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By Junko Fujita
TOKYO (Reuters) - Weightlifting has been part of the programme of the Olympics since the very first event in Athens in 1896, but it is facing the risk of removal from the Games over persistent doping.
Scores of doping cases have been uncovered in the sport in recent years, including Kazakhstan's Rio 2016 gold medalist Nijat Rahimov, who was charged with offences by the International Testing Agency (ITA) last year.
The ITA also charged Dumitru Captari of Romania - who competed alongside Rahimov in the 77 kg event in Rio - with offences that took place in that year.
Romania, Thailand and Malaysia have been barred from the Tokyo Olympics, and others such as Colombia could follow suit after a June 24 report by the ITA said there were nearly 150 "unresolved" anti-doping cases between 2009 and 2019.
Hungarian Tamas Ajan, the former head of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), was charged with doping offences in June after a probe by the ITA. Ajan resigned in 2020 after allegedly being involved in financial misconduct and covering up positive drug tests.
Current IWF vice-president Nicu Vlad, who also heads the Romanian federation, was also charged along with the head of the European confederation, Turk Hassan Akkus.
In 2017, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) warned that weightlifting had to reform its anti-doping procedures or risk missing out on the Paris Olympics.
To preserve its Olympic status, the federation made a series of changes including the adoption of a new Olympic qualifying system that compelled weightlifters to be tested more frequently.
Weightlifting is included in the programme for the Paris Games but that decision may be overturned depending on a number of factors like governance and doping, IWF official Sam Coffa said.
"Anything could happen to that decision between now and 2024," he said.
Even if it is included, its entries for Paris will be cut to 120 athletes from 196 in Tokyo as part of the penalty. Athletes will compete in five weight classes in Paris, instead of seven in Tokyo.
The IWF on June 11 released its Absolute Ranking list with names of athletes who have qualified for Tokyo 2020.
Rio champion Shi Zhiyong of China and Spain's Lidia Valentin Perez - who will compete at her fourth Olympics - were among them, as well as New Zealand transgender lifter Laurel Hubbard.
Colombia has eight qualifying weightlifters for Tokyo but it could lose some of the seats, or be banned from participating as a penalty for doping violations.
(Reporting by Junko Fujita; Editing by Stephen Coates)