Why NADA needs to review its priorities

Now that Nirmala Sheoran has tested positive, along with four other track and field athletes, two of whom were part of the successful Indian team at the Jakarta-Palembang Games last August, it is time to take stock of India’s anti-doping efforts.

For the last few years, Nirmala Sheoran has been running away from dope tests.   -  FILE PHOTO/ BISWARANJAN ROUT

After having managed to avoid a positive dope test for nearly three years, Nirmala Sheoran has been caught in the anti-doping net.

The 23-year-old Haryana quarter-miler, the fourth fastest Indian woman over one lap, at 51.25s, had hit the headlines regularly from 2016 when she, without having run even a 52-second-plus, turned in a time of 51.48s in the inter-state meet to qualify for the Rio Olympics.

Since then she has apparently avoided dope-testers till every time she made sure that she had the qualification standard for a big meet, the 2017 World Championships and this year’s Asian Games for examples, and she was unlikely to fall into the anti-doping trap.

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Now that she has tested positive, along with four other track and field athletes, two of whom were part of the successful Indian team at the Jakarta-Palembang Games last August, it is time to take stock of India’s anti-doping efforts once again.

Is this the beginning of another downward plunge just as it was when six of the top woman 400m runners failed dope tests in 2011, following the country’s outstanding success in the 2010 Commonwealth and Asian Games?

Reluctance to test

Concerned with India’s top-three position among the ‘doping nations’ of the world from 2013 to 2015, NADA has drastically brought down the sample numbers, managing to get lesser number of ‘positive’ cases to proudly claim “we are only No. 6” (joint with Russia) at last count in 2016. The final figures for 2017 are not yet available.

Recent trends in testing by NADA has also shown its reluctance to test at major meets or to collect maximum samples from senior national championships in athletics, on the pretext that “quality testing” rather than numbers would serve NADA’s cause better.

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In an illogical twist to the whole argument of athletics (which has either remained the No. 1 or 2 ‘doped sport’ in the country, with weightlifting through these years), being downgraded in NADA’s priority, the agency recently stated that hockey was actually the No. 1 sport in terms of doping and “risk assessment”.

There is also an unwillingness to test top athletes out of competition, especially those who are medal contenders at multi-discipline games, like it was in the case of several of the medal-winning athletes in the Asian Games till July-end this year. Many of the athletes in its Registered Testing Pool (RTP) were not tested at all by NADA up to July. With the Asian Games in August one could have expected the maximum thrust of dope-testing in June-July. That did not happen.

This is the kind of atmosphere NADA has created in the anti-doping environment in the country, leaving “clean athletes” perplexed and the sport’s followers in doubt about the true strength of our athletics.

It has led to a situation where any drawback in the system when pointed out is liable to be dismissed as something out of ignorance or any outrageous proposition by NADA (like hockey being No. 1 doping sport) is attributed to “World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) guidelines”.

Nirmala Sheoran in action at the 22nd Asian Athletics Championship at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar last year.   -  FILE PHOTO/ BISWARANJAN ROUT

 

On its part, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) has had reservations about including athletes like Nirmala in its teams since they were training outside camps. Despite some doubts about the Indian women’s 4x400m relay team’s ability to match that of Bahrain in the Asian Games, the AFI stuck to its decision to rightly keep Nirmala out.

The AFI is, however, indulging in a meaningless debate about dividing the ‘dopers’ and ‘non-dopers’ batches into two simple categories of ‘campers’ and ‘non-campers’, the latter being the real ‘culprits’. While more ‘non-campers’ might have turned in positive tests in recent weeks and months, the campers too have been caught doping.

Out-of-competition tests

The argument has been when you are in a camp you get tested every other day but if you are outside, you may not be tested at all. This is not true as NADA statistics up to July-end 2018 show. Some of the campers were not tested out-of-competition even once during this period, while several others were tested just once in March, leaving a long gap till August before the Asian Games. Leave alone testing them “10-20 times” as one NADA official claimed in a report, at least NADA should test track and field athletes twice or thrice out-of-competition prior to a major meet if the agency is serious about anti-doping.

NADA tested Nirmala at the Guwahati inter-state on June 29. There was not a single out-of-competition test on her up to July-end by NADA. Even when reports appeared about her “disappearing” acts, NADA did not deem it necessary to test her when she joined the camp in the Czech Republic. Between Nov 2017 and May 2018, Nirmala was in the NADA RTP before being dropped. It is doubtful whether it tested her out-of-competition even once during this period.

Camps in foreign countries are major hassles for NADA, it would seem. When athletes are out in camps in Europe or even in neighbouring Bhutan for two to three months, NADA, with some difficulty, is able to manage just one out-of-competition test on a few of them.

Right now, the 4x400m relay runners are scheduled to leave for Turkey for training in a few days. Turkey in these winter months, one is bound to ask. But the more crucial question should be, how many times will NADA be able to test these athletes, if at all, before March. The Asian championships in Doha will be in April 2019.

Need for funds

If India’s record in anti-doping sphere has to improve, NADA needs more staff and more funding. It needs to shed its attitude of “reaching 3500 samples”, put more efforts into education and awareness programmes, and draw up a test distribution plan that suits the country and its sports. NADA has to utilise its meagre resources towards testing more in ‘vulnerable sports’ like athletics, weightlifting, boxing, wrestling, swimming and cycling rather than talk about hockey being “high risk”.

In short, it needs to re-examine the priorities.

If there has been a hint of cover-up either by NADA or by the National Dope Testing Laboratory (NDTL) in the latest batch of positive tests that apparently came out of re-tests ordered by WADA — on samples collected mostly in June by NADA — and were reported ‘negative’, heads should roll.

The WADA accreditation of NDTL, equipped with the latest machinery and employing advanced detection methods, could be hanging in the balance.

The ball is in Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s court.