NDTL losing accreditation comes as no surprise

Coming as it has with the Tokyo Olympics less than a year away, this decision by WADA can shackle the NADA's drive against dope cheats especially if the suspension is extended by a further six months which could be a possibility.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has suspended the accreditation of India’s National Dope Testing Laboratory (NDTL) for six months.   -  GETTY IMAGES

The suspension of accreditation of the National Dope Testing Laboratory (NDTL) by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on Friday has not come as a surprise.

Coming as it has with the Tokyo Olympics less than a year away, this decision by WADA can shackle the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA's) drive against dope cheats especially if the suspension is extended by a further six months which could be a possibility.

The Big Question

How does it matter if the laboratory is suspended when the agency that has to handle anti-doping is NADA and there are no restrictions on it? After all, NADA can utilise the services of any of the other accredited laboratories in the world numbering 29 active ones currently.

Foreign laboratories charge more than New Delhi for tests. Add to this the cost of transporting the samples to a foreign location under strict supervision and ideal conditions, the cost factor can eventually lead to a slashing of NADA’s target numbers.

READ: Sports ministry surprised by WADA's suspension of NDTL, to appeal ban

This is where NADA has to be more vigilant than ever before. Numbers should not be boosted simply by conducting dope tests in state athletics meets or best physique competitions or junior tournaments. Nor should it be done through cricket, now that the sport has come under NADA umbrella.

Cricket is a low priority sport from an anti-doping perspective and it should remain one despite the kind of media hype that may be created when NADA carries out tests or handle ‘results management.’

If budget constraints are there it would be prudent to concentrate on ‘elite athletes’ rather than state-level and district-level competitors.

It is not clear as to why NDTL has been suspended. “This suspension has been imposed due to non-conformities with the International Standard for Laboratories (ISL) as identified during a WADA site visit, including in relation to the laboratory’s isotope ratio mass spectrometry (GC/C/IRMS) analytical method, as regulated by the relevant technical document (TD2016IRMS),” said a WADA statement.

The Audit

A WADA team had done an audit in September 2018. At that time, the team had reportedly collected more than 100 samples and taken them to the Montreal accredited laboratory.

An unspecified number of them were retested there. Six of them, five track and field athletes and one woman weightlifter returned ‘positive’ results that were reported in November last year. These were samples that had turned ‘negative’ reports at the NDTL.

READ: WADA suspends India’s National Dope Testing Laboratory

In the absence of an adverse report or an explanation from WADA at that time, it was presumed these ‘positive’ results had more to do with the higher capacity of the Montreal laboratory to detect the smallest quantities of banned substances rather than a bungling by the New Delhi lab.

One is no longer sure about this following the suspension of accreditation of NDTL.

Curious case of Davinder Singh Kang

A more curious case was that of javelin thrower Davinder Singh Kang. He had already been through a doping charge for marijuana when he was reported for another offence. He was tested by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in November 2017.

This time he tested positive for testosterone. Proceedings were going on against him, when, in March this year, NDTL withdrew his ‘positive’ report.

Davinder Singh Kang found himself in troubled waters after he tested positive for testosterone. (File Photo)   -  V. Raju

 

AIU was taken by surprise by this move by NDTL, but closed the case. WADA stated in a communication to this correspondent that it was aware of the case and the withdrawal of the report and its Laboratory Expert Group was reviewing it.

A hint to a possible suspension was available then, though nothing is confirmed yet. In May, WADA launched the disciplinary proceedings against NDTL.

Prior to all these had come the case of discus thrower Arjun, a 2010 Youth Olympics silver medallist. His initial report of April 2016 was found ‘negative’ by NDTL.

The IAAF later sought two of his samples to be transported to the Cologne laboratory. Both returned positive for precursors and metabolites of testosterone.

It was felt at that time that NDTL had not done an IRMS while Cologne did. But that was not the case. NDTL also did an IRMS on his samples and found them to be having “no banned substances.”

“GC/C/IRM result do (sic) not confirm the exogenous origin of steroids,” NDTL wrote in its report.

Just the opposite result and opinion were given by the Cologne laboratory. “GC-C-IRMS results are consistent with the exogenous origin of steroids,” wrote Cologne laboratory.

IRMS Analysis

IRMS analysis helps a laboratory determine whether an endogenous (within the body) steroid has actually come from an exogenous (outside) source. Testosterone and nandrolone are generally the two most tested endogenous steroids through the IRMS method. The WADA statement, it may be noted, has made particular reference to IRMS.

In most IRMS positive cases, a laboratory is expected to seek a second, independent opinion. It is not known whether NDTL has been following this stipulation.

Arjun was suspended for four years from provisional suspension date of 10 December 2016. He went into appeal and that process is still continuing!

Last May, came another baffling case, that of middle-distance runner Marimuthu Gomathi. NDTL took 45 days to report her ‘positive’ case for steroid nandrolone.

There was another ‘positive’ that came at the Asian championships in Doha. That was reported in just 17 days. Gomathi’s disciplinary proceedings are going on.

Budgetary Constraints

Almost every year we keep hearing about NADA achieving 5000 or 7000 samples but eventually, it settles for less. Last year it did 4194 samples, up from 3174 samples in 2017.

Now, after having already touched the WADA stipulation of 3000 samples, as per the Sports Ministry’s claim, there is an oblique warning to WADA that India might not be able to spend extra on testing of samples in foreign labs.

That would be unfortunate. Doping has been rampant in the country and there is a desperate need to arrest the trend in the run-up to the World Athletics Championships and through to the Tokyo Olympics, just 11 months away.

NADA officials at SAI centre in Bhopal for conducting a surprise raid. (File Photo)   -  A.M. Faruqui

 

The track and field athletes might “gain” temporarily but in the longer run will get exposed if budgetary constraints keep NADA figures down in the coming months.

Any suggestion that foreign labs could be eyeing NDTL’s business because of its low costs and thus a suspension of NDTL would turn out to be beneficial for such labs also sounds illogical if one looks at the volume these prominent labs are testing in a year.

In 2017, Cologne tested 32,150 samples, Dresden 15,950, Ghent (Belgium) 16,228, Lausanne 13,579, Seibersdorf (Austria) 18, 524, Beijing 16,115, Montreal 27,666 and Los Angeles 28,732.

New Delhi did 7163 samples as per WADA testing figures. As per NDTL statistics, it did 3833 international samples in 2017.