India’s great ‘escape’ artists

Back as coach… Yuriy Ogorodnik, who was sacked following the 2011 doping scandal that led to the suspension of athletes such as Ashwini Akkunji, Mandeep Kaur, Sini Jose and Juana Murmu, is now in charge of the women's 400m runners.-PTI

The stunning highs followed by shocking lows at major meets by our athletes — both men and women — are an uneasy indicator that not everything is right in Indian athletics. That perhaps our athletes are on a doping high, writes Stan Rayan.

Indian athletes have frequently proved to be great escape artists when dope-testers come looking for them. A few quarter-milers vanished from the Thiruvananthapuram SAI Centre when anti-doping officials from the world body, IAAF, landed there a few months ago. History shows that they are great runners too when it comes to such situations.

In 2006, a batch of nearly 35 Indian athletes, who were training at Potchefstroom in South Africa, literally ran when a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) team made a surprise visit.

Of late, however, with the fear that there could be an intensive anti-doping drive, athletes either skip national meets and national camps or one can see their performances drop drastically.

In May, some of the country’s top athletes skipped the Federation Cup, the selection meet for the Asian Championship in China. And there was nothing much to talk about the National Inter-State meet held in Chennai recently, with shot-putter Inderjeet Singh being the lone exception.

Uneasy indicator

The stunning highs followed by shocking lows at major championships by our athletes — both men and women — are an uneasy indicator that not everything is right in Indian athletics. That perhaps our athletes are on a doping high.

We have had long- and triple-jumpers and a few throwers coming up with a big performance one day, some even in small meets in foreign countries, and then going down with pathetic or mediocre performances in international competitions when they need to be at their best.

Indian athletics has not seen many quality performances at the world level in the last few years. Discus throwers Vikas Gowda, who was seventh at the last Worlds and eighth at the last Olympics and who competes regularly in the IAAF Diamond League series, Krishna Poonia (sixth at the 2012 Olympics) and Asian 800m champion Tintu Luka are the few exceptions. And shot-putter Inderjeet Singh, the Asian champion and World University Games gold medallist, will be watched very closely at the coming Beijing Worlds.

Hide-and-seek game

While the above athletes offer hope that there are still a few bright spots, there is talk going around that there is a fine hide-and-seek game going on at national camps. The AFI has been harping that athletes are being tested regularly at national camps but that has not been the case and many of the ‘culprits’ have been able to evade the testers.

The National Anti Doping Agency (NADA) has not been able to get the ‘whereabouts’ information with regard to all the 41 athletes it had picked last May for the Registered Testing Pool. Even the athletes who have complied were trying to exploit the loopholes, one has learnt.

There is a provision that allows athletes to inform the authorities even at the last minute, through a text message or an email, if there is a change of their location. Athletes now appear to be playing around that rule.

Biggest scandal

There had been instances of Indian athletes testing positive in the past, but the biggest scandal broke out in 2011 when six women’s 4x400 relay runners failed dope tests. Three of them had been part of the gold medal-winning teams at the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games and Guangzhou Asian Games.

After the high, an appalling low. The Indian Women's team celebrates after winning the 4X400M relay at the New Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010. The following year, Sini Jose (right), Ashwini Akkunji (left) and Mandeep Kaur (second from right) were among the six athletes who tested positive for banned steroids.-AFP

Distance runner Sunita Rani was the first high-profile Indian athlete to fall into the net, at the 2002 Busan Asian Games. She was, however, lucky, as the laboratory in Seoul that tested her urine samples did a poor job of documentation and the Indian gold medallist was let off, but after much drama. She retired at the age of 24.

Discus thrower Seema Antil, the Asian Games gold medallist in Incheon last year, was another athlete who was in the news for all the wrong reasons earlier. The Haryana athlete tested positive for stanozolol just before the 2006 Doha Asian Games and before that, in 2000 at the World junior championships where she won the gold. Her World junior gold was taken away for a stimulant violation but in 2006, she was allowed to go scot-free by a hurriedly assembled AFI panel.

Before that, discus thrower Neelam J. Singh from Punjab tested positive at the 2005 Worlds in Helsinki and was banned for two years.

Ogorodnik back

The 2011 doping scandal, which saw stars like Ashwini Akkunji, Mandeep Kaur, Sini Jose and Juana Murmu being suspended for two years, forced the Union Sports Ministry to sack the coach of the quarter-milers, Yuriy Ogorodnik, but surprisingly he is now back in charge of the women’s 400m runners. The AFI now even makes the 79-year-old Ukrainian look like a saint and a magician who could help the women’s relay team win an Olympic medal one day.

“Every single girl who had been banned has said, ‘my coach has not given me anything. We went with him and bought it (the food supplement) from the market’,” the AFI President Adille Sumariwalla said recently.

He said the panel, which was formed to investigate the matter, also did not blame Ogorodnik for the 2011 doping scandal.

However, the enquiry committee as well as the disciplinary panel and appeal panel had come to the conclusion that the athletes were unaware of the contents of the supplement that the foreign coach had given them and they were also not aware from where he had purchased it.

The recent doping allegations, put out by the German broadcaster, ARD, and the Sunday Times newspaper, also mentions that a few Indian athletes had been involved. A clearer picture may emerge in a few months.

Meanwhile, two ‘positive’ results for erythropoietin (EPO) — the first time the substance has cropped up in Indian dope testing — came up last year. Since the substance reportedly does not remain in samples for more than 48 hours, EPO ‘positive’ is not so common in dope testing. Both the cases are to be heard by the disciplinary panel.

Anti-doping officials in the country sure will have a lot on their hands in the next few years.