Only the tip of the iceberg?

K. P. MOHAN

FOR long, everyone had suspected that large-scale doping has been going on in Indian athletics. The authorities knew but seemed to ignore the problem. A half-hearted attempt was made in 1997 when some of the juniors were off-loaded while getting ready for an Asian junior championships.

Sunita Rani... really guilty or a victim of circumstances?-V. SUDERSHAN

Since then, no prominent athlete has been suspended, though a few had been prevented from going abroad for major competitions. The federation still takes the trouble of collecting urine samples and getting them tested at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) laboratory in New Delhi. It is difficult to believe that no one has tested positive for several years.

Obviously there must have been many positive tests during the course of a year; the empty syringes and vials after every National-level meet at almost every centre speak volumes of the malaise that has gripped Indian athletics. The Amateur Athletic Federation of India (AAFI) and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) should be dumb if they believe there is no doping in India.

From a dope-deterrent agency in the early 90s when the SAI turned itself into a dope-monitoring agency in the late 90s, doping flourished in Indian athletics. The SAI even went to the extent of testing a specially-prepared ayurvedic dope on unsuspecting children engaged in various junior programmes. We are not sure where that herbal doping programme had reached.

Yuriy Boyko, the Ukrainian doctor, was a pioneer in providing the so-called 'scientific support' to the athletes. He failed to deliver at the Sydney Olympics where the Indian athletes hit rock-bottom. He was sacked and he sought greener pastures in the Gulf.

This time, as the Indian athletes prepared for the Busan Asian Games, the assistance of another expert was sought. For convenience, he was designated as 'recovery expert'. The SAI did not want snooping mediamen to get wind of what was going on. Yet, when it came to clearance of the team, the 'recovery expert' was named as a doctor to go with the athletes. Did he have a permit from the Medical Council to practise in this country? He did give medicines with Russian labels to the athletes.

''I don't think the earlier person (Boyko) was a doctor," says Dr. Tarlochan Singh, a surgeon at the Gangaram Hospital in Delhi who also works part-time at the SAI Medical Centre. "I wasn't aware of the dope culture in Delhi," says the doctor.

Yet, if you ask the top brass in the SAI or the Union Sports Ministry, they will just provide you all with the diplomatic answers. Yes, we are fighting the menace, yes, we are testing athletes, yes, we are consulting the Indian Olympic Association and the federations.

Clearing sportspersons for major championships abroad after testing them at the SAI lab is considered an achievement. That is the kind of fight which the SAI and the Sports Ministry have waged against doping in India. Test them once, if not cleared, test them again, if still there is a positive, test them a third time, a fourth time and so on.

The SAI and the Ministry are keen that no one who is drugged should go out and compete, get caught and bring a bad name to the country. They do not mind doping itself. Otherwise, it makes no sense that an athlete or a weightlifter is not excluded straightaway after one positive test.

If this is not state-sponsored doping then it is state-abetted doping. Nothing seems to matter as long as the athletes and weightlifters bring in the medals. The country will go into raptures; there will be no awkward questions to answer in Parliament. Ater all, when we spend crores in sending athletes abroad, ostensibly for training purposes, you have to show results.

Results we had in Busan when India won seven gold medals in athletics alone, more than thrice the number the country had in the last Asian Games athletics. Alas, one of them, Sunita Rani, tested positive for the steroid, nandrolone. Not once, but twice. Is it just the tip of the iceberg? many have asked.

Suddenly, the lustre was gone from the Indian athletics show. Unfortunate, yes. We should not be suspecting genuine talent and fruits of hard labour just because there is one positive case and it might turn out that it was accidental. So went the argument. But then mediamen are only human. When there is no mechanism to differentiate between doped athletes and 'clean' athletes, when the agency entrusted with the task of catching the 'culprits' is instead guiding them with a screening programme at a Government-funded laboratory, we are helpless.

