National Anti-Doping Agency improves testing in Olympic year, still a long way to go

National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) resumed testing with the IPL in Abu Dhabi in October and then slowly shifted its focus to the domestic front.

(Representative Image) Out of 29 athletes in its Registered Testing Pool list as on March 31, 2021, 16 were in the Tokyo-bound squad.   -  REUTERS

The enforced absence of dope testers at training camps and residential locations would have given dope cheats a respite in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympic Games.

To begin with, the COVID-19 pandemic almost put a halt to testing worldwide. It slowly picked up pace depending on the spread of the virus and the restrictions imposed by different countries on travelling and opening of stadia and training centres.

The situation was not much different in India in 2020, the original Olympic year.

The National Anti Doping Agency (NADA) went dead slow on testing once the lockdowns started in March 2020.

NADA resumed testing with the IPL in Abu Dhabi in October and then slowly shifted its focus to the domestic front.

Some tests were carried out in November in Sonepat and Lucknow, where wrestlers were training, and then Patiala, where the bulk of the track and field athletes were based.

 

Though it might not have managed the numbers it set out to achieve in the preparatory stage of the Olympics, NADA did a considerably better job than in 2018 and 2019 while testing the Olympic probables in India in 2021.

The feeling that it could have been started earlier than when it eventually managed to do, and it could have involved more elite athletes, will remain.

But NADA deserves credit for managing a fair number of out-of-competition tests in athletics that seemed to have proved a deterrent, which is exactly what the aim should always be.

The doping base for the 2021 season might have been laid in 2020 itself in a sport like athletics, but that year saw very little testing and practically no competitions except for a few minor meets at the beginning and some road events towards the end of the year.

With World Athletics (WA) freezing the Olympic qualification and world rankings till November 30, 2020, not many were willing to conduct competitions around the world nor were athletes prepared to risk their health by travelling and competing.

Unlike in 2018 when NADA failed to test out of competition five of the six eventual gold medallists in individual events in athletics in the Asian Games prior to the event, this time the agency succeeded in testing almost all athletes headed for the Olympics at least once out of competition before they went.

The lone exception was discus thrower Seema Punia-Antil.

That was a big plus for NADA. On the minus side, it failed to reach its own target of testing before the games, not to speak of falling short of the numbers as required for athletes in the Registered Testing Pool (RTP), as per the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) guidelines.

In 2019, when the Olympics were scheduled for 2020, the then NADA Director-General, Navin Agarwal, had said his agency would test Olympic probables at least three to four times before the games.

Presuming that it was for a one-year period that the NADA DG was charting out a course of testing programme, NADA failed to meet its target.

It tested only three athletes (400m relay runner Muhammed Anas, steeplechaser Avinash Sable and racewalker K. T. Irfan), four times in the Olympic batch before departure.

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For quite some time, one has had the feeling that NADA invariably failed to review and amend its RTP as per performances, especially in a sport like athletics.

The problem continues.

The list is not updated quarterly or half-yearly but at random periods since WADA has not specified a timeline except that a review every quarter would be needed.

Thus, discus thrower Kamalpreet Kaur who qualified for the final of the Olympics and finished sixth, was not included in the RTP till March this year or closer to that month.

She was tested out of competitions before the Tokyo Games on two occasions, May 15 and June 10. On both occasions her blood samples as well as samples for Biological Passport were also taken.

She was tested in the two competitions she contested in 2021, on March 19 and June 21.

Going by convention not to speak of the stipulation of the Athletics Federation of India, athletes setting national records are tested.

While Kamalpreet was tested twice at least out of competition, Punia-Antil was not tested even once for the third year since 2018 out of competition prior to a major championship (not counting 2020, which only had very limited testing).

She was tested in both the competitions she competed in at home, on March 19 and June 29.

Punia-Antil trains in Russia. Why NADA retains her in its RTP, when only a token testing may be possible or none, remains a mystery.

