LONDON/CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt faces the possibility of being banned from weightlifting for up to two years by the sport's governing body after five teenagers, including two girls aged 14, tested positive for steroids -- a charge the head of the country's weightlifting federation has rejected as "a conspiracy".
The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) confirmed that the five, and two 20-year-olds, tested positive at the African Youth and Junior Championships in Cairo last December.
The Egyptian Anti-Doping Committee and the Egyptian Weightlifting Federation said they were victims of a plot and an internal investigation by the federation suggested somebody with a grudge had doctored food eaten by the team.
"There is a conspiracy against the Egyptian Federation behind doping cases," Egypt Weightlifting Federation head Mahmoud Mahjoub said.
The Egyptian organizations provided no evidence to support a plot and Reuters could not independently confirm their accusations.
Under IWF rules, any country returning three or more positive tests within a year faces a range of sanctions and in serious cases can be suspended from the sport.
Asked about a potential ban under section 12 of the IWF Anti-Doping Policy, which sets out possible punishments for nations who have three or more positives in a year, the body's legal counsel Eva Nyirfa told Reuters in a statement:
"In line with Article 14.3 of the WADC (World Anti-Doping Code) the IWF will not make any further comments on the cases until they are closed."
Osama Ghoneim, head of the Egyptian anti-doping committee, told Reuters that the committee "had not been informed of any sanctions yet but the rules stipulate that the local federation must be sanctioned for three years and fined $250,000 if positive cases appear."
Nine nations are already facing a ban after returning three or more via International Olympic Committee (IOC) retesting of samples taken at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Those nine cases were due to be dealt with by the IWF's executive board later this month.
Doping has long plagued weightlifting despite efforts by the IWF to eradicate it. Russia was banned from the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro for "bringing weightlifting into disrepute" after a series of positive tests.
The news of the Egyptian cases come a week after the IOC warned that the entire sport faces exclusion from the 2024 Olympics if it does not provide a "satisfactory report" on how it will address its doping problem.
According to a list of names provided by the Egyptian federation to Reuters, two girls were aged 14 while two other girls and one boy were aged 15 to 17 when the IWF tested them in Cairo last December.
In January, the IWF said the two 20-year-olds, both junior gold medallists, were Ahmed Emad Gouda (men’s 77kg) and Alla Yasser Zaki (women’s 75kg).
None of the lifters who failed tests responded for comment when contacted by Reuters via the Egyptian federation.
The IWF's legal department told Reuters it would not disclose further details about the cases because five of the seven were minors at the time of the sample collection. It said the WADA code prohibits them from commenting on such cases.
Khalid Qarni, the coach who was in charge of the national youth team and other international lifters, is now working in Saudi Arabia. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Mahjoub, the president of the Egyptian federation, was elected to the IWF's executive board last month.
At those same elections Tamas Ajan, the 78-year-old Hungarian who has been general secretary or president of the IWF since 1976, was elected to his fifth term as president. He has promised a harder line on doping.
Osama Ghoneim, head of the Egyptian anti-doping committee, said that Egypt's own testers had taken samples from 37 youth lifters last November and all had come up clean.
"We were surprised that the IWF sent its representatives to take the samples," he told Reuters. "The positives were a surprise to us -- how come this happened only one month after they were all negative?
Ghoneim said an internal investigation had discovered that a dessert eaten by the team in their training camp had been "doctored".
He suggested this could have been done by a disenchanted weightlifter, by a coach involved in a dispute with the national federation, or by officials who wanted to change the federation's leadership.
"Egypt's weightlifting federation and anti-doping committee have jointly told the IWF that the seven positives were abnormal and have asked the IWF for a chance to put their case before any sanctions are imposed," he said.
The IWF had not responded to Egyptian requests for a meeting, he said.
Reuters has not been able to see the Egyptian report on the investigation.
Egypt has had three lifters sanctioned in the past four years, all women and all for taking steroids. Libya, Moldova, India, Russia and Iraq and Venezuela have also had lifters test positive since the Egyptian tests were carried out.
Editing by Angus MacSwan and Mitch Phillips