A nine-month dope test-free window for elite Indian athletes in 2019

India's National Anti-Doping Agency's (NADA) out-of-competition testing strategy was illogical in 2018 prior to the Asian Games in Indonesia, and it continued to be less than satisfactory in 2019, at least in track and field.

Dutee Chand, who won the World University Games 100m title in July 2019, was not tested out of competition for a second year running.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

India’s National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) arranged for the testing of track and field athletes in Spala, Poland in July 2019. It outsourced the task through the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), giving the impression to the athletes and officials that it was WADA that had conduced the test. It was not so.

Of the 25 Indian athletes present in Spala for an extended training programme prior to the World Championships in Doha, NADA tested just six. Four of them were either 400m runners or hurdlers — Noah Nirmal Tom, Amoj Jacob, M. P. Jabir and Jithin Paul. The other two were javelin throwers — Davinder Singh Kang, a finalist at the 2017 World Championships and an athlete who had been involved in doping controversies in the past, and Annu Rani, the women’s national record holder.

Despite woman runners being present in Spala, as indicated by a report at that time, not a single one of them was chosen for sample collection. NADA’s reluctance to test the quarter-milers was inexplicable. The eight female 400m athletes getting ready for selection for the 4x400m relay team included the country’s top one-lapper, Hima Das, who did not make the team to the World Championships eventually after complaining of a recurring back problem.

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NADA’s out-of-competition testing strategy was illogical in 2018 prior to the Asian Games in Indonesia, and it continued to be bizarre in 2019, at least in track and field.

NADA had not tested five of the six individual gold medallists in athletics at previous Asian Games in 2014. In 2019, things were hardly better. The agency allowed several leading athletes a nine-month test-free window beginning in March 2019. Most of them were tested out of competition in December that year after having been subjected to an initial test in February or March.

No matter how “clean” the athletes would have been or would be, NADA’s approach to out-of-competition testing can only raise doubts and lead to speculation. The testing strategy needs an urgent overhaul, and unless WADA takes measures, it is unlikely to improve in the coming year when, with Tokyo Olympics scheduled in July-August, the integrity of the athletes will be in serious doubt.

Contrary to claims, the majority of the Indian athletes who were based in Europe for several months in 2019 were not tested. The claims about WADA having tested them regularly or more than ten times might give the impression that WADA mainly concentrates on Indian athletes whenever it plans an out-of-competition testing strategy. This is not true.

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In reality, WADA’s published testing figures for 2019 show it tested out of competition the urine samples of a total of 26 athletes worldwide. Surely, if the agency had been collecting samples of Indian athletes based abroad frequently, as is often claimed, these numbers would have been much larger.

The Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) of World Athletics had tested some of the Indian athletes based in Europe in 2018 as well as in 2019. Those tests, however, would not have covered the entire batch of Indian athletes training abroad.

It might look odd that most of the prominent Indian athletes were tested many times in March and much less later in the year. One of the reasons could be the convenience of testing athletes based at the National Institute of Sports (NIS), Patiala, just before and during a major competition being held in the Punjab town.

For example, the Federation Cup meet was held in Patiala from March 15-18, 2019. Practically, most of the top athletes in most events were tested at that time, either out of competition or in competition. Most blood samples for Athlete Biological Passports were also taken at that time.

The other reason could be the availability of athletes at home. The majority of those who went off to Europe, barring the six mentioned earlier, were not tested again by NADA till December. It is important to note that the Asian Championships were held in Doha in April and the World Championships in the same city in September-October 2019. It was important to test athletes in the runup to both these major championships.

Interestingly, India’s top female 400m runners, Hima Das, V. K. Vismaya, M. R. Poovamma and Saritaben Gayakwad, were not tested out of competition after March till NADA collected urine samples of leading 400m runners in Thiruvananthapuram on December 24, 2019, according to testing statistics compiled by NADA.

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The same was true of the two leading male quarter-milers, Muhammed Anas and Arokia Rajiv. Anas was tested out of competition once each in February and March, and till December there was no such doping control. Rajiv had one out-of-competition test in March and another in December. He did not stay on in Europe for the entire duration of the camp as he was injured and returned home early.

It may be pointed out here that the AIU might have taken out-of-competition samples from some of these athletes prior to an international competition, say, for example, ahead of the Asian Championships in Doha.

Hima Das, Poovamma, Anas and Rajiv were — and still are — in the Registered Testing Pool (RTP) of NADA. That simply means that they should have been subjected to a minimum of three out-of-competition tests. Except for Anas, none in this group underwent three.

What about the most sensational female 400m runner of 2019? Haryana’s Anjali Devi was not in the RTP then and is still out of it. She should have been included on the strength of her 400m personal best of 51.53s in Lucknow in August 2019, if not her 51.79s in Bhubaneswar in 2018. Like several other 400m runners, Anjali was also tested out of competition once in March and once more in December 2019. She was even selected for the World Championships in Doha where she clocked a decent 52.33s in the preliminary round but was eliminated. She was tested six times in competition in 2019.

