New Delhi: On 11 October 2010, the near-capacity crowd at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi cheered as Ashwini Akkunji, a long-limbed 400m sprinter from Karnataka, sped away from most of her competitors to give India the lead in the third stage of the women’s 4x400m relay at the 2010 Commonwealth Games (CWG).
“Here comes India, here comes Akkunji, just listen to that crowd,” cried the commentator.
The crowd erupted in the final leg. Mandeep Kaur and Nigerian sprinter Folashade Abugan were level at the start, but barely 50m into the race, Kaur accelerated, leaving the Nigerian behind. The commentary reached fever-pitch: “There are 200 metres to go, I can’t hardly believe it, It’s going to be gold for India, a phenomenal gold.”
Less than a year after that historic triumph, three of quartet that gave India that unexpected gold are lead actors in a tragedy that is being played out on 24x7 television and newspaper headlines. After Kaur, Akkunji, their relay teammate Sini Jose and five other top athletes tested positive for banned substances in an out-of-competition surprise test conducted by the International Association of Athletics Federations, the backlash has been severe.
Suspended by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), Kaur, Akkunji, and Jose are lying low at the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Patiala. Their Ukranian coach Yuri Ogorodnik, fired by India’s sports minister Ajay Maken, is also spending his time behind locked doors at his room in NIS.
Yet, behind this shocking story is one that has by now become common in Indian sport: ill-informed sportspersons, callous administrators, infrastructure-strapped sports bodies, and, if some people are to be believed, coaches and sportspersons willing to win at any cost.
“Let’s be very clear about this. The doping game cannot be played by a single person. You have to know when to take a steroid, the dosage, when to stop, what to take to suppress side effects. It’s a team effort. Athletes, coaches, doctors, all of them have to do it together,” says P.S.M. Chandran, president of the Indian Federation of Sports Medicine, who quit as SAI’s director of sports medicine in January 2011 after 27 years. Yet, most sportspersons insist that they are victims, not criminals, and it’s hard to not believe them.
But there’s India’s history to consider.
Since its inception in January 2009, the National Anti Doping Agency (Nada) has tested 6,607 athletes, of which, 242 have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, 12 athletes tested positive for methylhexaneamine, commonly found in nasal decongestants.
Indian weightlifters have been the worst offenders, with more than 25 top-level lifters testing positive since 2001. The Indian Weightlifting Federation (IWF) was banned from sending its athletes to the 2006 Commonwealth Games after several of its lifters failed drug tests, and was permitted to take part in the 2010 Games only after it paid a $500,000 fine. While all the lifters who have tested positive were banned, only one official was fired between 2001 and 2009.
‘I don’t know’
That’s the preferred refrain of athletes who fail dope tests.
“I am devastated, I don’t know how this could happen to me, I don’t want to talk about it,” Kaur says over the phone. Uncharacteristically, Ogorodnik offered to take the blame.
“The athletes had run out of the supplements provided by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) just when they started training for the Asian Championships,” Ogorodnik says, “And I told them what supplements to buy. These are the same supplements the girls have been taking for the last one year and they have not tested positive. Maybe this batch they bought was not genuine, but it’s not the girls’ fault.”
Still, the so-called strict liability clause of the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), which puts the onus of a failed dope test on the athlete with no regard to intent or knowledge, ensures that the careers of the sprinters are all but over.
“The athlete has to know what he or she is ingesting,” says Nada director general Rahul Bhatnagar. “Every one who tests positive pleads ignorance. This is not believable.”
Nada publishes the updated version of Wada’s banned substances list on its website, and also mails the list to various sports federations. It is then the federation’s duty to run awareness programmes for athletes, and make the list available to them.
Some sportspersons claim this doesn’t help.
“I don’t understand the point of giving us this list,” says Olympic medal winning boxer Vijender Singh, currently ranked No.1 in the world in his category. “There are complicated chemical names, and they are in English. Most Indian athletes, like me, don’t know how to read or write English.”
The first page of the seven-page 2011 Wada banned substances list starts thus: 1-androstenediol, bolandiol (19-norandrostenediol), dehydrochlormethyltestosterone.... And these are chemical names; the ingredients label on nutritional supplements and medicines often has commercial names which can vary for the same chemical entity, depending on the manufacturer.
Nada says it has done its bit: “We took the help of the drug controller (general) of India and published the commercial names of these substances and put it online this year,” says Bhatnagar.
The commercial names of 59 of the 90 anabolic steroids banned by Wada are not found on that list. One of the banned steroids, testosterone has 90 different commercial names listed, including Androtardyl, Primoniat Depot, Scheinpharm, Mixogen, Despamen. The banned diuretic substance hydrochlorthiazide has at least 200 different commercial names.
India’s veteran Olympic boxer Akhil Kumar laughs when asked if he knows what substances are banned.
“Neither our coaches nor our doctors know much about the banned substances list,” he claims.