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It is difficult to explain the presence of someone like Nirmala Sheoran (400m), serving a doping suspension till June 2022, in the NADA RTP and the absence of the top 400m male runner this season, Amoj Jacob.

He clocked a 46.00s for the one-lap event on February 25 and bettered it twice to 45.70s and 45.68s to be the No. 1 at home this season.

He was tested out of competition once (June 15) and in-competition on four occasions.

NADA obviously has to look for athletes who keep improving through a season and keep updating its RTP at least every quarter. Once into the RTP list an athlete needs to be tested at least three times in a year, as per regulations.

Out of 29 athletes in its RTP list as on March 31, 2021, 16 were in the Tokyo-bound squad.

Of the rest who might have been in contention for an Olympic berth at some point, but could not make it, quarter-miler V. K. Vismaya was tested thrice out of competition during the period January 1 to August 28, 2021.

Among the others who did not make it to Tokyo, Hima Das (2), M. R. Poovamma (2) and Jisna Mathew (1), all 400m or 200m runners, Sudha Singh (2), steeplechase, and A. Dharun (1), 400m and 400m hurdles, were tested out of competition.

Discus thrower Navjeet Kaur Dhillon, though in the RTP, was not tested.

Independent India’s first-ever track and field Olympic medallist, javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, though not in the NADA RTP since he is in the International Registered Testing Pool of the World Athletics, was tested once out of competition at Patiala, on April 30.

One is not sure whether NADA did this on its own or on being requested by any of the competent international agencies.

He competed in two competitions in March at Patiala, the first time posting a new national record of 88.07m on March 5. He was tested on both occasions. Currently (up to September), Chopra is the lone Indian athlete in the WA RTP.

Of the athletes who eventually made it to Tokyo, shot putter Tajinderpal Singh Toor was tested four times out of competition in 2020, the maximum for any track and field athlete by NADA in the COVID-19-ruined year.

Steeplechaser Sable and javelin thrower Shivpal Singh were tested twice each out of competition that year.

Kamalpreet provided the maximum number of samples including urine samples out of competition and in-competition and blood samples, including for Biological Passport, in 2021.

This came to 10 in all. Anas (9), Jabir (8), Sable and Annu Rani (7 each) came behind her.

In Kamalpreet’s case, the significant point in her testing was her out-of-competition samples including blood came from May 15 onwards, ending with June 10.

In comparison, Sable was tested out of competition in 2021 first on January 29, Irfan on January 28 and most others in February and March.

NADA did not make the mistake of conducting out-of-competition tests and in-competition ones close to each other in many cases as it had been doing in the past.

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Given the experience of testing in 2021, plus the performance of the athletes, NADA would do well to concentrate on events in which there is added interest and more money is being pumped into.

For instance, men’s javelin and the 4x400m relays in both sections. The sudden and rapid strides in women’s middle-distance running should be another case for review by NADA.

As is well known to it, there is also a necessity to keep a watch on the abnormal improvement in sprints in both the sections and the sporadic spikes in performance in horizontal jumps.

The temptation to take short-cuts could be more than ever before today, with fame and rewards on offer for sportspersons successful at the global level. NADA should be extra vigilant on this score.

NADA would also do well to keep funds aside for testing of Indian athletes in foreign locations when long-duration training camps are held in Europe or elsewhere.

With the Delhi laboratory yet to regain WADA accreditation, testing itself has become a costly affair for NADA and the government.

India topped number of positive cases in 2019 testing, and the country should redouble its efforts to cleanse the system.

On another front, NADA also needs to speed up its results management and hearing process. In June this year, after nearly two years, 22 junior rowers were slapped with one-year suspensions in testing done in July 2019.

Their suspensions were deemed to be from November 7, 2020.

A panel had reserved orders on the batch of rowers who tested positive for diuretic probenecid but did not eventually issue them. A new panel had to take up the cases.

Lawyers have complained cases are being held up for no apparent reason. Only the athletes would be the sufferers in such instances.

NADA needs to be compassionate even as it goes after the dope cheats.