Muhammed Anas was tested out of competition once each in February and March 2019, and till December there was no such doping control.   -  PTI

 

Another interesting piece of information that emerged from the 2019 testing statistics was the fact that the country’s No. 1 woman sprinter, Dutee Chand, who won the World University Games 100m title in July 2019, was not tested out of competition for a second year running. Incidentally, the Odisha woman was one of the few leading athletes tested in 2020, an in-competition test in Bhubaneswar in March.

The purpose of an out-of-competition test is to catch athletes off guard. An athlete may be well prepared for an in-competition test, but an out-of-competition test, at least theoretically, is supposed to catch those who might not have taken into consideration a sudden visit by testers. In practice, this does not happen often, mainly because out-of-competition tests in India are invariably timed poorly or else a tipoff often gives adequate time to the athletes to “disappear” from the scene! Such a test a few days before a competition serves little purpose unless the testers are looking for red blood cell-boosting erythropoietin (EPO) or growth hormones where the detection windows are small.

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If the focus in our writeups has been on dope testing in athletics, it is only because of the sport’s propensity to top the global charts in most years along with weightlifting and cycling. In India, athletics and weightlifting have taken turns to lead the dopers’ lists. In the 2019 testing figures published by WADA, athletics heads Olympic sports in India with 35 positive cases, while weightlifting is not far behind at 32.

If one were to take the RTP in weightlifting, the failure test to Sanjita Chanu, either out of or in competition, for the whole of 2019 stands out as the biggest folly committed by NADA. It may be recalled that Sanjita had failed a dope test in the US in November 2017 and was, after much delay, provisionally suspended. In a case that has remained mysterious, her provisional suspension was first lifted in January 2019 and she was exonerated in June. Neither the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) nor WADA has explained the reasons for her reprieve, except for IWF stating that “non-conformities” at the time of her sample analysis had resulted in the decision.

Sanjita was tested twice during the nationals in Kolkata in February 2020. Curiously, an out-of-competition test was conducted a day after her in-competition test after her competition in the 49kg class, where she finished second to 2017 world champion Mirabai Chanu.

For the record, in order to give an idea to the readers what these tests constitute, the entire range of banned substances, except for EPO and related substances, and some others, is tested for in an in-competition sample. Out-of-competition testing excludes quite a few of them.

Punam Yadav (69kg), another lifter in the NADA RTP, was tested twice in one day in April 2019. It must have been tough for Ajay Singh (81kg), in contrast, as he was put through out-of-competition tests on seven occasions in 2019.

Two-time Olympic wrestling medallist Sushil Kumar (74kg freestyle) went through two out-of-competition tests but no others in 2019. Actually, the two tests, coming towards the end of the year, was done on one day. For what purpose NADA carries out two tests on one day is not understood.

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Having collected 4,004 samples in 2019, the year just gone by was bound to be a “low” for NADA because of the coronavirus pandemic. That has been the case with several national anti-doping organisations. Yet, the feeling persisted that NADA could have started much earlier than October had it pressed for clearance from the ministries concerned to resume testing post-March when Covid-19 put a halt to competitions and testing.

If the International Testing Agency (ITA), working in conjunction with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and WADA in pre-Olympics testing, could carry out two “missions” in Patiala to test our boxers and weightlifters, surely NADA was in a better position to accomplish more, at least in training camps, having got the standard operating procedures in place for sample collection.

By the third week of November, NADA had tested a total of 1,161 samples (389 out of competition) including blood samples (less than 29 percent of the previous year). Athletics, which produced 35 positive cases in 2019, topped the list with 199 tests, followed by weightlifting with 147 and cricket (mainly due to Indian Premier League) at 140. Wrestling provided 100. Not surprisingly, the Khelo India Youth Games in Guwahati took up over 340 tests. While it is good that the youth should be discouraged from doping, it is also important to strike a balance between Khelo India and mainline Olympic sports, especially in vulnerable events, when it comes to testing.

On a more positive side, it is encouraging to note that top athletes such as shot-putter Tejinder Pal Singh Toor (three out-of-competition tests) and javelin thrower Shivpal Singh (two out-of-competition tests) have undergone more than one out-of-competition test in a curtailed testing regime in 2020. At the same time, it is also disturbing to note that the quarter-milers were not subjected to any test till the last week of November 2020 even when NADA had tested other athletes in Patiala.

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If the Indian government could approve an additional contribution of $1 million to WADA towards leading the fight against doping globally, there is no reason why it cannot sanction more funds to NADA to conduct more testing in Olympic disciplines in 2021. Budgetary constraints regarding testing kits, the cost of tests in laboratories abroad (India’s National Dope Testing Laboratory is still under suspension by WADA), transportation, et cetera, should not impede NADA’s efforts in “cleaning up” Indian sports.

“Clean athletes” deserve a better deal in India than what they are getting now, not just in their preparations for Olympics, but also towards qualification for Tokyo. There is a fear the world over that habitual dopers would have already stuffed themselves up with steroids in order to reap the benefits in Tokyo, cashing in on the “Covid break” in the season gone by. But the anti-doping agencies should keep up their vigil.