The Debate

Small Countries, Big Sports: The Case of Izzat Artykov

Artykov’s legal representative shares his side of a complicated case.

Small Countries, Big Sports: The Case of Izzat Artykov

Izzat Artykov of Kyrgyzstan poses with his medal, little knowing it would be stripped from him in short order.

Credit: REUTERS/Yves Herman

It has been five months since the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, but the Games are not over for Izzat Artykov. The 23-year-old Kyrgyz weightlifter continues his struggle to keep the bronze medal he won in Rio, which was stripped from him for alleged doping.

The Kyrgyz athlete was the first athlete to be caught for alleged doping during the Rio Olympic Games. He is supposed to have tested positive for strychnine, a pesticide-cum-poison, which reportedly has performance-enhancing abilities if used at the right dosage. Reportedly, the first athlete to ever use strychnine to enhance his abilities was the American runner Thomas Hinks in 1904, which nearly killed him; he won a gold medal and kept it. Apparently, strychnine can also be found in herbal medicines, which may show traces in urine and blood analysis, although in insignificant quantities.

In Rio, Izzat Artykov, who weighed in at 69 kilograms, lifted 339 kg in total, coming in third and winning the bronze medal. Just few months earlier, in April 2016, he won the gold medal at the Asian Championship in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where he also took doping tests and was found clean. He lifted 338 kg in total at that competition, almost the same weight that he lifted in Rio on August 9, 2016.

Artykov had to leave the Olympic village on August 10, immediately after his performance. The hasty departure of the athlete and his coach was in fact a usual practice in all Olympic Games; the Kyrgyz National Olympic Committee (NOC) needed the extra accommodations in the Olympic village for friends, relatives, or sponsors.

Artykov, the only medal winner from Kyrgyzstan arrived in his home country on August 12 and was met as a hero. He was ecstatic that 16 years of hard training and sacrifice had finally paid off and he could help his single mother, who worked as a labor migrant in Russia and whom he hadn’t seen for five years. He hoped that the awards promised by the Kyrgyz government would also help solving the financial problems of his young family; he is married with one daughter. Because so much was at stake, he has said he would have never risked ingesting anything to jeopardize his chances at winning an Olympic medal, something he was confident about doing after winning the Asian Championship.

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In spite of Artykov having obtained the necessary license to participate in the Olympic Games and win the Asian championship, Kanat Amankulov, the director of the Kyrgyz agency for sports and youth affairs, was not in a rush to pay his entitlements. Artykov hoped that with the bronze medal won in Rio, these problems finally would be sorted out.

Nevertheless, Artykov and his coach’s euphoria did not last for long. On August 12, Amankulov, who was in Rio as the head of the Kyrgyz sports delegation, informed Artykov’s coach via phone that the athlete’s test sample A had come back positive for the prohibited substance strychnine. He sent a copy of the analysis via WhatsApp. He instructed the coach to keep quiet and said that the Kyrgyz sports delegation in Rio would take care of the matter. The shocked coach insisted that Artykov was clean. He went to the local pharmacies to seek information about what strychnine was and whether they sold such a substance. The pharmacies informed him that they did not have strychnine or any other drugs that contained this substance on sale. He did further research on the Internet learned that strychnine was actually a poison.

In the morning of August 13 (Rio time), the Kyrgyz NOC called the coach again to inform him that they were heading to the laboratory to open test sample B. Neither Artykov nor his coach were asked if they agreed to the opening of test B, would like to postpone doing so, or would like to attend the opening personally or authorize someone to be present on behalf of the athlete. Instead, they were presented with the fact that the test B would be opened within minutes and were again instructed to keep quiet. That was the last communication Artykov’s coach had with the Kyrgyz sports authorities, who did not return subsequent phone calls, or communicate via email or other means. They also did not return phone calls from the Kyrgyz weightlifting federation. Throughout this process, Artykov was never contacted directly by the NOC, International Olympic Committee or the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

On August 18, Artykov and his coach, like everyone else in Kyrgyzstan, learned from media reports that he had been found guilty for violating anti-doping rules during the Olympic games and that he was stripped off his medal and other entitlements obtained in Rio. Prior to that, Artykov had no idea that there was even a Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) case against him. He also learned from a press release of the Kyrgyz sports authorities that they had washed their hands of the matter; they blamed Artykov, his coach and the weightlifting federation. Amankulov even threatened to open an investigation into the matter when he returned from Rio and in fact he did — although his team had no clue what exactly to investigate Artykov, coach, or the federation for.

