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Why some Indian athletes can’t resist doping

As 22 junior rowers test positive for banned performance enhancing drugs, we ask why so many athletes risk their careers and lives for a podium-finish

On 22 June, The Times of India reported that 22 national-level rowing athletes had tested positive for using a banned performance enhancing drug in an international tournament last year. The rowers, all between 16 to 18 years of age, had represented the country at the Asian Junior Rowing Championship in Thailand in December 2019 and won two silver medals.

The Rowing Federation of India (RFI) has defended its athletes. All the players have tested positive for the same drug – probenecid. The drug could thus have been present either in a supplement approved by the Sports Authority of India or a batch that they had used was spiked with it, the RFI secretary general MV Sriram told the news agency AFP.

Either way, it is a huge blow for rowing in India. The sport already suffers from a lack of interest, low governmental assistance and inadequate infrastructure. It also adds to India’s woes in controlling rampant doping among its athletes. A 2019 report by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) ranked India 7th in the world when it came to doping violations.

“Doping is present at all levels: from inter-university level to international," says Piyush Jain, secretary of Physical Education Foundation of India (PEFI), a non-profit that works in training, policy-making and promotion of sports in India. “But there are very few examples of doping occurring at such young age. If it was done intentionally, it is a very worrying development."

The main problem, says Jain, is the premium placed on a podium-finish in India, which runs contrary to the Olympics spirit: ‘It’s not winning but taking part that counts’. “Winning brings with it several opportunities in India: from financial rewards to a government job. It sends a message to the younger generation that one must win at all costs, even if it means having to dope," he says.

But doping comes at a cost. “I was once speaking to an athlete in Haryana," recalls Jain. “She told me, when I doped and won, I got a job after. But now I can’t be pregnant [due to the side-effects of the drug she’d used]. What do I do of a medal now? But when a player is at their prime, she won’t care too much about it."

187 athletes in India tested positive for doping in 2019, more than double the number in 2018. Last December, the minister of state (independent charge) of the ministry of youth affairs and sports Kiren Rijiju said the rising numbers of doping scandals in India were “very disturbing". In many instances, he admitted, coaches and doctors were to blame as they guided the athletes wrong.

Sports psychologist Shree Advani, who has coached several athletes, including his brother and billiards world champion Pankaj Advani, agrees with this view. “An athlete can only rise up to the level of the coaches’ belief in them. But often, coaches see them as a way to gain more success, even if it’s done through unethical means," he says.

The guru-shishya culture in India too contributes to the athlete putting his faith in their coach, he adds. “The athletes often trust their guru as much as their parents. So they would be willing to consume the banned substances when the guru suggests it."

While there’s an outside chance that the players and coaches had unintentionally use banned substances, it can’t be used as an excuse anymore, adds Advani. “While we haven’t created a holistic ecosystem of having specialised experts for the overall development of athletes, it’s not because we lack such experts or resources in the country. And at some point, someone has to take responsibility. Otherwise, it’s only the athletes paying the price and losing out on their careers," he says.

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