A new process has been introduced for weightlifters to qualify to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. While there are good reasons for the new system, it can be quite confusing. This guide will give you everything you need to know to follow the process and understand who we will see lifting in Tokyo.
We’ll be providing full coverage of the qualifying process on our Tokyo 2020 Qualification page, with analysis of competition results and explanations of what they mean for athletes Olympic dreams.
This guide is quite long. If you don’t want all the detail, here are the key facts:
- Qualifying runs from November 2018 to April 2020
- Athletes must qualify individually by earning ranking points
- Points are earned at competitions selected by the IWF
- Some types of competition give points bonuses
- Each athlete must compete at a required number of events in the eighteen-months of qualifying, and in each of the three six-month qualifying periods
- Each athlete must compete at least twice in the weight category they want to be in at the Olympics
- At the end of the qualifying, athletes are offered placed based on rankings
- Most countries can send four male and four female athletes
- Countries with many anti-doping violations can send fewer athletes or may even be excluded completely
- If a country is offered more places than their quota, they can decide who to send
Why a New System?
Two things led IWF to come up with a new qualifying system: anti-doping requirements and weight category changes.
A large number of anti-doping sanctions as a result of retrospective testing of samples from the 2012 and 2016 has put weightlifting on the edge of being excluded from the Olympics. Weightlifting is not particularly commercially valuable for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), so any reason to remove it in favour of a more popular sport presents a risk. The IWF needed to demonstrate that they were taking steps to ensure the 2020 games would not lead to similar levels of failed tests.
The solution the IWF went for was to change the qualifying system, aiming to make it much more difficult for doping athletes to get into the games. Athletes would have to compete regularly at competitions where they might be tested, rather than disappearing for many months at a time and emerging just for the Olympic Games itself.
Another step taken by the IWF to show willing in terms of anti-doping was to introduce new weight categories. This would reset world records and, in theory, mean that records would now be held by clean lifters. At the same time, the number of categories available in the next Olympics was dropped to seven each for men and women. This led to a problem – the IWF wanted to have ten categories for each at non-Olympic competitions but there would be fewer at the Olympics.
So, a way needed to be found to deal with this mismatch. A simple solution would have been to ignore the non-Olympic categories for Tokyo qualification but that would have led to those categories becoming very much second-class citizens at other international competitions. Instead, it was decided to use a formula that would enable athletes to compete across multiple weight categories during the qualifying period. This hasn’t solved the problem completely – non-Olympic categories are still less competitive – but probably not to the degree they would have been under a simpler approach.
Qualifying for Tokyo 2020 started in November 2018 with the 2018 World Weightlifting Championships. It will run until April 2020 – an eighteen month period in total.
Qualifying is divided into three six month periods:
- November 2018 – April 2019
- May 2019 – October 2019
- November 2019 – April 2020
We will look more at the significance of these periods later – it basically athletes must compete at least once in each in order to be eligible for qualification.
The main qualifying period is then followed by a couple of months of allocation and reallocation of places – this is where the rankings are used to decide who will actually go to the Olympics.
The final lineup of athletes must be decided by July 6th 2020 – less than twenty days before the Olympic Games opens on 24th July.
Probably the biggest change from the old qualifying system is that the new approach is entirely based on individual athletes working to qualify themselves. In the old system, athletes gained team points that would be used to set the quota for each country. The National Governing Bodies (NGBs) would then select the teams they wanted to take to the games.
This new approach has the obvious upside that athletes know that if they put the work in during qualifying and get the right results, they will get the reward of going to Tokyo, rather than having someone else be selected for the quota place they helped to earn.
The downside, as far as the NGBs are concerned, is injury – if an athlete does enough to qualify but is then can’t accept their slot due to injury, the slot will be offered to next ranked lifter, not necessarily from the same country.
The Robi Era
For the last few decades, the Sinclair point system has been the IWFs way to compare athletes across different body weights. In 2018, the IWF decided to adopt a new system, named after the nickname of its inventor, Dr Robert Nagi. There were a number of justifications given for this but the most compelling, for me at least, was that Sinclair no longer reflected the rules of weightlifting. Now that bodyweight no longer decides the winner in a tie on total, all athletes who make weight for a category should score the same for lifting the same total but under Sinclair, lighter athletes would score more.
The Robi system is fairly simple once you understand some basic things:
- Hitting the world record total for a category scores 1000 points
- Hitting half of the world record scores 100 points
So, Robi points scored for different totals in a category are a curve:
In the Tokyo 2020 qualifying system, the world records used for calculating ranking points using Robi were set at the start of qualifying (November 1st, 2018), to the world standards decided when the new weight categories were introduced.
So, athletes turn up to IWF-approved competitions, earn Robi points for their totals and are then ranked on them. Simple, right? Not quite – competitions are not all equal. There are three kinds of qualifying competitions:
- Gold (10% Robi bonus) – World and continental championships
- Silver (5% Robi bonus) – IWF Cups, games and regional championships
- Bronze (no bonus) – Open competitions (mainly organised as part of existing national events)
For senior lifters (aged 21+), there are four gold level competitions during the qualification period – the World Championships for 2018 and 2019, plus the championships for their continent for 2019 and 2020. There has been some changing of usual dates for these events to make them fit within qualifying.
Junior lifters (aged 15–20) have the junior versions of the world and continental championships as well, so they actually have a bit of an advantage in terms of having more chances to compete at gold-level events.
