It is quite alarming

Twenty-two dope positives from the Hyderabad National Games. Nineteen from the Punjab National Games. Another 23 from the Junior National weightlifting championships. Add four more from the senior National weightlifting championships, suddenly, it looks as though everything about Indian sport has started stinking.

K. P. Mohan

Twenty-two dope positives from the Hyderabad National Games. Nineteen from the Punjab National Games. Another 23 from the Junior National weightlifting championships. Add four more from the senior National weightlifting championships, suddenly, it looks as though everything about Indian sport has started stinking.

A delighted Sunita Rani, who got back her Busan Asian Games medals, during a ceremony in New Delhi. The Salwan Commission found loopholes for Sunita to get exonerated. — Pic. RAJEEV BHATT-

The rot was allowed to set in, thanks to the shockingly dishonest and unethical manner in which anti-doping measures were carried out in the country the past five years.

Post-Busan was bound to bring more focus onto doping in Indian sports. The Sunita Rani scandal exposed, even if in a limited way, a system that was in operation for some time. It was time to act even if it was for the benefit of the gallery.

It was another matter that those who were assigned the task of further exposing the system, including the Salwan Commission, ended up finding loopholes for Sunita to get exonerated. In a curious case of an enquiry commission being converted into a hearing panel, to suit the immediate needs of the Amateur Athletic Federation of India (AAFI), the Salwan Commission examined witnesses who were chosen by it, probed deep into procedures adopted in testing, sifted through scientific data and ripped apart the contentions of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) Medical Commission.

It was a case of the `judge' turning himself into defence lawyer and jury in one brilliant switch. The `prosecutor,' if the AAFI could be given that undeserving honour, just watched from the sidelines. When the time came, the `judge' as well as the AAFI kept the bulk of the judgment away from public gaze and scrutiny.

The stage to get Sunita off the hook was set. The Seoul laboratory had botched up analytical documentation so badly that the international bodies had one good look at the papers and ruled that the case was not worth pursuing.

Victory at last. For Sunita, for AAFI, for the hundreds who believed the Japanese, the Chinese and the Koreans had schemed together to deprive India of two medals. What a brilliant thought!

Yet, the Salwan Commission report could have been of some help had its full contents been revealed. Not because it mentioned ignorance of a National coach about steroids, but because it could have raised doubts about many things.

But then, Indian sports administrators, with honourable exceptions, are not known for their foresight or sincerity. A pliable political set-up, a couldn't-care-less bureaucracy, a medal-hungry nation and a greedy set of competitors and coaches combined together to ensure that doping could continue to flourish in the country.

``Nothing happens at the Asian level. You saw what happened to Sunita Rani.'' That was the message that spread through training centres and coaching camps. Shockingly, there was no serious attempt to delve deeper into the issue and find the answers. A few committees were formed and as it happens with such committees, no one talked about them after some time.

``We will take strict action'' became such a monotonous slogan that everyone who had joined the anti-dope bandwagon began to feel that nothing ever would come out. Till, all on a sudden, the number of positives from the Hyderabad National Games started coming in.

It was time to take note of the problem all over again, just as we had done about six months earlier. But then, as the results of the Hyderabad Games were being debated, the Punjab Games cover-up stood out like a sore thumb.

Had we acted immediately after the Punjab Games, would Krishnan Madasamy and Satheesha Rai have returned from Manchester in shame? Or, had we bothered to find the truth behind the Busan doping scandal, would Hyderabad have come about?

The questions should disturb those who hold the reins of Indian sport. From the Union Sports Ministry down to SAI, IOA and the federations. Surely, Busan could have been handled better. But then no one wanted to give the impression that at least some among the bagful of athletics medals could have been tainted.

`Defend Sunita' became not only an obsession but it was also important in not giving the game away. For, after all, Sunita had threatened to `squeal' at one stage, just as Andhra's P. Udaya Laxmi is doing on this occasion.

What could anyone have exposed?

Everyone knows doping is rampant in India. Some blame it on coaches, others on greedy officials. Still others on a system that puts its faith on medals, a system that rewards medals earned at major games with lakhs, land, flats and bungalows. No one taught them the Olympic ideals. Does anyone care for them any longer? In this science-supported modern sportsworld, where everyone believed that the other was on dope, much of the time without any basis, it was important to keep up with innovative doping methods rather than talk about the purity of sport.

The `foreign experts,' mainly drawn from the Central Asian Republics, who started making their true mark from 1998, began to exert their influence and the SAI simply watched in appreciation as they taught the Indians how to win medals, with the help of a few tablets and the odd injection. Both in 1998 and 2002, if not in between, the SAI actually helped carry out a doping programme by allowing its laboratory to be used for a monitoring mechanism.

