Gomathi Marimuthu’s joy was short-lived. In winning her maiden Asian championships title, the 800m runner had projected an image of a poor village woman coming through the grind despite heavy odds to draw attention to track and the plight of lesser-known athletes in our country.
Today, the euphoria having evaporated and the future looking grim, Gomathi has to face a doping charge that may ruin her career unless she comes up with a watertight defence during hearings that should come up in the next few months.
Gomathi attracted national and international attention when she told the media once back home from her gold-winning feat in Doha that her father had to eat food meant for cattle in order to save money for her athletics career. After news broke that she had tested positive for steroid nandrolone , there is hardly a murmur after an initial round of protests of innocence by the athlete.
Gomathi’s positive dope test has added to India’s doping woes in athletics following the revelation last November that quarter-miler Nirmala Sheoran along with four other India athletes had tested positive for banned substances in re-tests ordered by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on samples declared ‘negative’ at the National Dope Testing Laboratory (NDTL).
NDTL is in the focus again. For the wrong reasons, yet again. As Gomathi’s doping news broke at home, many who keep track of doping expectedly asked the obvious question: Was she not tested by the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) before the Indian team travelled to Doha? Did she clear that test?
She had tested positive at the Asian Championships in a test conducted by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Soon we were told Gomathi had also tested positive in a domestic meet.
The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) was, however, not fully familiar with the development. Later it became clear she had tested positive at the Federation Cup, the final selection trials for the Asian championships, where she clocked a personal best 2:03.21 (bettered in Doha for the Asian title with 2:02.70) to gain selection.
Gomathi had trained outside the camps. As per the AFI’s policy for such athletes, she was asked to go through a “confirmatory trial” in Patiala. She passed that and was selected for the Asian meet.
Gomathi’s Fed Cup test was done on March 18, while the confirmatory trials were on April 13, nearly a month after her sample collection. Had a report come from the NDTL by then, there would have been no necessity to conduct a ‘confirmatory trial’ for her, at least. Had a report come before April 21, the inaugural day of the Asian championships on which the 800m heats were run, Gomathi could have been pulled out and India spared the embarrassment.
How NDTL managed to delay a test report for 45 days will remain a mystery unless the Sports Ministry institutes an inquiry and asks a panel to go deeper into the issue rather than allow NDTL to make the usual excuses of having had to manage too many samples during that period or having had to cope with a faulty machine etc.
On its part, NADA also delayed informing the federation. By all accounts, it took more than 10 days after it received the NDTL report to inform the AFI though it claimed it had done so on May 14 when it received the report. Enquiries revealed NDTL report was out on May 2. In contrast to the delay by NDTL, the Doha lab took just over two weeks (17 days to be precise) to come up with its report that was conveyed to the AIU.
NADA’s functioning has been far from satisfactory the past few years. In its enthusiasm to churn out statistics that may suggest a larger volume of testing and fewer ‘positive’ results (it had crossed 105 in 2018 in all sports, compared to 73 the previous year, with athletics having touched 21 at the time of writing), NADA has all but forgotten its primary task — catch dope cheats and try to provide a level-playing field for the ‘clean’ athletes. There is no clarity about who all are being tested even on a yearly basis. Testing statistics are kept a secret.
In the run-up to the Asian Games last year, NADA did not test at least eight leading athletes out-of-competition till July-end, and they eventually made the Asian Games squad. Two of them ended up with gold medals. Even today, NADA does not have some of the leading athletes in its Registered Testing Pool (RTP). They include Asian Games champion and national record-holder shot putter Tejinder Pal Singh Toor, national record-holder long jumper M. Sreeshankar, national record-holder steeplechaser Avinash Sable, former Asian Games woman steeplechase champion Sudha Singh and the No. 1 javelin thrower this season, Shivpal Singh.
NADA claimed some months ago that Hima Das, the sensational 400m runner who won the World junior championship in 2018, was included but her name does not figure in the list on its website, which has been shown as that from June 2018 but was actually updated recently.
Instead, NADA has several athletes who are not among the leading lights in their events or else have been inactive or are in semi-retirement. They include 800m runner Tintu Luka, who has not competed since being stricken by dengue in the Asian championships in Bhubaneswar in 2017, 400m runner Anilda Thomas, and steeplechaser Lalita Babar, the only Indian athlete to have made the final in Rio Olympics, who has not competed in more than two years except in one cross-country race. It is disappointing to note that such lackadaisical approach by NADA is tolerated both by the ministry and WADA.
Who will educate NADA about its RTP? It keeps talking about “quality testing” and “target testing”. If it does not have an idea about who are the leading athletes and whose performances are showing fluctuations or who are among the top in Asia and who could be contenders for berths in World championships or Olympics, then would they know whom to pick in its RTP? Or to do an out-of-competition test on such an athlete at an ideal time?
RTP rules require athletes to provide their “whereabouts” on a quarterly basis through the year so that testers can reach a pre-designated place any day and look for the athlete. Missed tests may lead to sanctions.
NADA’s reluctance to test some of the top athletes during long training periods is baffling. When NADA eventually decided to test a batch of athletes training abroad in 2018, it was too late to be of any use from an anti-doping perspective. With the Asian Games scheduled in August, it was illogical to test them in July-end at considerable expenditure.
Neither SAI nor the Sports Ministry seems to have raised a question about the need to send large batches of 400m runners abroad for training. They are accompanied by coaches and support staff hired by the SAI. The only novelty is the locale.
There also is no explanation as to why so many athletes, ostensibly training with an Olympic relay medal in 2020 as the target, should be away for so many months. They were at Antalya, Turkey, for 79 days prior to the Asian championships, and probably would be at Spala, Poland, for another four-five months.
An oft-repeated explanation given to justify such training trips is the opportunity for “top-class” exposure for our athletes in Europe. By and large our athletes competed among themselves in European meets last year while they are yet to come out of their training base this season for competitions in Europe (as on June 5, 2019).
Can NADA conduct a test on each of those athletes in Spala in the months of June, July and August? If it does, we may be able to appreciate NADA’s efforts more than its plans to conduct tests at every state championships from now on.
That there had been no great improvement in the performance of the Indian 400m runners this season was evident in the manner in which the three 4x400m teams finished at the bottom in the World Relays in Yokohama in May.
The reserve strength has proved inadequate forcing the AFI to look for alternatives. Thus it was that Gomathi was drafted into the 400m batch under Russian coach Galina Bukharina in Spala. Alas, even as she was getting ready to leave came the news that she had tested positive.
The Indian 4x400m relay teams including the mixed one could not qualify for the World championships in Doha in September, through the World Relays, but they are likely to make it on the strength of their placings in the ranking list. The Tokyo Olympics qualification could yet be tougher.
With Hima Das injured, though she contributed to the women’s team’s effort of 3:31.93 in Yokohama, and Muhammed Anas not at his record-breaking best, the relay teams are not looking as formidable as to be credible challengers to the top teams in the world, if ever they were.
It was explained that the federation did not want to upset the relay teams’ training plans in Europe and thus decided not to send entries to the Asian Grand Prix series in China. “Do they mean to say there are only 400m runners in India who need exposure?” a coach recently asked with justifiable outrage.
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