Drug use has hit Indian athletics like a tsunami over the past week. There is national—and I dare say international—concern, not just because so many of India’s elite athletes have tested positive but also that banned substances should be available easily. So much so that they are even available over the counter outside the National Institute of Sports in Patiala.

There has been a flurry of charges between officials belonging to the Athletics Federation of India and the Sports Authority of India, but that cannot deflect from the fact that drug usage is perhaps rampant in Indian sport. The sports ministry has set up a three-member committee to inquire into the sorry episode even as the athletics coach, Ukrainian Yuri Ogorodnik, and his two Indian assistants have been sacked.

Unfair advantage: (from left) Canadian Ben Johnson (Tony Duffy/Getty Images) and American Marion Jones (Aubrey Washington/Allsport) were found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs. India’s Ashwini Akkunji too is facing allegations of using banned substances (Philippe Lopez/AFP).

More pertinently, however, what the current crisis emphasizes is the collusion of coaches, doctors and administrators with athletes—and sometimes without their knowledge—in using drugs to enhance performance. It would be naive to believe that athletes alone are guilty, as past instances show conclusively.

Also read | Ayaz Memon’s earlier columns

Indeed, the recent controversy took me down memory lane to the Race of The Century between Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Not only does it remain among my most cherished experiences in writing on sport, it also awakened me to the corruption that exists in the quest for gold and glory.

Lewis, the smart-talking Yank, was defending Olympic champion and one of the greatest athletes of all time, having won four gold medals in the preceding Games at Los Angeles. Johnson was the tongue-tied Canadian of Jamaican descent whose electric heels had set the track on fire several times in the 12-18 months leading up to Seoul.

Would Lewis be able to defend his gold or would Johnson dethrone him as the king of sprints? The answer was provided in a scorching, record-breaking 9.83 seconds on a cool morning at the Olympic Stadium as Johnson breasted the tape ahead of all rivals, leaving Lewis gasping for breath a fair distance behind.

There was universal acclaim for Johnson’s amazing feat, but the joy was short-lived. Within a short while, a lab assistant at the drug-checking control room in Seoul discovered in Johnson’s first urine sample traces of the banned anabolic steroid, stanozolol. The second urine sample confirmed the misgivings generated by the first, and in less than 24 hours Johnson went from hero to zero.

Less than a year later, I was in the West Indies with the Indian cricket team and by a stroke of fortune got to meet Johnson’s doctor, Jamie Astaphan, in St Kitts. The Canadian had trained extensively in this scenic Caribbean island where Dr Astaphan had reportedly put him on a carefully planned diet of drugs to go with his rigorous regimen.

I asked Dr Astaphan if he regretted giving Johnson performance-enhancing drugs. He was unrepentant about his action though he regretted the turmoil in Johnson’s life. “Most athletes take drugs, the Americans more than anybody else. It’s just that they are able to mask this more effectively."

At the time, Dr Astaphan’s statement smacked of bitterness at losing out to the Americans in the competition to win the 100m gold. Remember, doctors, trainers, coaches and federation heads also stand to gain immeasurably from an Olympic medal win, not just the athletes. But in subsequent years, Dr Astaphan’s contention was found to be true.

Florence Griffith-Joyner, one of the stars of the Seoul Olympics, died prematurely at 38—allegedly because of drug abuse in her competitive years. A decade later, another “golden girl" of American athletics, Marion Jones, confessed to taking drugs and was sent to jail. These were not the only names which surfaced as the world authority against drugs, the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), sought to clean up athletics. Even the redoubtable Lewis, now retired, was rumoured to have taken drugs. There was no vehement denial from him.

Indeed, the United States Olympic Committee was found to be not much better than the “athletes’ factories" of the Eastern Bloc—primarily erstwhile East Germany and the USSR, where youngsters were fed drugs from a young age to become medal-winning Olympians in their youth.

Horrific stories emerged of former athletes suffering debilitating ailments once they had quit. East German woman athlete Heidi Krieger was “transformed" into a man because of the use of “blue pills" prescribed by her coaches—she now goes by the name of Andreas.

Ever since Johnson was caught and banned, the battle by authority against drug users—athletes, coaches and administrators—has been waged on a war footing, but not entirely successfully. This malaise exists not only in the sphere of athletics but other sports as well. Cycling, for instance, has been hit hard by allegations of drug abuse, including against the iconic Lance Armstrong.

Doping in sport is hardly new. Apparently, the ancient Olympics were full of it—but there can be no doubt that taking performance-enhancing drugs is both dangerous and unfair. Sometimes, the dangers have become known only as science progressed—some artificial help was seen as necessary when undertaking a particularly gruelling exercise.

According to Wikipedia, “A participant in an endurance walking race in Britain, Abraham Wood, said in 1807 that he had used laudanum, or opium, to keep him awake for 24 hours while competing against Robert Barclay Allardyce."

In the 1904 Olympics, Thomas Hicks won the marathon after Frederick Lorz was disqualified for cheating—he rode part of the way in a car. But Hicks also had help of sorts—a couple of strychnine injections and a glass of brandy. At the time, it was felt that strychnine was necessary to get through such endurance sports. Hicks, incidentally, recovered from the doses of poison injected into him but never competed again.

It was in 1960, after cyclist Kurt Jensen died because of an overdose of amphetamines, that measures to control drug use started emerging. Once amphetamines were discovered in the 1930s, they were freely used by athletes. Soldiers were given amphetamines during World War II to cope with its rigours, including the long hours without sleep.

The real push for anti-doping laws came with the televised death of British cyclist Tommy Simpson during the Tour de France in 1967. The taint of drug use remained on the Olympics, with allegations made about athletes from the Soviet Union getting unfair advantage, even if the most celebrated cases involved athletes from Canada and the US.

Anabolic steroids—the drug of choice since they were first used in the 1930s—have become more sophisticated since and efforts are consistently on to make them so sophisticated as to be undetectable during tests.

Although most major sports bodies have signed up with Wada, there are legitimate fears that dope use is so widespread that stopping it is pointless. The argument here is to allow everyone to use what they want so as to create a level playing field of another kind.

But the issue is not just about fair play; it is about health, and ultimately about the very point of sport itself. There is no pride in human endeavour or endurance if it is artificially enhanced or manipulated.

The dangers are many—anabolic steroids can cause cardiovascular and mental health problems. Ephedra alkaloids are known to cause hypertension, tachycardia, stroke, seizures and death. The peptide hormones, or so-called “sports-designer drugs", are thought to be the most dangerous of all.

Research indicates that doping among sportspersons is on the increase. There is a strong feeling also that while much has been spent on the technology to catch those who are guilty or responsible, it is time to spend corresponding amounts on educating young and vulnerable sportspersons, their families and coaches on the dangers of the doping path.

Beyond finding and fixing the guilty in the current controversy, this is the area in which Indian sports administrators need to work the hardest.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

Write to Ayaz at beyondboundaries@livemint.com