Neither Artykov nor his coach knew that for the first time in Olympic history there was an ad hoc committee of the CAS anti-doping division established in Rio to look at the doping cases immediately. They also did not know that there was free legal aid available to assist them in such cases. Later, the secretary-general of the Kyrgyz NOC also admitted that he had no idea of such changes. The secretary-general also noted that the security at the labs in the Olympic premises was not adequate and that there were cases when coaches took the tests instead of the athletes.

Artykov and his coach were in Kyrgyzstan at the time and were not aware of the developments in Rio. They were also anxious about threats in the press that the Kyrgyz sports authorities would initiate actions against them, so they simply waited for the worst. At the time when the whole nation was angry at the athlete for “shaming” the country, I , a regular Kyrgyz citizen, decided to give Artykov the benefit of doubt. In my own investigation, I learned that there were serious procedural violations regarding notifying the athlete about his test, about the ad hoc committee and about the free legal services. So I offered my help.

The August 18 CAS decision noted that on August 13, Artykov attended the opening of the test B (he had not and could not, because he was back in Kyrgyzstan as of August 12). The CAS decision also stated that Artykov was given the opportunity to file his explanation by August 16 but did not do so. In fact, as noted earlier, Artykov and his coach had no idea that there was a CAS case against them. Neither of them received any communication from the IOC, World Anti-Doping Agency, or CAS directly. The NOC also did not provide them with such information. Artykov and his coach do not speak English and were learning everything from the news, which sometimes provided inaccurate translations (for example, stating that the athlete’s appeal had been rejected). The Kyrgyz sports authorities, including the NOC, denied receiving any communication from the IOC, CAS, or WADA and did not share any documents even when they were specifically requested to do so by me as Artykov’s legal representative.

On the official list of the Kyrgyz sports delegation in Rio, Amankulov was appointed as the head of the delegation. In fact, his son, an employee of the Kyrgyz NOC who was not on the official list in any capacity, was the chief of mission in Rio. In this capacity, the son signed numerous documents he received from the IOC and CAS related to Artykov’s case. None of these documents ever reached Artykov. The son admitted during a recent hearing that he did not remember which documents he signed and what they meant.

On January 11, the CAS convened a court hearing of this case in its offices in Lausanne. Artykov and the vice president of the National Weightlifting Federation traveled more than 6,000 miles to attend the long-awaited hearing in Switzerland in the hopes of restoring their reputations and dignity. They struggled for months to find funds to cover their travel expenses, endured unnerving last minute flight cancellations and reroutings, and spent 10 sleepless hours in the Moscow airport where they were put on the stand-by list. They finally arrived in Geneva in the late afternoon of January 10, just in time to attend the court hearing the next day.

The panel of arbitrators included an American lawyer and two German lawyers. The seven-hour hearing was a fierce battle. Together with a colleague from Brazil, a pro bono lawyer, we tried to convince the panel that the case centered upon three important issues:

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  • Serious procedural flaws in Rio that violated Artykov’s rights
  • Negligence, abuse of authority, corruption, and nepotism, all of which are prevalent in Kyrgyz sport authorities, were revealed through this case and complicated the matter. Amankulov, who communicated with Artykov’s coach via phone, had no authority to represent Artykov.
  • The IOC, the world sports body that we all expect to see as a champion for peace, justice, human rights, and equality not only condoned the above failures by the Kyrgyz authorities, but also played in an egregious manner with the fate of a young, talented champion who, until Rio, had a clear record.

None of these arguments, were appreciated by the IOC lawyers, who claimed that the Kyrgyz NOC had every right to represent the Kyrgyz athlete at the Olympic Games and had the full right to request the opening of test B. They claimed that it was irrelevant that Artykov was not given the right to object to the opening, postpone it, or take any other action. Notably, however, the secretary-general of the NOC shared with our legal team that the NOC never requested the opening of test B; the decision to open test B was taken by the IOC automatically. The IOC also claimed that Artykov’s comments — “the NOC instructed us to keep quiet and we thought it [NOC] was indeed taking care of the matter” — were an indication that he had rendered full rights to the Kyrgyz NOC.

The hearing is over and we anxiously await the CAS decision within the next month or two. Hopefully, the CAS will issue a decision that will help Artykov restore his faith in justice and the fairness of the sports world. In small countries and young democracies like Kyrgyzstan, it is particularly difficult for the youth to look into the future with optimism, believing that the world is not ruled by corruption only. By serving justice for Artykov, CAS would empower youth around the world and promote clean sport as well as respect for knowledge.

Aidai Masylkanova serves as Izzat Artykov’s legal representative. She has also served in various field missions of the OSCE and the United Nations. She holds a Master’s degree from the School of International and Public Affairs of Columbia University.