The burning issue in Indian athletics

What a fall! Athlete Mandeep Kaur, suspended by the AFI after failing a dope test, gets emotional while interacting with the media in New Delhi.-PTI

Let's cut out the ‘supplements act'. It is time to get serious and come down mercilessly on the ‘cheats' and their backers, writes K. P. Mohan.

The nation has been outraged. The very same relay girls, who were ‘chewing' gold medals at the Nehru Stadium in Delhi while posing for photographs after their stupendous victory in the Commonwealth Games, just nine months ago, are at the centre of a raging doping scandal.

In the euphoria over the unprecedented success of our athletics team at the Commonwealth Games, followed by its equally brilliant performance at the Asian Games in Guangzhou last year, many people, including those in the media, had preferred not to ask the question. Are our athletes on dope?

And that is a question the authorities including the Union Sports Ministry and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) also did not want to ask. They were keen to look into the charts they had prepared so painstakingly, pat themselves on the back and say: “Well, our coaching programme, scientific backing and long-term planning are on track. Let's plan ahead for the London Olympics.”

There is nothing wrong with long-term planning as long as we assess what our true strength is. That did not happen. Everyone had to talk of our 4x400m women's relay team, well before the Commonwealth Games arrived, as though it was a world-beating team. As long as medals were coming, no one wanted to ask uncomfortable questions; no one wanted to probe the dramatic improvements or dramatic falls. No one was willing to ask why the athletes were going to Ukraine. The International Sports Division of the Sports Ministry was more than willing to clear a group of athletes including the 400m runners and sprinters to Ukraine for an extended stint last year, prior to the Commonwealth Games, after the AFI had finished its ‘quota' of 45 days of training in the same country earlier last summer.

Enquiries in the past of anything being special in Yalta, from coaches and athletes, have yielded nothing. “Good weather, good food”, they often used to say.

The Sports Ministry has explained that visits to cities like Muscat, Potchefstroom, South Africa, and Kuala Lumpur were also cleared in the past but no one had raised questions then.

Perhaps without the knowledge of the ministry, an IAAF team did raid the Indian squad in Muscat in January 2008. The coaches called out the athletes and asked them who among them had doubts that there could be a possibility of not clearing the test.

One woman quarter-miler is learnt to have replied in the affirmative. She was shielded from the testers for one week and asked to stay at another location. International testing teams had also conducted surprise checks at the Indian camps in Yalta in the past, according to coaches who were in the know of it, though we do not know whether they were successful in either getting any athlete or collecting any urine sample.

The year 2008 saw a batch of Indian athletes being moved around in Kerala for a few months. No one knew where exactly the athletes were stationed. They were at Kovalam one day and Munnar the next. But for longer periods their “whereabouts” were unknown. That was the Olympic year and coaches did not want WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) or the IAAF snooping around.

The most famous ‘exodus' of the Indian athletes came at Potchefstroom, South Africa, in 2006. There, a batch of more than 35 athletes literally ran when a team from the WADA made a surprise call.

Claiming innocence… Jauna Murmu, who tested positive for anabolic steroid, shows the pills she took during a press meet in New Delhi.-PTI

Amazingly, the WADA and the IAAF teams that followed the trail of the Indian athletes to the NIS, Patiala, could not ‘catch' anyone who returned a positive test. Shortly after the Potchefstroom incident, when WADA/IAAF came to Patiala, the athletes escaped.

“We were at this very ground when they came,” an international athlete told this correspondent after about a month of this incident in Patiala. “We were told by the coaches that WADA had come. One by one all athletes left the ground till there was no one left there to test,” he said.

The AFI suspended the athletes who did this “vanishing act” and conducted an enquiry. Nothing was expected to come about and nothing materialised. The athletes were soon back.

These incidents are being recalled here to drive home the point that everyone always knew what was happening. If today, the SAI and the ministry are expressing bewilderment at the enormity of the scandal and the deep-rooted nature of the malaise, then one can only say that they must have shut their eyes and ears when incidents had taken place in the past.

They will continue to shut their eyes and hope that others will do so, too, if they try to sweep this scandal under the carpet on the argument that supplements led to it and there never was any attempt to dope. Not this time perhaps, but has there been doping going on in Indian athletics?

Today, the SAI is talking of setting up a monitoring panel to spot abnormal improvement in performance of athletes. It could have spotted abnormal improvements in the past from a mile, but chose not to. It could have followed up on seizure of drugs from the rooms of athletes, both in Patiala and Bangalore, but chose not to.

Quite often the question would be: “Are other countries not doing it?” Once you ask that question one knows that an excuse is being found to at least look the other way, if not to collude.

