Saturday, December 9, 2006

No hope with dope

The half-hearted approach towards stamping out the doping menace has time and again brought shame to India in the world sporting arena, says M.S. Unnikrishnan

Weightlifter Pratima Kumari was given life ban for testing positive for testosterone at the 2004 Olympics
Weightlifter Pratima Kumari was given life ban for testing positive for testosterone at the 2004 Olympics — Photos by AFP/PTI

Indian athletes have been on a "high" for quite some time and they continue to persist with their "high-spirited performances" due to the ham-handed attitude of the authorities in stamping out the menace of doping.

"Everyone else is doing and why can’t we" is the reasoning of senior officials in the Sports Authority of India (SAI) — the nodal agency created to foster sports in the country.

Doping in India began as an institutionalised effort, when enterprising coaches took over the onerous task of making their wards champions through the doping route, and now sportspersons themselves do the "boosting" act to tone up their performances in international competitions. Irresistible rewards for winners and coaches, instant fame and recognition motivate sportspersons to resort to unfair means to win medals. This has now become almost a contagious disease, especially in power and endurance events like throwing, weightlifting, track and field events, boxing, etc.

Though even the International Cricket Council (ICC) has taken a tough stand against doping, cricketers are unlikely to resort to doping as a mode to success. The reason for this is that performance-enhancing substances may not work in a highly skilled game like cricket where concentration, endurance and skill play a vital role in the success of a player.

Discus thrower Seema Antil, who has been charged with drug use prior to the Doha games, was caught for dope violation in the World Junior Athletics Championships in 2000
Discus thrower Seema Antil, who has been charged with drug use prior to the Doha games, was caught for dope violation in the World Junior Athletics Championships in 2000 

Thrower Seema Antil getting caught for yet another dope violation may not come as a surprise to those who have been following the career of many a promising young athlete in the country over the years.

For, the first time Seema was caught for a doping violation, after she won the discus throw gold in the World Junior Athletics Championships at Santiago (Chile) in 2000, she was just into her teens. If Seema has tested for a banned substance yet again — though the test result emanates from the so-called lab of the Sports Authority of India in Delhi, which does not have an IOC (International Olympic Committee) accreditation, and hence cannot be validated — the fault lies elsewhere.

To the credit of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), it had anticipated the spectre of doping dogging the Indian contingent in the 15th Asian Games in Doha well before the squad was announced, and had kept out those suspected of taking the banned substances from the Asian Games squad. But when doping is an "institutionalised effort", as the motto seems to be to win medals at any cost, then it is pointless to put the entire blame on poor girls like Seema Antil, who could be just pawns in the hands of ambitious sports officials, coaches and even mandarins in the Ministry of Sports, despite their protestations of innocence.

An enhanced medal tally in Asian Games or Commonwealth Games is to the benefit of all, and hence a cover-up act if an athlete is caught for a doping violation, serves the purpose of everyone. When Chinese middle-distance runner Sun Sumei was tested positive for anabolic steroid testosterone after she won the 800m gold in the Asian Track and Field (ATF) meet at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi in 1987, it was a new experience for Indian sportspersons.

Sumei’s urine sample was tested at the IOC-accredited laboratory in Tokyo (Japan) in which her A and B samples were found to have traces of testosterone. (Anabolic agents are synthetic chemicals designed to have effects similar to a natural steroid produced in the body — the hormone testosterone. Natural testosterone provides anabolic (building) and androgenic (masculinising) effect. Sportspersons misuse this drug to increase muscle strength and bulk, and to promote aggressiveness and increased athletic performance).

Edwin Raju: Banned after stanozolol was found in urine sample in 2006 Commonwealth Games, Melbourne
Edwin Raju: Banned after stanozolol was found in urine sample in 2006 Commonwealth Games, Melbourne

Sumei was stripped off her gold, and India’s Shiny Abraham, who had finished second behind the Chinese girl, was promoted to the gold. The sudden windfall also made Shiny richer by Rs 1 lakh — the Government reward for winning the gold. Though the western media took up Sumei’s doping violation to highlight the cheating done by the Chinese athletes behind the iron curtain, the news was somewhat hushed up as China were to host their first-ever Asian Games in Beijing in 1990.

But the Sumei episode gave an idea to Indian sports administrators about the wayward ways of doping benefits, and their ideas took concrete shape when the break-up of the Soviet Union threw up many jobless coaches who were only too keen to pass on their "expertise" to Indian sports administrators about the shortcut to success.

The first cases of Indian sportspersons testing positive for banned substances emanated from the Commonwealth Games in Auckland (New Zealand) a couple of years after the ATF meet in Delhi. Ever since, there have been instances of Indian sportspersons getting caught in the dope trail, though such incidents assumed alarming proportions only for the past five years.

Fifteen Indian sportspersons have tested positive for dope since 2000, following tests conducted by international bodies, and weightlifters head the list with 10 offenders.

Thirteen times national women’s badminton champion Aparna Popat was the first to be officially named for a doping violation. Aparna was tested positive for the banned drug D’cold total-phenyl propalamine during the Uber Cup Championship in March, 2000, in New Delhi. She was slapped a six-month ban by the International Badminton Federation (IBF), but rescinded the ban after three months when the IBF got convinced that she had committed an inadvertent mistake when she took the drug to contain a severe cold.