No amount of criticism could stop the SAI from going through its pre-departure testing programme that todate has continued despite clear rules of ethics laid down by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) against such practice. The idea was and still is to protect our `national image.' Damn these rules of ethics!

In effect it was a method by which the dopers could be shielded from the real anti-dope machinery at major competitions abroad. `Test them till they turn in negatives' was the SAI motto and a classic case was the batch of four throwers in the athletics team for the Bangkok Asian Games who were kept in Delhi, well after the others had reached the Thai Capital, to help them `clean up.'

A flurry of National records in the year 2000 might have suggested a path-breaking performance in the Sydney Olympics by the athletes at least. But it turned out to be a disaster and Dr. Yuriy Boyko, the foreign expert who looked after the `scientific back-up' of the athletes, lost his job. Many of the records were later rejected by the AAFI admidst suggestions that they might have been dope-tainted.

By the time the 2002 Busan Games arrived, the system, if anything, had been fine-tuned to such an extent that many athletics medals were considered certain. The weightlifters, despite support from `experts,' somehow could not be projected as medal winners with the same conviction while the swimmers were yet to get into the act. The malaise is yet to spread significantly across other sport in India.

Indian athletes did strike it rich in Busan, but the Sunita Rani positive for nandrolone, raised one awkward question. How come the Indians have improved to such an extent to be a force in Asian athletics? The Chinese and many others were curious.

Immediately after the Sunita Rani scandal broke and the teams returned to Delhi, the talk centred around the modus operandi in Busan.

An `on-the-eve-injection' from the `Russian doctor' was followed by a few tablets from the team doctor just before competition or, in some cases, just after competition. The manner in which Dr. Jawahar Jain hung around Indian athletes, at the interview room, ceremonial areas and toilets, was a disgusting sight for those who knew something was really fishy. Dr Jain's last-minute addition to the team itself was a matter of controversy.

Later, many of us, including some top-ranking officials, were able to understand that Indian athletes were told to urinate in their track-pants, if the situation demanded, unless they managed to throw out the first portion of the sample while providing the sample itself. Many of the `boys' managed just that. The idea was to dilute the samples so that threshold levels would come down. Of course, there were other precautions as well.

What really happened at the time of Sunita Rani's sample collection will ever remain a mystery. The official explanation that she had spilled some urine in her track-pants that led to a heated debate with one of the marshals, a lady, lacked conviction. More than an hour was lost before Sunita's sample was accepted.

Will we ever know what really happened out there? Did the officer in charge make a note of it in the documents? What was Sunita trying to do in the interview room? For that matter, what was Dr. Jain doing in the interview room, hanging around Sunita all the time?

The rule regarding the accompanying person (from the IAAF procedural guidelines for dope control), quite often mentioned by athletics officials to defend Dr. Jain's role, says: "When attending the doping control station, an athlete may be accompanied by a representative of his choice and/or by an interpreter.''

This was stretched beyond imagination to allow the accompanying person access to many areas other than dope control station.

Such lax arrangements, when reported, became a convenient tool for interested parties to `expose' the whole system in Busan following Sunita's positives. The AAFI was keen to project the `lax control' in Busan. For, discrediting the system boosted its defence of Sunita. Thus, when the Salwan Commission interviewed people, it became "anyone could walk in and tamper with the seal and samples.''

Samples are collected and stored in tamper-proof bottles or kits. If the bottle caps are tampered with, then there cannot be any testing.

Doping basics have remained Greek and Latin to most of the people over the past decade and more in our country. An athletics official made the observation, following the Sunita scandal, that nandrolone was something that was produced in the body. So, what was all this fuss about? How true! But he had no clue about what were the normal limits, what the IOC cut-off levels were and what research had shown.

Then, there are another set of officials who keep harping about the competitors' ignorance with regard to simple cold medications or the possibility of your morning cup of coffee turning up a positive test.

Sportspersons who blame it on cold medications need not necessarily be of the ignorant variety and one or two cups of coffee will never make you positive for caffeine that is found in colas, too. Of course six cups of coffee will, if you take it an hour before the test, in one go.

In any case, there has not been a reported case of caffeine offence in India nor is there a substantial number of such cases in tests abroad. These are basically arguments put forward by people who want to project that the doping list is harsh and illogical and most of our sportspersons are yet to learn what doping is or what substances could produce a positive. Just the opposite is the truth.

Kavita Pandya apparently argued with the AAFI that she was given medicines while recuperating from jaundice and injuries and she didn't know what they were. The doctors, she said, had refused to provide the prescriptions especially after her name hit the headlines.

Suppose she did manage to get the prescriptions, then what? Nothing. She would still be found guilty, according to all rules and regulations of the IAAF. Of course she could gain relief through the courts if testing or procedural lapses could be proved.

If one could get away by producing a prescription for nandrolone use (unless the medicine was used as a life-saving drug) then the world of athletics would have been crawling with nandrolone-drugged competitors. Ben Johnson wouldn't be serving a life-ban now.

Writing down a cold medication in your dope form is of no great use either as Aparna Popat found out to her chagrin in the 2000 Uber Cup qualifiers in New Delhi, eventually leading to a positive and a three-month suspension. The Karnataka badminton star should, however, remain the one Indian who was unlucky to be implicated in a doping case.

Educating sportspersons about the pitfalls of using medications should continue side by side with the efforts to eradicate the evil. However, we should not feel that the majority of our elite sportspersons are unaware of the ill-effects of doping or the `what's what' list in doping. They know too well the advantages and the possibility of amassing millions if drugs are properly used.

As one veteran athlete observed recently, the juniors look out for dope outlets nowadays rather than good coaches or running shoes.

At the local and junior level if a competitor resorts to doping it is only because he is in a hurry to get into the senior level that will open up job opportunities. The riches might come later.

If an Udaya Laxmi has talked about financial inducements and official support, even if she failed to substantiate her charges at the IOA Anti Doping Commission hearing, it is a sad commentary on a system that believes in the Lombardi adage `winning is not everything, it is the only thing'. Add to it your own philosophy (or that of your coach), `win by hook or crook', then you have no compunctions about allowing yourself to be doped. When the time comes, blame it on the officials.

This is not to say that officials are not party to the goings-on. They are, in a majority of the cases. Coaches are forced to take short-cuts because federations need to show results. Federations are forced to support the system or turn a blind eye because the SAI and the Government want them to produce results. Millions cannot be shown as expenditure when the end product is a lone Olympic bronze. Questions will be raised in Parliament. It is a vicious cycle.

Just because of that, should we condone doping? Certainly not. But in order to make a serious beginning in the anti-dope campaign, the Government has to accept a few basic facts. It should stop testing at the SAI lab till the latter gets IOC accreditation. The present pre-departure testing amounts to a monitoring programme that in simpler terms should be called `abetment'. Moreover it is against all ethics prescribed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The Government should show no mercy. Not to steroid affenders anyway. Such persons should not be allowed to be part of a National camp or be eligible for any Government funding for participation in competitions abroad.

Moreover, such sportspersons should be kept away from the purview of national awards and incentive schemes. Some silly procedural arguments by which federations abdicate their responsibilities should not be brought in as an excuse to show leniency towards offenders.

SAI should not only be seen as taking anti-doping measures it should also prove its sincerity. If it has had a change of heart, that is. For starters, it should screen recommendations for appointment of foreign coaches in such a way that `dope experts' are kept away, no matter what the pressure is from the federations. The talk of losing (imaginary) Olympic medals should not swing the opinion back in favour of such `experts'.

The SAI should stop funding supplements that used to be imported earlier but are available at home. Such supplements are often contaminated and the IOC as well as several other agencies have warned against their use. The Government should also stop any assistance to any federation towards what is termed as expenses for diet supplements while training abroad. Quite often such funding goes towards purchase of prohibited substances. A stricter watch should be kept at airports and camps to confiscate drugs being brought over from training trips abroad, by athletes as well as coaches, on a regular basis.

If the Government is serious, even as the laborious process of accreditation for the SAI laboratory continues, it could make a beginning by sending urine samples for testing at accredited labs abroad. When crores are planned to be spent for running this laboratory, a few lakhs could easily be spent for carrying out an anti-doping programme.

The IOA Medical Commission could also chip in by conducting out-of-competition testing, a concept that has just been on paper till now. Such samples have to be collected at random, out of competition, through surprise checks at camps. It will have to be supervised by impartial officials with impeccable credentials. The SAI which is making an effort in issuing ID cards for campers, should make sure that the right person is being selected and not a `dummy' as SAI has suspected many cases to be in the past.

Coaches should not be part of any such testing. It was shocking to learn that coaches had not only supervised such collection at Patiala prior to the last Asian Games but at least in one case a personal woman coach was with her trainee inside the toilet at the time of sample-collection. She also supervised other colllections. It is considered routine for a National coach to carry dope kits and supervise the operation at National-level meets. The practice should be stopped.

The noose is tightening around the dopers and dope-givers. The big fish might yet be getting out of reach. They should weigh their short-term gains against the long-term shame that awaits them. The IOA and the SAI have a long way to go before they can assure us that they are absolutely serious about the doping issue. Any attempt to re-instate dopers amidst the beat of the drums and organised crowds will be self-defeating. WADA is watching.