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Doping In India: Lure Of The Short Cut

Money and jobs is at the root of Indian athletes’ temptation to dope. Testing athletes and educating them are the only way the scourge can be controlled, if not eliminated.

S Dhanalakshmi returned positive for a banned steroid in a dope test conducted abroad by the Athletics Integrity Unit.
S Dhanalakshmi returned positive for a banned steroid in a dope test conducted abroad by the Athletics Integrity Unit. Photo: AFI

The countdown to India’s preparation for multi-discipline sports events, like the upcoming Commonwealth Games, has had one commonality over the years. A few athletes getting caught in the dope net and dropped from the contingent at the last minute. (More Sports News)

With barely two days to go for the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, sprinter S Dhanalakshmi and triple jumper Aishwarya Babu have tested positive. Two more athletes, as yet unnamed, have also failed tests.

These are just ones that got caught, and have received mileage since they came to light on the eve of a major international event. A majority of doping offences in India fly under the radar of the media and fans as most of them are committed during domestic meets. In 2015, for example, 21 weightlifters were provisionally suspended by the National Weightlifting Federation after they tested positive for banned substances. The rot runs so deep that syringes lying in the washrooms during even school and university events are a common sight in the country.

Sudden improvement, a red flag

According to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), India had the third highest number of dope offenders in 2019, moving up from fourth spot a year earlier. Most of the positive dope cases were registered in athletics and weightlifting, two sports where enhanced physical abilities make a difference to performance.

Coaches and officials, therefore, are not always thrilled when an Indian athlete shows sudden improvement. Because it could mean doping.

“Every time an athlete comes up with an exceptional performance out of the blue, and ahead of a team selection meet, the chances of that athlete testing positive is high,” says an official on condition of anonymity.

The two latest cases corroborate his point. S Dhanalakshmi became an overnight sensation when she defeated Dutee Chand in the 100m at the 2021 Federation Cup. In the process, she broke PT Usha’s 23-year-old meet record in the process.

Aishwarya Babu had also suddenly improved her performance in the last six months. Coaches were understandably suspicious.

Desperation for jobs, money

Why do so many Indian athletes dope?

A major reason is the athlete wanting to register a big performance on the basis of which they can jobs or incentives. 

“Desperation to come up with a performance that can get them into the Indian team, so that they can get a job, or earn money through felicitations, is the primary reason behind many athletes opting to take performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs),” says the official quoted above.

The increasing number of privately sponsored, prize-money marathons and cross country runs in India also are a source of doping temptation for athletes. In fact, there is a trend of some runners only participating in such events and skipping state and national meets. There is rarely any stringent dope testing at private competitions, giving athletes a free run at a pot of gold.

Corrupt coaches is also one of the reasons. The Maharashtra Athletics Association recently banned coach Micky Menezes after it was proved during an Anti-Doping Appeal Panel hearing that he was responsible for giving an athlete injections that contained a banned substance.

What is the solution?

Ahead of most major international sports events, the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) tests all Indian participants and weeds out offenders. Though this has saved the country the ignominy of Indian athletes getting caught on an international stage, the initiative has not addressed the problem as a whole.

According to NADA Director General Ritu Sain, frequent testing of athletes and educating them can help.

“We have to work on a two-pronged strategy of testing as many athletes as we can and educating athletes,” she says. “We are trying to make these awareness sessions interactive. We have also launched an ‘I for Integrity’ campaign to make athletes feel responsible.” 

It would be naïve to believe doping in India can be eradicated. Sportspersons and coaches will continue to look for shortcuts to improve performance. But strict action and awareness programs can at least reduce the cases.

In fact, Athletics Federation of India (AFI) president Adille Sumariwala had been advocating for a legislation that would make doping by sportspersons and any assistance provided to them by their coaches and support staff a criminal offence.

However, the Anti-Doping Bill tabled by Sports Minister Anurag Thakur in the parliament in December last year refrained from taking such a stringent stand. Instead, the bill, which Thakur called a ‘preventive legislation’, gives NADA the authority to conduct raids to determine any anti-doping violation in accordance with the provisions of the Code of Criminal procedures 1973. The Bill has now been sent to the Standing Committee for deliberation.

(Abhijeet Kulkarni is a senior journalist who has covered Olympic sports for almost two decades. He has also worked with grassroots sports organisations.)

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