Chasing ‘cheats’ in the Olympic year

As the Rio Olympics gets closer, there is an urgent need for the National Anti-Doping Agency to chalk out a strategy for out-of-competition testing based on logic, ‘intelligence’ reports, if any, and its Registered Testing Pool. An Olympic year invariably sees a hike in doping numbers.

Richard Pound, Chairman of WADA's (World Anti-Doping Agency) Independent Commission (IC), answers questions after presenting the report of the findings of his Commission surrounding allegations of doping in sport, during a press conference in Munich, Germany.   -  AP

The President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) THomas Bach has proposed that the WADA take over all international testing in all Olympic sports.   -  AP

In 2011 six Indian athletes (from left) Jauna Murmu, Mandeep Kaur, Priyanka Panwar,Ashwini Akkunji, Sini Jose and Tiana Mary Thomas tested positive for steroids and were eventually banned by the CAS for two years.   -  Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Edwin Moses, two-time Olympic gold medal winning hurdler, currently heads the USADA Board.   -  VIVEK BENDRE

Do dope-testing statistics reveal the true story behind an anti-doping agency? Do they give the correct picture about what goes on beyond laboratory testing?

A firm ‘No’ is the answer for both the above questions. If we believed all these years that anti-doping agencies would be engaged honestly and relentlessly in catching the ‘cheats’, we were wrong.

If we believed that an international federation could be expected to be incorruptible at least when it came to anti-doping measures then also we were wrong.

These irrefutable conclusions that the Russian athletics doping scandal has thrown up have stunned the world and shaken the very foundations of the anti-doping structure in sports, notwithstanding the doubts that might have persisted for several years about the goings-on in Russian athletics.

The credibility of world athletics lies in tatters. Doubts have come up not only with regard to the integrity of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) but also about the competence and promptness of the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) despite the excellent reports compiled by its Independent Commission headed by its founder president Richard Pound into the gamut of Russian doping and the corruption ring within the IAAF.

But sports will have to trust someone. The President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Thomas Bach has proposed that the WADA take over all international testing in all Olympic sports. The suggestion also includes bringing forward all international doping cases before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

Even if we agree with the IOC proposals since there is no alternative in sight, that is only half the job done; maybe less than half. The other half will still have to be done by the National Anti Doping Organisations (NADOs). Can we trust the NADOs in the aftermath of RUSADA (Russian NADO) scandal?

That question should apply to every NADO including the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) of India. In its defence it can be said that NADA’s annual “output” has been impressive. Registered in 2005, it stuttered a bit in 2008 before becoming “operational” in January, 2009. By the end of 2015 NADA had brought forward 591 cases of anti-doping rule violations before hearing panels, getting around 98.9 per cent of them sanctioned with a period of ineligibility. (These figures do not take into account all the cases reported in 2015)

But do these imposing figures show that NADA has been diligently chasing dope cheats or do they show that there is rampant doping in Indian sports and figures were bound to be high?

It could be a combination of both. Or else, just as in the Russian case the figures might not be showing the extent of doping that goes on, especially in sport like athletics and weightlifting, perennial toppers among dope offenders in India.

In 2014, Russia was second in the overall number of samples tested by a NADO, 12556 to China’s 13180. China returned 48 adverse analytical findings (AAF) (0.4%) to Russia’s 114 AAF (0.9%). Among those NADOs that tested more than 4500 samples, India topped in the overall percentages, 99 AAF (2.3%) from 4530 samples

We do know now that even as RUSADA showed higher volumes of samples tested and larger ‘catches’, the country’s elite athletes were doping, with the whole system including RUSADA, the WADA-accredited Moscow laboratory and the Russian Athletics Federation (ARAF) and a clique within the IAAF headed by president Lamine Diack, in collusion to cover up for a fee.

Keeping the RUSADA example in the backdrop, the testing statistics can no longer be an indication about what goes on in a country especially when the overall scrutiny by WADA is minimal. On the minus side for NADA the last big ‘catch’ that it had recorded happened to be in 2011 when six women 400m runners tested positive for steroids and were eventually banned by the CAS for two years.

The IAAF set the ball rolling that time with the first two ‘positive’ reports and NADA followed with the other four.

It is difficult to believe, not just for this scribe but also for a lot of people associated with Indian athletics, that none of the leading Indian athletes would have been on dope since 2011. When a dope-tainted foreign coach is brought back to train the relay teams there is understandable concern among ‘clean’ athletes, rest of the coaches and well-meaning officials. When the relay teams are sent to Turkey, second to Russia in the list of adverse doping rule violations in 2013 for a NADO with 144 cases (India was third with 90), under the same coach for a 65-day training stint, the suspicions only grow.

The introduction of a National Registered Testing Pool (RTP) in athletics in May last year should hopefully provide NADA with the extra leverage that is needed to catch the culprits, especially in this Olympic year. Weightlifting and swimming were added to the programme up to September last year. There is an urgent need to bring into the fold wrestling and boxing.

The problem could arise when NADA is required to chase athletes training abroad. Doing things quietly to requisition either WADA or another NADO to carry out such testing might become difficult. Often in the past, athletes and coaches had pointed out that the arrival of NADA testers at training camps had hardly ever been a secret.

An IAAF testing team found this out to its dismay twice last year when it went in search of two of the women 400m runners at LNCPE, Thiruvananthapuram. The NADA ‘whereabouts’ plan was yet to kick in at the time.

By reducing the 18-month window for ‘three missed tests’ for a violation to be recorded to 12 months, WADA has made it that much easier for the dopers from January, 2015.

NADA has been handicapped through these past seven years, despite resources available to it, because of its limited staff, just nine people including the Director General who always happens to be a Joint Secretary in the Sports Ministry. Four of the staff members are engaged in administrative work. There is a shortage of manpower to assist in legal, medical and scientific matters.

As the Rio Olympics gets closer, there is an urgent need for NADA to chalk out a strategy for out-of-competition testing based on logic, ‘intelligence’ reports, if any, and its RTP. An Olympic year invariably sees a hike in doping numbers.

Secrecy should be the key in NADA’s testing missions. Trusted Dope Control Officers (DCOs) who have in the past produced good results should be engaged irrespective of which part of the country they might be located. Athletes are bound to develop familiarity with DCOs and chaperons from the same region leading to corrupt practices as alleged by a few athletes in the past. Last minute ‘pre-departure testing’ still very familiar, should be stopped completely in order not to tax athletes.

The NADA governing body, chaired by the Sports Minister, almost wholly comprises Central government officers. There is no sportsperson in the body, which rarely meets, in contrast to eminent athletes being roped into such agencies abroad.

Edwin Moses, two-time Olympic gold medal winning hurdler, currently heads the USADA Board. When the Government funds Olympic preparations and also funds anti-doping efforts, when IAS officers/Ministry officials head all the wings associated with this exercise (Sports Authority of India, NADA and the National Dope Testing Laboratory), when these officers are entrusted the task of ensuring “Olympic podium finishes”, the public, the media and the ‘clean athletes’ are bound to raise the spectre of “conflict of interest”.

Is there a way out to have complete ‘independence’ that WADA keeps harping on?