In order to be eligible for qualification, every athlete must satisfy a set of conditions:
- Participate in at least six events (gold, silver or bronze)
- Participate in at least one event in each of the three six-month periods
- Participate in at least one gold-level event, plus one gold or silver-level event
‘Participate’ means turning up to a competition and weighing in. This means that they are potentially subject to drugs testing. The athlete does not have to actually lift, so we can expect some athletes to weight in and not compete at one or two competitions, to get their six
These requirements are relaxed for the host country (Japan) – they get places allocated to them automatically but the athletes they select must still participate in one event per six-month period and at least one gold or silver-level event.
Any athlete who does not meet these conditions cannot qualify, no matter how good their results are. This means that at the end of each six-month period, athletes who have not participated in an event will be eliminated from contention for a place.
Choosing an Olympic Category
Because the Robi system is supposed to fairly compare athletes of different weights, ranking points can be accumulated by competing in more than one category during qualification.
However, in order to be eligible for an Olympic category, an athlete must compete at least twice in it at qualifying competitions. This means that athletes who naturally sit in non-Olympic categories will have to gain or cut weight. Most likely we will see athletes competing in their home categories early in the qualifying process, giving them time to gain or cut and finishing qualifying in the category they want to compete in at Tokyo.
if an athlete is eligible for two or more Olympic categories, they will be automatically considered for the one where they rank the highest and will be eliminated from the others.
The IWF maintain ranking lists for every category during the qualification process. You can see them here
Each athlete’s ranking points is their best Robi score from each of the six-month periods, plus their next best Robi score. This means that it is critical that each athlete gets one decent Robi score in each six-month period, but it is possible to have a couple of bad competitions (or even did-not-starts) during the overall qualifying.
At the end of qualifying (April 30th, 2020), the IWF will create a final ranking list for each Olympic category, featuring the athletes who are eligible for it. Only one athlete per country can make it into the final ranking list for a category, so any athlete who is not the highest ranked from their country in their category will have no chance to qualify.
There is also a limit of seven male and seven female athletes per country in the final ranking lists across all categories, so some athletes from more successful countries may be eliminated based on that.
Allocation of Places
Once the final ranking list for each category has been created, places at the Olympic Games will then be offered to athletes as follows:
- The top eight athletes in the world rankings
- The next-highest ranked athlete from each of the five continents
So, to guarantee a place at the Olympics, an athlete needs to rank in the top eight, or be the top ranked athlete from their continent, or be the second-ranked athlete from a continent that has an athlete in the world top eight.
This process will lead to slots for thirteen athletes being offered. The final slot in each category will either go to the host country (Japan), decided
All of these allocated slots are then offered to the National Olympic Committees of the countries that the athletes are from.
Japan (The Host Country)
As the host of the Olympics, Japan is guaranteed at least three male and three female slots. If they fail to qualify at least this many athletes through the ranking system, they will be able to decide which athletes to send to use their host nation slots.
The Tripartite Commission
Up to four male and four female slots can be offered to individual athletes by the Tripartite Commission. This is a committee made up up representatives of the IOC, National Olympic Committees and sports federations. The guidelines that they use to choose athletes are complicated but essentially boil down to giving smaller nations the chance to be represented at the Olympics. Nations submit applications for the places and, from those, athletes are selected to be invited.
Athletes must have competed in at least two qualifying events (one of which must be gold or silver level) to be eligible to get a Tripartite Commission invitation.
If a country is offered as many slots are they are allowed to accept or fewer, the next part of the process is quite simple – they simply accept the slots and their athletes are going to the games. If, however, a country is offered more slots that they are allowed to accept, they will have to decide which ones to accept.
Countries are allowed to use whatever process they like to choose between athletes. Some may simply choose the highest ranked. Others may go for those who they think have the best medal potential.
Most countries will be allowed to accept up to four male and four female slots. This is reduced if the country has had anti-doping violations since the 2008 Olympics:
- 10 – 19 violations – quota reduced to two men and two women
- 20+ violations – quota reduced to one man and one woman
Additionally, if a country has three or more violations within the qualifying period,
So, based on IWF anti-doping sanctions since July 2008, the following countries are reduced to a maximum one male and one female slot:
and limited to a maximum or two male and two female slots are:
Thailand have voluntarily withdrawn from the qualifying process, following the positive tests from 2018.
Georgia, Argentina, Egypt and North Korea, all sitting on eight violations, could all potentially lose slots without being excluded
In February 2018, the IWF announced suspensions for three Malaysian athletes resulting from failed tests in 2018. If these are upheld, Malaysia could be suspended completely for there violations in a year, putting all of their athletes out of Olympic contention. Even if a country-wide suspension is not enforced, Malaysia would reach ten violations and thus have a maximum quota of two male and two female slots.
If any of the offered slots are not taken up (most likely because a country has more offers than they are allowed to accept), they are reallocated using the same process as the original allocation, working down the ranking lists to offer the place to the next eligible athlete.
Combined with the restrictions on athletes per country, this could mean that an athlete well down the ranking list for a category ends up getting a place. Also, because the available places will depend on what offers are accepted, we may not know for sure which lower ranked athletes will be going to the Olympics until very late in the process.
Following the Process
The new system does make the competitions during the eighteen-month qualifying period exciting – the big competitions gain a new importance and the many smaller qualifying events mean that we will see the top lifters in action more often.
Key things to look forward to are:
- Continental championships in April 2019 – some athletes may be under pressure not to bomb out here to stay in contention for a place
- The World Championships in September 2019 – this is where we will start to get a real idea of how the rankings are falling out and who is in with a chance
- Continental championships in April 2020 – it looks like all five continental championships will be in the same month, as qualification reaches its conclusion
We’ll be provided full coverage on our Tokyo 2020 page
We did a podcast about Robi points and the qualifying process:
If you want to read the original IWF documents on the qualifying process, they can be found here: