It’s here, there, everywhere

Lance Armstrong admitted on television two years ago that he had doped his way to his famous victories at the Tour de France.-REUTERS

Athletics may still be the biggest source for dope-related stories, but sportspersons from other disciplines too have often been found guilty of drug abuse, writes P. K. Ajith Kumar.

When we think of doping in sport, we think of Ben Johnson. We think of that incredible 100m race he ran at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and the expression on his face as he vanquished his bete noire Carl Lewis. When we think of doping, we also think of the beautiful smile and the beautiful sprints and jumps that Marion Jones came up with at the grandest of sporting stages.

It is athletics we think of first, when we think of doping in sport. But, make no mistake, drug use is rampant in many other sports. In fact, one of the greatest doping scandals in sporting history featured someone who competed in races not with his feet, but on a bicycle.

It was with disbelief and dismay that the world watched cyclist Lance Armstrong admitting on television two years ago that he had doped his way to his famous victories at Tour de France. The fall of one of the greatest sporting heroes of our time, who was as much admired for his unparalleled skills as for the courage he showed in his battle against cancer, was mighty.

Long before that, in 1994, we had also watched another icon of modern sport, Diego Maradona, being disgraced by doping; he was sent home from the U.S. World Cup after testing positive for ephedrine. In 2003, there was yet another World Cup, this time in cricket, and there was yet another rock star, who was sent home for doping. On the eve of Australia’s opening match, against Pakistan, the Aussie officials announced that the leg-spinning magician Shane Warne had failed a routine drug test and would take no part in the World Cup in South Africa.

Cricket, football, cycling, swimming, weightlifting… Almost all popular sports have tales of doping. Of course, athletics may still be the biggest source for dope-related stories, but sportspersons from other disciplines too have often been found guilty of drug abuse.

“It is in athletics, swimming and cycling that you would find more drug-offenders than in most sports, but we should not forget the fact even shooters, fencers and archers too are reaping the benefits of banned drugs,” says Dr. P. S. M. Chandran, who has been one of the earliest experts in dope-testing in India. “Different kinds of drugs are being used by athletes from different disciplines.”

Dr. Schiller Jose, who has treated some of the biggest names in Indian sport such as P.T. Usha, I. M. Vijayan and Tom Jose, elaborates that point: “Shooters take beta blockers so that their hands do not tremble. Beta blockers are normally prescribed by doctors for patients with conditions such as hypertension.”

Australian spin wizard Shane Warne (above, left) failed a routine drug test on the eve of the 2003 World Cup in South Africa and was sent home.-REUTERS

Such drugs are consumed by fencers and archers as well, according to Dr. Chandran, as they too need precise hand movements. “For those playing the team games, drugs that delay fatigue are extremely useful,” he says. “Such stimulants help you keep refreshed and focussed even after being on the field for a long time. A batsman may need it after batting for a long time in a Test match. Bowlers, especially the faster ones, would rather go for steroids.”

It was for taking a banned steroid called nandrolone that Shoaib Akhtar, one of the world’s fastest bowlers ever, was banned for two years, shortly before the Champions Trophy in India in 2006, along with fellow-Pakistani paceman Mohammad Asif. Other cricketers who were caught doping include Ian Botham, Stephen Fleming, Upul Tharanga and Jesse Ryder.

Lesser known names in cricket too have been found guilty of drug abuse. Pradeep Sangwan was slapped an 18-month ban after failing a random dope test during the 2013 edition of the IPL. There was in fact a drug-offender in the very first year of the IPL: Asif, the Pakistani seamer who has played with fire so much that he has had to serve his time in jail too, for spot-fixing.

The IPL is not the world’s only domestic league that has been involved in doping scandals. In 1991, Maradona was suspended for 15 months after testing positive for cocaine while playing for Napoli in Italy’s Serie A, which has had more than its share of drug problems. Often in the 1990s, the hugely successful Juventus were greeted by opposing fans with shouts of ‘drogati’ (druggies). In 2004, the suspicions were justified when Riccardo Agricola, the team doctor of Juventus, was sentenced by a Turin court for 22 months in jail for providing his players performance-enhancing drugs, including erythropoietin.

Big stars of the popular leagues such as the National Basketball Association (O.J. Mayo and Rashard Lewis) and Major League Baseball (Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire) too have figured in doping scandals. “There isn’t a popular sport I can think of that has not misused drugs,” says Dr. Chandran.

“The use of drugs is on the increase in India too, but our athletes are not as well informed as their counterparts in developed countries and often do not get the drugs that would get them the best results; yes, they too are aware of the negative side effects, but I have found that they do not care much.”