor, he said, would they see a repeat of the Kazakhstan of old, the nation that racked up more positives than any other between the Olympic Games of 2008 and 2016.
“The past path is already history,” he said.
“We are building a team in a new way, not only in Kazakhstan but all over the world.
“In weightlifting at the moment it is time for a change.
“Therefore, in terms of results, the move is slightly downwards.
"It would be strange if it were up.”