When a woman athlete improves from 60.15s in the 400m hurdles to 56.15s in just six months (later the same level of improvement in three months), then alarm bells should start ringing in the SAI and the NADA offices even as it becomes music to the ears of the coaches who indulge in the abhorrent practice of doping. And of course to those in authority who cannot look at anything beyond medals in international competitions.

When woman 400 metres runners improve from 55-plus seconds to 51-plus in just two years, then also doubts should be raised. And this argument should be applicable to any event, any athlete.

No wonder, following the exceptional feats of the Indian athletes last year, the IAAF has placed seven of them under its radar, including them in the International Registered Pool. Mandeep Kaur and Jauna Murmu, who were ‘caught' in IAAF tests, were from this pool.

Testing teams, whether from the WADA, international federation, or the NADA, had always found it difficult to track athletes who were required to be tested, especially at the NIS, Patiala.

“Some of the top athletes know how to avoid testers,” said a doctor at the NIS a couple of years ago.

In the eye of a 'doping' storm... India's athletics coach Yuriy Ogorodonik at a press conference at the NIS Patiala. Of the eight athletes that he trained, six have tested positive for banned substances. The Ukrainian has since been sacked by the Indian Sports Ministry.-PTI

“Coaches are carrying leave letters to spring to the rescue of doped athletes when testers come. A simple excuse is the athlete has gone on leave to his or her village to attend to an ailing mother or father,” a coach said.

Athletes had run away from domestic testers last year and the one before. Nothing happened; no action was initiated. An enquiry is often ordered but no one bothers about the report.

“We have weekly dope tests at the camp,” said a coach who was part of the camp. “But it is a farce. Coaches come and whisper in the ears of other coaches to find out whether any of their wards are on drugs. Once it is established who is on dope and who is not, then at the next day's assembly a couple of names are picked for random testing.”

For many years, there have been complaints that coaches and athletes were bringing foreign drugs into the country to sell at exorbitant rates. “You can sell these drugs at 100 times their actual price,” said a coach.

The question is did not the SAI or the ministry ever hear such allegations? Did they bother to check with the Customs authorities whether foreign coaches were caught at the Delhi airport with boxes containing drugs in February 2007?

The ministry or the NADA can even now pursue the dope charts prepared, possibly, by foreign experts. These charts have been doing the rounds since around 2002. Experts can compare hand-writing and come to certain conclusions.

Will this display of innocence by coaches and athletes stop at least then?

“I never took anything. Possibly it came from supplements,” is the oft-repeated excuse that an athlete makes at a dope hearing. It is quite possible that supplements could be contaminated, but that does not mean an athlete was not on dope otherwise.

Monitoring should be the key in this fight against doping. The NADA has the important task of keeping tabs on improved performances and testing athletes at the most appropriate times. Simply by completing a large number of tests you are not going to catch the ‘big fish'.

Regular testing of the top athletes should be made a priority by the NADA even as they go through this farce of conducting hundreds and thousands of tests in disciplines across the board. That it managed to get only three ‘positive' tests out of 382 out-of-competition tests of athletes last year should tell the story.

There is a need to strengthen the NADA set-up with additional staff; also to strengthen its “intelligence” network. Plus the NADA has to keep monitoring the work of its Dope Control Officers and chaperons on a constant basis. When the stakes are high, corruption is bound to be there, as alleged by athlete Sukanya Mishra.

Another area that has long been neglected has been the availability of prescription drugs in chemists' shops across the country. The Sports Ministry could have pursued the matter of prescription drugs, especially steroids, being sold near the NIS, Patiala, in particular, with the Drug Controller of India, and the Health Ministry, but did very little. Now, raids are being conducted, licences are being suspended.

A doctor familiar with dope testing once told this correspondent that the chemist shops around the university area in Tiruchi, where an inter-university meet was about to take place, had run out of syringes days before the meet.

This is a normal occurrence at school meets even. Still no one has bothered to work out remedial measures. Are the juniors after jobs or fame, or both? Or are they dreaming of those millions that could be theirs when they become Asian Games champions?

The Union Sports Minister, Ajay Maken, has lost no time in sacking the foreign coach in charge of the relay team, Yuriy Ogorodonik, and suspending the Indian coaches. He is on the right track as he seeks more accountability from the SAI, NIS and the NADA.

He could possibly try to find out whether there is a nexus between SAI officials, federations and foreign coaches when appointments are finalised.

The minister would be well advised to push forward with the administrative measures including compliance of ‘whereabouts' information by athletes, incorporation of NADA rules by federations in their constitutions, and formation of ‘independent' bodies to run the NADA and the disciplinary and appeal panels.

Let's cut out the ‘supplements act'. It is time to get serious and come down mercilessly on the ‘cheats' and their backers.