Is NADA failing dope testing?

The number of out-of-competition tests among top athletes increased in 2019 compared to 2018, but NADA’s choice of periods for such testing defied logic in many cases.

The Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) of World Athletics did collect a substantial number of urine and blood samples from the Indians in 2018. Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra was the lone Indian athlete in the AIU’s Registered Testing Pool through 2019.   -  PTI

Who should India’s National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) be testing the most during the course of a year? The obvious answer would be those in the Registered Testing Pool (RTP). According to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) definition, the RTP is the pool of “highest priority” athletes who are subject to “focused in-competition and out-of-competition testing.”

The RTP is aimed at ensuring that anti-doping agencies have the chance to test top athletes unannounced at a designated place preferred by the athlete. A one-hour slot has to be provided to the testers for every day of the year by an athlete where he or she would be available for testing. Failure to be at the venue or to file the “whereabouts” may attract a sanction depending on the circumstances.

Doping is not about consuming steroids and other substances just before competition and hoping that testers would not catch you. It is more about a systematic consumption to ensure that one is not caught even if tested. If one is taking steroids, one will need a “safe period” of a month or two to be away from testers. It depends on the substance the athlete is taking, the mode of ingestion and the dosage.

“But wouldn’t he be tested in the competition?” This is a question often heard in the context of doping suspicions concerning an athlete.

If the athlete is wise enough, he would not be caught even if he is tested. His doping cycles would have been designed to avoid detection.

This is where the RTP comes in. At least theoretically that is the idea. Catch the cheat when he or she is building for the competitions ahead, giving a safe period to avoid turning in a positive test. WADA wants agencies to carry out more out-of-competition tests than in-competition. But that often does not happen. Rules require an anti-doping authority to test its RTP athletes at least three times a year. That also, it seems, is a tough task, at least for NADA.

In 2018, NADA failed to test out of competition five of the six individual track-and-field gold medallists from India at the Asian Games before the meet. It also failed to test 10 of the 25 athletes in its RTP through the course of the year.

The record was better in 2019, but only marginally. This was not a multi-discipline games year. For athletics, the big meeting was the World Championships in Doha in September-October. NADA had enlarged its RTP from 25 in 2018 to 44 athletes by around mid-2019 (the exact dates are not known since NADA does not indicate a date on the changes in its RTP on its website). According to figures made available by NADA, in athletics, it did not test at least eight of its RTP members up to November 11, 2019. Another 11 RTP athletes were subjected to just one out-of-competition test with a urine sample. Seven others were tested twice out of competition.

Only 10 RTP athletes were put through the stipulated three out-of-competition tests based on urine samples.

The 10 athletes in the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) — Neeraj Chopra, Tajinder Pal Singh Toor, Seema Punia, Arpinder Singh, Muhammed Anas, Hima Das, A. Dharun, Jinson Johnson, M. Sreeshankar and Avinash Sable) — were subjected to a combined total of 15 out-of-competition tests in 2019 (up to November 11). Seema and Arpinder were not tested at all out of competition in this period.

One would have expected NADA to concentrate more on its RTP athletes in athletics for out-of-competition testing in 2019 following revelations about inadequacies the previous year. That did not happen.

The Test Distribution Plan (TDP) should have been so devised as to have a sensible mix of in-competition and out-of-competition testing. That would have meant spacing out three out-of-competition tests for RTP athletes in such a way that they would be well away from the in-competition period unless NADA was testing for erythropoietin (EPO) or growth hormone or similar substances.

Though the number of RTP-based out-of-competition tests among top athletes increased in 2019 compared to 2018, NADA’s choice of periods for such testing defied logic in many cases. Those in the RTP who were tested out of competition from one-five days prior to a competition in 2019 included Arokia Rajiv and Muhammed Anas (400m), Jinson Johnson (800m and 1,500m), Hima Das and M. R. Poovamma (400m), Shivpal Singh and Annu Rani (javelin) and Tajinder Pal Singh Toor (shot put).

All these athletes were also tested “in-competition,” making it all the more debatable.

