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Weightlifting doping scandal snarls Thai Olympic medal machine

CHIANG MAI, Thailand (AFP) – Thai weightlifter Sarat Sumpradit eats up to 10 egg whites for breakfast, works out four hours a day, and is banned from his smartphone at night as his training shifts into high gear for the world championships.

However, the muscle-bound 25-year-old has a problem: Thailand is under a self-imposed ban from weightlifting for doping, meaning the hosts may be unrepresented at next month’s world championships on home turf in Pattaya.

After nine Thai lifters were suspended following drug tests, Thailand is facing a crisis in its most successful Olympic sport, less than a year before the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

“I’m fighting for those who have been suspended,” Sarat said defiantly after his afternoon workout, his second of the day.

“There are only a few of us left (in the team).”

With five Olympic gold medals since 2004, all won by women, weightlifting has been a rare sporting success story for the Southeast Asian nation, turning ordinary people from the rural hinterland into celebrities.

The dream turned sour last year, when Thailand was caught in a global doping crackdown by weightlifting authorities that was prompted by a threat to expel the sport from the Olympic Games.

Nine Thais including reigning Olympic champions Sukanya Srisurat and Sopita Tanasan have returned positive drug tests since the world championships in November, where Thailand finished second in the medals table.

It prompted Thailand to voluntarily ban itself from competition, ruling its lifters out of the world championships in Pattaya and next year’s Olympics.

However, the Thai Amateur Weightlifting Association (TAWA) now wants athletes who did not test positive to compete in the world championships and have a shot at the Olympics.

A final decision will be made next month by the International Weightlifting Federation, which has come under sustained calls to act after a long list of doping incidents.

Nine countries, including powerhouse China, were suspended from competition after re-testing of samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics ensnared dozens of cheats.

At the stuffy training camp in Chiang Mai, where trophies cover the wall and lycra-clad lifters heave weights above their head, Sarat insisted his teammates were unfairly targeted.