We test players who do well, says Vece Paes

In a freewheeling chat with Sportstar, Dr Vece Paes, head of BCCI's anti-doping programme, talks about the switch from hockey to sports medicine, how the sporting world is tackling doping and what more needs to be done in order to keep the sporting arena clean.

Dr Vece Paes was part of the Indian hockey team that won the bronze medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics.   -  Vivek Bendre

Dr Vece Paes was part of the Indian hockey team that won the bronze medal at the Munich Olympics in 1972. His wife Jennifer, a basketball player, also represented the country at the same Games. It’s only natural that their son, Leander, went on to become one of the country’s greatest sportspersons ever. Now 70, Dr Paes heads the anti-doping programme of the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

In a freewheeling chat with Sportstar, he talks about the switch from hockey to sports medicine, how the sporting world is tackling doping and what more needs to be done in order to keep the sporting arena clean.

On his son Leander Paes:

Well, I didn’t produce Leander (laughs). The athlete has to have, what I call, cussedness. It’s a 15-year process before you get to the top. It takes a lot of passion. What we did was provide the atmosphere. The key to Leander’s longevity is his passion and desire to compete.

On working in the field of medicine, his first vocation:

The fact that I did my studies in Kolkata helped a lot. It’s a very sporting city. I was part of the Indian team which went on a tour of Europe in 1966. I would have lost a year in Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College and Hospital, but the dean organised tutors to help me out.

Initially, I was a flamboyant left-in known for my moves, trickery and goal-scoring skills. But once I joined medical school, I became a steady player because I replaced style and speed with anticipation, tactical sense and patience.

I was into general surgery. My time at medical school taught me to be humane. We used to get patients from faraway districts. Our college, situated next to the Sealdah railway station, got people who were literally on their deathbed. We never refused them. We had 60 beds in the surgical ward but ended up admitting nearly 150. It was terrible, but we learnt the essence of humanity.

When Leander made his break in 1990, he was 16. Usually, tennis players make that break at 17 or 18. And we didn’t anticipate it. He lost in the final of the Australian Open (juniors), got into the Davis Cup team and won a couple of tournaments in Europe before winning the junior Wimbledon. He was part of the famous BAT programme. A discussion took place and we decided to take over his career.

On the challenges before a tennis parent:

In the 1990s, you were only allowed USD750 a year in terms of foreign exchange. We had the funds but were unable to convert it into dollars. In those days, Kolkata was an active corporate city. So, companies like ICI, Goodricke Group, SAIL and IndianOil Corporation helped us. We raised about Rs. 40 lakh a year. But we didn’t have the dollars.

In this journey, you realise how no one’s really a self-made man. You have luck and people and situations that give you the next platform. One fine day, my wife met Mamata Banerjee on a flight. “How is your son Leander?” Mamata, then the Union Minister of Sport, asked.

When my wife explained the foreign exchange problem, Mamata said she would like to meet me. So I went to Delhi to see her. Naresh Kumar came along. It was an amazing encounter. She summoned the finance secretary. The moment he stepped into the room, she locked it up, put her hands on her hip and told him, “You sort out this problem now. Otherwise you can’t leave this room.” And just like that, we got USD35,000 in a matter of a few hours (laughs).

On entry into sports medicine:

Given that I started travelling with Leander from 1990 (to 1995), I had to give up my surgical practice. My interest in sports medicine started in 1990. I would attend conferences and workshops, and that’s how I picked up a lot of things.

Any guy playing football, cricket or tennis in Kolkata came to me for help. I did the high-performance programme for AIFF. I worked with East Bengal, Cricket Association of Bengal. All of this culminated in experience and reputation.

One day, Dalmiya (Jagmohan) called me to his office. He gave me his project titled ‘The globalisation of cricket’. He was the president of the International Cricket Council then. He asked me if I could join. I said yes right away. Soon, I travelled to 23 non-Test-playing countries in Asia, from Afghanistan to China to Maldives. Those 10 years were great. Each country had five age-groups. That’s 250 kids in all. Multiply that by 25 countries. That’s the number of players I dealt with.