Many of the stalwarts have come forward in defence of Sunita Rani, including Milkha Singh and Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, two of our Olympic heroes, who were in the forefront of anti-doping chorus not long ago. They feel Sunita had been a victim of circumstances, not an isolated case but a pawn within a larger system. The system has to be broken up.

This might be true. But unless proven otherwise, Sunita will remain guilty in the eyes of those who keenly follow Indian athletics. Her family, in newspaper reports from Delhi, has provided grist to the rumour mill by the accusation about the goings-on in countries like Belarus and Ukraine. Sunita had come back, after aggravating a stress fracture from Kiev in 2000, an injury that sliced nearly two years off a promising career and even threatened to cut it short prematurely, thanks to Boyko's treatment.

When she came back this year and clocked a 4:08 for the 1500m, close to her National mark, in her first race in almost two years, eyebrows were raised. But she soon gave us the impression that she was better prepared than ever before. Little did one realise that she was going to be 'caught'.

As is to be expected, Sunita has vehemently denied having taken anything. One is tempted to give her some benefit of doubt since the substance that has been detected happens to be nandrolone, a muscle-building steroid. A middle and long distance runner taking nandrolone is rare.

Nandrolone (Deca-Durabolin to give its commercial name) is an anabolic steroid which occurs naturally in the human body, though in very small quantities. It is very similar in structure to the male hormone, testosterone, and is mainly used by athletes to increase muscle mass. It does not have the same after-effects as testosterone and hence its popularity.

A concentration of two nanograms per millilitre of urine is the permissible limit of nandrolone for males while for non-pregnant females it is five nanograms. In the case of Sunita, the first test after the 1500 metres ('A' sample) in Busan showed a concentration level of 21 nanograms/ml of urine, while the 'B' sample for the same specimen of urine, tested after four days, showed six nanograms. The corresponding figures for the samples after the 5000 metres were 10ng and 7ng respectively. The drastic drop from 21 to six might provide the basis for an argument for Sunita.

A rash of nandrolone positives had come up in international athletics in 1999 including that of British athletes Linford Christie and Jamaican Merlene Ottey. Later the list got enlarged with Britons Doug Walker and Mark Richardson (reprieved under the exceptional circumstances rule) dragged into it and several top European footballers also getting sucked into the nandrolone net. German runner Dieter Baumann tested positive, served a suspension, fought a case and lost. In fact there were more than 300 cases of nandrolone world-wide in 1999 alone.

Several theories were formulated during that period and continue to be debated. The foremost among them was nandrolone positives were turning up in food supplements. Recently, Portuguese scientists came up with the revelation that pork-eating could lead to abnormal nandrolone levels. Another argument that came up was that rigorous training coupled with food supplements led to increased nandrolone levels.

Ignorance is no bliss in a legal system. It is the same here. No sports body allows the argument, "I don't know how it got into my body. I never took anything." A lot of people tried that, without success. Legal and arbitration wrangles are still going on in several cases.

In the Indian scenario also, food supplements are nothing new. In fact the SAI has been importing them at Government cost. No one is suggesting that such supplements led to the Sunita case. But when you take food supplements, you run the risk of ingesting something that might turn out to be a banned susbstance or produce a banned substance in your body.

An International Olympic Committee (IOC) study in 2001 found that 20 per cent of such supplements contained banned drugs. "The first extensive reports on 600 nutritional supplements show that some contain non-labelled substances which could lead to a positive doping test," the IOC said in a statement at that time. "At this stage, the IOC Medical Commission can only recommend to athletes and their entourage not to take such products."

A misconception about dope-related suspension is that in case a National body refuses to suspend an athlete, the story ends there. It doesn't. The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) steps in and imposes a suspension. After that you can prolong the argument through hearings and re-instatements and arbitrations.

Invariably, cases go on for more than two years, the period of suspension itself. But there is no short-cut to participation once you have tested positive. Not in athletics at least.