Show no mercy on them

PEOPLE who knew about the extent to which doping had spread in Indian sports were not surprised when the twin scandal involving weightlifters Pratima Kumari and Sanamacha Chanu broke in Athens.

PEOPLE who knew about the extent to which doping had spread in Indian sports were not surprised when the twin scandal involving weightlifters Pratima Kumari and Sanamacha Chanu broke in Athens. For those who have kept a watch on the Indian doping programme since 1998 this was only a logical culmination. It was bound to come at some time and that it came during the Olympic Games surely caused considerable embarrassment to the country. At the same time it also helped focus on a problem that had been threatening to engulf practically the whole of Olympic sport in the country, especially weightlifting and athletics, for quite some time now.

Indian sports officials, fully aware of the happenings at home, act innocent, turn to each other and raise eyebrows when such scandals break out at major games. It had happened at the 2002 Commonwealth Games and again at the Busan Asian Games. Quickly, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and the National federations bring in a smoke-screen through a couple of enquiry commissions. At best, they sack a coach or else send out a warning that come what may, doping would not be tolerated. After a brief lull, it is back to business as usual for the dopers, coaches and the so-called experts. No one wants to get to the root of the problem.

The Salwan Commission missed a great opportunity in 2002, while probing the Sunita Rani doping scandal in the Asiad, to pinpoint the culprits since it was more keen to defend the accused athlete. Sunita escaped only because of the lackadaisical manner in which the Seoul laboratory handled her case. Everyone seemed keen to show that Sunita was `clean'. No one even wanted to know what goes on within the National camps and what magic formula the `recovery experts' employ to boost the athletes' performances. The benefits of doping, first proven by our athletes at the 1998 Asian Games, far outweighed the ethical issues and the damage to the image of the country at least in the eyes of the pro-doping lobby. The IOA officials, ever willing to flaunt the medals, wake up to realities only when a disaster strikes, as it did in Athens.

However, there is an anxiety now to bring the villains to book despite an attempt to put the blame on the SAI laboratory that cleared the lifters after testing them on the eve of their departure. The IOA seems keen to find out how a foolproof `protective' system that the Delhi lab provided, could have been breached. People should realise that two `negatives' followed by a `positive' for testosterone is always possible within a short period but it is rather rare the other way round.

The Government's decision to sack National weightlifting coach Pal Singh Sandhu, following the charges made by Pratima Kumari that she was given unspecified injections for a back injury, at the behest of the coaches, while training in Minsk, is a welcome move. This shouldn't absolve Pratima of her crime. Competitors are always aware of the fact that drugs are being given to them to boost performance even if they are ignorant about the difference between, say steroids nandrolone and stanozolol. Chanu's claim that someone had put something in her tea or coffee is laughable.

Not everything has been above board in the Indian athletes' performance in Athens. The `no marks' against the names of shot putter Bahadur Singh and discus thrower Anil Kumar should raise serious doubts and concern. So should other average performances after world-class results achieved at home and in Kiev.

The Sports Minister, Sunil Dutt, yet to familiarise himself with the machinations of the IOA and the federations as well as the extent of doping in Indian sports, has his task cut out. Any attempt to bring in stringent controls will evoke protests from the federations while any show of leniency will leave him vulnerable against critics. The priority should be to have a credible, effective out-of-competition testing programme. Sportspersons have perfected the art of avoiding detection, with more than a little help from some of the federations and their coaches. The testers have to be constantly on the look-out for manipulations and impersonations.

Even as the dope control laboratory awaits WADA accreditation, the Government has dithered over the signing of the Cophenhagen declaration on doping. Moves are afoot at the same time to form an autonomous National anti-doping organisation. Till such a body is formed, an ad hoc committee could be entrusted with the task of out of competition testing and disciplinary measures. The attempt should be to weed out the dopers and punish them, not to shield them through unethical testing at the SAI lab. A beginning could be made by getting around 100 tests done every year at accredited labs abroad.