On the BCCI Anti-Doping Project:

In 2011, N. Srinivasan and Prof Ratnakar Shetty approached me for the project. I said yes and my main focus was doping education and dope testing. We are now doing age-verification using the TW3 method. We have the largest repository of TW3 X-Rays in the world.

Every year, we start our education programme in June or July. We go to all 27 States. We address the senior and Under-23 teams (men and women) in the morning. In the afternoon, we work with the Under-19 and Under-16 boys and girls.

On what he tells athletes during the anti-doping workshops:

We give them a history of doping. We tell them why the BCCI is against doping. We give them examples of doping in world sport, Indian sport and also cricket. We warn them. Look, India is the third-worst country when it comes to doping. We are behind only Russia and Turkey. But at least Russia wins 40-odd gold medals at the Olympic Games. We win nothing!

We need to protect these kids. So far, we have had just one positive case in cricket (Pradeep Sangwan, in 2013). It doesn’t make us confident that we have contained the problem. We do 250 tests a year. Each test costs about $700. The BCCI does a lot of great work in the background. So you are looking at 3,000 matches all over the country.

On the challenges ahead:

The doping issue has blown up in everyone’s face. Russia and even the so-called clean countries are involved. The system is wrong. What we need is smart testing. At the moment, we do random testing in cricket. You come and play a match and there is a draw of lots. If your name comes up, you are tested. In smart testing, we will target players. If a guy hits a hundred or bowls well, we will test him. And we need to do blood tests too. Fifty per cent of the drugs pop up in the blood, not in the urine.

That apart, we need to have biological passports. In that system, you take the blood of an athlete, analyse it and make a profile. Six months later, you test him again and analyse that sample. If the profiles don’t match, then it doesn’t necessarily mean the guy is doping. But we still have to identify the substance or the reason for the change in the blood profile.

Cricket is relatively clean. We have only one positive test to show. But we need to do blood testing. If we believe T20 is like baseball, then we should be testing the players a lot more. My advice to athletes is to use natural substances. All your protein supplements are made from milk. So why not drink milk and eat 10 boiled egg whites a day?

On blood testing leading to extravasation (the leakage of blood from the vein):

Yes, that’s a concern. Players complain of a stiff arm when that happens. But there are ways and means to work around it. That’s how it’s done in tennis and athletics. The word out in the market is that a new drug is made every day.

A few years ago, they asked the 80,000-odd spectators assembled at the Rose Bowl Stadium in the US whether they would continue to watch sport despite knowing that their heroes were doping. The people said they would continue to watch sport because they wanted to see extraordinary stuff. That’s the reality. On another occasion, they asked 200 top athletes if they would take a drug that would help them win an Olympic medal but subsequently lead to death five years later, and the athletes said they wouldn’t mind taking that drug.

Who makes these drugs? Is the ‘doping industry’ an offshoot of the pharma sector?

Yes, it is an offshoot. But some of it is also part of a hidden industry. The drug-makers and drug-takers are ahead of the drug-testers by at least two or three years. A guy sitting in a lab can only test a drug when he knows it exists. Sometimes, it takes two years to find a drug. By the time you find the drug, there is a new one already.

But do athletes really need to take drugs?

Nowadays, players realise there is too much at stake. They have to believe that drugs won’t help them perform better. A lot of senior cricketers have told me that there is no need to use drugs and that’s why they would never do it. It’s a myth that you need drugs to improve performance.


* Dr Vece Paes was part of the Indian hockey team which won the bronze medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics

* Born and raised in Kolkata, the 70-year-old Dr Paes also played divisional cricket, football and rugby

* Involved with the All India Tennis Association as sports medical consultant since 1991

* Involved with the Indian Olympic Association since 1991

* Served as president of the Indian Rugby Football Union from 1996 to 2002

* Also worked for the All India Football Federation from 1996 to 2001

* Was consultant (sports medicine and fitness) to the Asian Cricket Council from 2001 to 2009

* Head of the BCCI’s anti-doping programme since 2010

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