Her ban was rescinded after three months to enable her to participate in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games in Australia.

Seema was the next when she tested positive for a stimulant after winning the discus throw gold in the Junior World Athletic Championship at Shantiago (Chile) in July 2000. She had claimed that she took a stimulant to contain cough and cold. She was stripped off her medal and was "warned" by the International Amateur Athletic Federation.

But weightlifter Kunjarani Devi was the first to be heavily penalised for serious doping violation after the world champion tested positive for stimulant strychnine during the Asian Weightlifting Championship in Korea, in July 2001. She was slapped a six-month ban and fined $1000 by the Asian Weightlifting Federation. Shot putter Bahadur Singh was tested for a stimulant during the Asian Athletics Grand Prix at Bangkok on May 21, 2002, and got away with a warning from the International Amateur Athletic Federation (Bahadur Singh went on to win the Asian Games gold a few months later at Busan, though his victory was yet again clouded by a doping allegation).

Weightlifter Sateesha Rai was tested for a stimulant during the Commonwealth Games-2002 at Manchester (UK) in July 2002 and was slapped a six-month ban and fined $1000 by the International Weightlifting Federation and the Commonwealth Games Federation. Another lifter, K Madasamy, who was tested for anabolic steroid nandrolone was, however, given a two-year ban and fined $1000.

Judoka Aruna was tested for diuretics during the KRA Cup Korean Open International Tournament in December 5-8, 2003, and was banished for two years. Sunaina tested for 19-nor-androsterone and 19-nor-ethiocoloanolone at the Asian Weightlifting Championship at Almaty in April (5 to 12), 2004, and was banned for two years.

Pratima Kumari tested positive for testosterone and Sanamacha Chanu for diuretics furosemide at the 28th Olympic Games in Athens in August 2004 and were imposed life bans; discus thrower Neelam J Singh tested for stimulant pemoline at the World Athletics Championship in Helsinki in August 2005, and was given a provisional two-year ban; WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) sleuths caught weightlifter Shailaja during the national coaching camp at NIS, Patiala, in February this year and banned her for two years with a fine of $2000; Weightlifters Tejinder Singh and Edwin Raju tested positive for stanozolol during the 18th Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. They were fined $ 2000 and banned for two years each. Weightlifter B Pramila Valli was caught cheating during the national coaching camp at Patiala in February this year by WADA officials. She was fined $2000 and banned for two years.

Besides this, the SAI is learnt to have compiled a list of 280-odd sportspersons who have tested positive for various banned substances over a period of time in various domestic competitions and coaching camps, though the list has not been officially made public in the absence of any legal sanctity to the lab.

"Doping among Indian sportspersons is very rampant, and this trend has caught on as the sportspersons are looking for instant fame, money and status," observed a senior SAI official.

"Doping has become an international phenomenon and while the advanced countries go scot-free as they have mastered the masking techniques, our athletes get caught in the drug dragnet because we are yet to perfect the masking job," said another SAI top brass.

The doping method has become so entrenched that now the urine sample of an athlete is tested and the result kept for ready reference even before the athlete in question competes in an international event. For example, the traces of a steroid like nandrolone lasts in an athlete’s system for around 40 days, and the urine sample is collected before the athlete goes on to the nandrolone course and despatched to the destination of his next international competition venue where the agents get the sample tested and keep it ready. And even if the athlete’s urine sample is collected and tested after winning a medal, say at Doha, the test result would be based on the old sample, and not on the new one.

Indian Olympic Association (IOA) president Suresh Kalmadi had openly declared during the 2002 National Games in Hyderabad that the scourge of doping would be banished from the Indian sports map for all times to come. Some strict measures were taken to catch the oping offenders at Hyderabad. And for the first time in India, dope testing was done during the inaugural Afro-Asian Games in Hyderabad in November 2003, in collaboration with the IOC-accredited lab in Tokyo, after getting temporary accreditation from the IOC.

But ironically, Kalmadi, as president of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), could do little to prevent the athletes from indulging in doping violations and quit in disgust in February this year. He had tried his best to lift the standard of athletics in the country during his 12-year reign as the president of the athletics body, but he could not take it no more when the athletes continued to violate the doping code. Kalmadi was particularly incensed and embarrassed as he was the first to become the president of the Asian Athletics Association and was also chairman of the 2010 Commonwealth Games organising committee.

The SAI has the Doping Control Centre (DCC) at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi, which has got ISO 9001 and ISO 17025, prerequisites for getting WADA accreditation. But the DCC is quite some distance away from getting the IOC nod, though the lab should be in place before the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Presently, the DCC makes preventive tests on Indian probables for international competitions so that the country is not embarrassed in front of an international audience.

In any case, there are only 30 IOC-accredited dope testing labs for 196 countries, and it is no shame that India does not have one. But now that India is a signatory to WADA and remits a substantial sum as membership fee to the agency, the country must have one sooner or later. More importantly, sports federations, administrators and coaches should be made aware of the 190-odd prohibited substances notified in the WADA list, to weed out the scourge of doping in the country, unless of course, it is an institutionalised process, as elsewhere in the world.