If out-of-competition tests just before a competition happened to be the only ones under the “whereabouts” programme, then the purpose was all but defeated. Only “non-specified” substances that include steroids, metabolic modulators and certain stimulants are prohibited out-of-competition. Only “non-specified” substances are tested for out-of-competition samples. In-competition testing will be for the entire list of prohibited substances though not all samples are subjected to certain tests, EPO for example.

It is rare that an athlete would come into a competition with steroids within his or her system till a day or five days prior to a competition. Those who do test positive for steroids in “in-competition” testing might have possibly made a mistake in their intake of drugs so as to be caught while competing or else the laboratory is so advanced that it can detect the minutest quantities of metabolites over a longer period of time.

Since all substances are tested for in “in-competition” testing, it becomes almost meaningless to test out of competition, a day or a few days before, such athletes who are likely to be tested in-competition. The exception can come in the case of targeted testing for EPO and related substances since the window for detection of such substances is very limited, often a few days. Generally, endurance athletes in any sport are targeted for EPO.

In 2018, NADA managed to test some athletes training abroad, though all tests were bunched together closer to the Asian Games, making it almost a formality. Yet, in terms of deterrence, it was a good effort away from our shores even if these tests might have been done by other agencies on behalf of NADA. In 2019, though, there was to be no testing of track-and-field athletes abroad. Was there a cash crunch?

To get some idea about how lopsided testing had been in 2019 in certain cases in athletics, we have to look at the nine in-competition tests that the World University Games sprint champion Dutee Chand went through last season at home while noting that amazingly she did not undergo a single out-of-competition test by NADA!   -  AP

 

Contrary to what was being given out by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), that WADA had come 11 times to test Indian athletes in Europe in 2018, it is now confirmed that WADA went only once. It collected six Indian samples in that single “mission” in 2018 on Indians training in Europe. In all, WADA did 39 out-of-competition tests in athletics around the world in 2018.

The Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) of World Athletics (formerly the International Association of Athletics Federations) did collect a substantial number of urine and blood samples from the Indians in 2018 including those out-of-competition samples from Doha before the Asian Championships. The exact numbers of visits in Europe are, however, not available, though the AIU confirmed that 88 urine samples were collected from the Indians in out-of-competition testing outside India in 2018. There were 25 Indian athletes initially in Spala, Poland. Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra was the lone Indian athlete in the AIU’s RTP through 2019.

NADA’s in-competition and out-of-competition testing in athletics have rarely taken the logical route. It often misses the first couple of days of a national championships or else may collect 20 or 30 samples from 40-odd events. With the National Dope-Testing Laboratory under suspension by WADA, there is an obvious resource crunch that NADA faces in getting tests done in foreign laboratories. This should not result in its attempts to test Olympics-bound athletes this season.

To get some idea about how lopsided testing had been in 2019 in certain cases in athletics, we have to look at the nine in-competition tests that the World University Games sprint champion Dutee Chand went through last season at home while noting that amazingly she did not undergo a single out-of-competition test by NADA!

 

Someone like Gajanand Mistry who figures below 15 in the Indian list for the 400m in 2019 was tested three times out of competition, while some of the better-rated quarter-milers were not even tested twice.

Of course, it is NADA’s prerogative to choose athletes for testing as per RTP, performance, intelligence reports, et cetera. Among the other prominent athletes tested out of competition were Jisna Mathew and Saritaben Gayakwad (400m) twice each; V. K. Vismaya (400m) once; K. S. Jeevan and Noah Nirmal Tom (400m) once each; Jithu Baby and Alex Antony (400m) thrice each; and Vipin Kasana (javelin) once.

Seema Punia, a multiple international medal winner in the discus throw who is a TOPS beneficiary and RTP athlete, has undergone just one test in two years! Keeping her in the RTP and at the same time being unable to do any test at all since she is probably abroad most of the time is illogical.

NADA has to shed its testing philosophy. Target-testing should not mean testing an athlete out of competition a day before his event at a national meet. “We have done enough tests in athletics” should also not mean NADA can skip the next National Championships, which may be the final selection trial for a major global meet. More tests at the university level and the Khelo India and Schools Games would go a long way in curbing the doping menace among young athletes.