“How do you expect any athlete to follow that?” asks Viren Rasquinha, India’s former hockey captain and now chief operating officer of Olympic Gold Quest, a private organization that provides financial and infrastructural support to some of India’s top athletes. “When you get malaria, you go to a doctor, and the doctor gives you a medicine, and you take it. Do you go home and check every ingredient?”
Akhil Kumar says he doesn’t even know who prescribes supplements for Indian boxers. “It comes from the federation and the coaches, so we take the supplements,” he says, “It’s not possible for us to start independently verifying these substances.”
“Our athletes have very little awareness about nutrition and supplements,” Rasquinha adds. “We organize multiple sessions with sports doctors for athletes under us to spread awareness, and we cross-check all the supplements they are being given by the federation with the Wada list.”
SAI and Nada, too, organize awareness camps in their training centres. Only, there’s usually a language problem.
“Yes, we’ve had three to four lectures at the Patiala campus in 2010,” says Vijender Singh. “But they are in English. A lot of us don’t understand most of what is said. Then, we have a lot of athletes from the North-East and the south who don’t understand either Hindi.”
System of inadequacies
The problem is compounded by the mix of inadequacy (when it comes to availability of supplements) and nutritional ignorance that has come to characterize even elite sports training centres run by the government.
“The food given to athletes here is nowhere near the international standards of nutrition,” says South African Heath Matthews, head physiotherapist at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai, who worked with India’s top athletes from August 2007 to June 2010 as part of the Mittal Champions Trust, a private organization that gives financial and infrastructural support to athletes.
“I spent most of my time in Patiala and Sonepat (SAI training centres), and the nutritional awareness is atrocious. There is no scientific approach towards structuring an athlete’s diet. I met no sports medicine experts or nutritionists at any of the campuses. The medical centres are only geared to treat coughs and colds,” says Mathews. He adds that many athletes came to him with supplements they had bought on their own and asked him to check if they were legal.
CWG medallist and discus thrower Harwant Kaur, who trains at Patiala, says athletes often buy supplements on their own, sometimes after consulting doctors not associated with SAI.
“The supplements given to us by SAI is never enough for the full course prescribed to us,” Harwant says.
Vijender Singh concurs, and adds that supplements authorized by SAI are also of poor quality, and that he buys his own: “Any athlete who can afford it, does exactly that.”
Anti-doping authorities and sports federations around the world run hot-lines and provide sports medicine experts to answer queries from sportspersons. No such system exists in India. SAI has only four permanent doctors on its payroll—one in Patiala, one in Bangalore, and two in Kolkata.
“In any proper sporting infrastructure, a team has to be given a physiotherapist, a masseuse, provisions for ice baths, a recovery expert, and a sports medicine doctor,” Matthews says. “Most of these are not available for the athletes in Patiala or Sonepat. This means that if they train hard for one day, they need three days to recover. You can’t train athletes like that. The system needs to change from the ground up. It’s rotten.”
To compensate, athletes tend to follow any advice by coaches, private doctors, or other senior athletes.
Chandran says doctors and recovery experts hired by SAI on short-term contracts often promote doping because they know they can’t be held responsible. “When their contracts end and they disappear, the athletes are left to fend for themselves.” Like Sunita Rani was.
In 2002, after middle distance runner Rani tested positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone at the Busan Asian Games, Supreme Court lawyer Sushil Salwan was appointed by the AFI to investigate if Rani was guilty.
Salwan wrote a scathing 200-page report to AFI saying that both the federation as well as SAI were doing nothing to stop doping in Indian sports, and that coaches, doctors and athletes were equally responsible for the debacle.
“SAI was not interested in setting up an accredited lab for testing,” recalls Salwan, “and the federations conducted their tests in the most slipshod manner. Everyone washed their hands of Sunita—her coach and her doctor told me that they don’t know what nandrolone is. And of course, only the athlete’s career goes down the drain.”
Athletes banned under Wada rules has three provisions for fighting the automatic two-year ban for a first offence: They can plead no intent, and prove how the prohibited substance entered their body without their knowledge; establish “no fault, no negligence” (that is, prove sabotage); or prove that their supplement was contaminated or mislabelled, or that their trainer or physician gave them the substance without disclosure.
“These are seriously difficult things for an athlete to prove,” says Shan Kohli, a Kolkata-based lawyer who specializes in sports and runs a website on sports law in India. “There is no proper legal framework provided to athletes who have tested positive in India. These are also very expensive cases for an athlete to fight.”
Former Indian sprinter Ashwini Nachappa, who is now the vice-president of Clean Sports India, an organization of former athletes campaigning against politicians running sports and the use of performance-enhancing drugs, says athletes are left to fend for themselves after a ban, while coaches and federation officials go free.
“They are just dumped,” Nachappa says. “There is no fair trial, no support system, no lab or legal help they can approach.”
The new sports Bill that has been proposed might change that, she says, because it has a provision for independent legal help for athletes accused of doping. Apart from this, the draft National Sports Bill, 2011, also mandates the compilation of commercial names of banned substances in several Indian languages