Doping malaise fuelled by our hunger for success

Only a few months ago, the whole of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium roared in unison as the Indian women’s relay team brought home the the Commonwealth Games gold and made its wat into the hearts of the Indian fans. It was the kind of cheer that is reserved for a handful of cricketers in this country. And we believed Indian sport had come of age.

There is nothing wrong with that, really. But now, much of India is groaning in disappointment, shock and even anger that three of these are among the eight athletes who tested positive for banned substances. Sadly, there is a mad rush to point fingers in all directions but not where it really matters – the system as a whole that seems to encourage winning by hook or by crook.

It is time for the sports community to introspect. For long, as a nation, we have paid lip service to and been callous about a vibrant anti-doping programme. The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports will point out to the setting up of the WADA-accredited National Dope Testing Laboratory and the National Anti Doping Agency to curb the menace of doping. And if it believes that it has done its bit by sacking an overeas coach, it is wrong.

NADA’s work comes across as weak in planning and in implementation. For example, in 2010-11, NADA carried out as many as 2684 tests across all sports and found 122 samples positive. Yet, out of 1483 tests in out-of-competition testing, just 12 tested positive. Out-of-competition testing is the best way to curb the doping menace but the low percentage of positives is an indication that there is something seriously wrong with NADA’s testing programme.

At least one athlete has accused chaperones of taking money to change urine samples collected at the National camps. And until Mandeep Kaur and Jauna Murmu’s samples turned up positive in tests carried out by the sports top body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), Indian sportspersons were suspected to be slippery customers as far as out of competition tests went.

It is not very difficult to understand why athletes feel encouraged to take recourse to short cuts. A champion thrower once asked me – and in all earnestness – if I believed that Indian sportspersons stood a chance of winning at the international level. “Do you know how much time someone from the lower strata of society would take to make Rs 50 lakh?” he asked.

Even as we await the report of the enquiry committee that will be set up, let us take up the one big question: Who is responsible? To be honest, it is the athlete who is responsible for keeping himself or herself clean. Ignorance, illiteracy or even semi-literacy, are all no excuses. Simply stated: if a banned substance is found in an athelte’s urine sample, only he or she is responsible. No elite athlete, however illiterate, can take recourse to ignorance as an excuse.

We must not forget that they alone are responsible for what they ingest or use.  Indeed, in accordance with WADA Code, athletes are responsible for any prohibited substance being found in their bodily specimen. This means that a violation  occurs whether or not the athlete intentionally or  unintentionally, knowingly or unknowingly, used a prohibited substance or was negligent or otherwise at fault.

Yet, if weightlifters and athletes test positive when training in national camps run by the Sports Authority of India at its centres of excellence, how can the National Sports Federations be held responsible? If the coaches are employed by – and paid by – the Sports Authority of India, should the athletes and officials of National Federations alone be accountable?

It can be argued that the Sports Authority of India has played the role of the silent conspirator in the doping programme for some of our elite athletes. It can also be argued that those who fund the training of these athletes – and therefore fund the intake of supplements – are also responsible for not delivering the right products to them.

And, the net widens to include us. Indeed, it is a social problem but until all of India collectively admits that it is not a sports-conscious nation, it really should not expect its athletes to conquer the Asian firmament. Once the pressure on the sports fraternity – athlete, coaches, sports officials and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport is reduced – the pressure may come down. Alternatively, our society, including India Inc, must awaken and ensure that our elite sportspersons do not have to find it hard to follow their dreams.

It is a pity that the popular media – and the nation – wake up to the looming menace of doping only when it has got along shame. There is a need for the media to be vigilant at all times so that our athletes – elite and casual alike – tread carefully when it comes to finding ways to enhance performance..

It can only be hoped that the current spate of positive results from track and field will spur the nation – its policy makers, athletes, sports officials, media and fans – into asking itself the question: Do we really need medals at any cost? Are we so desperate that we are ready to put the health of young athletes at stake?

If we answer these questions honestly, we will able to cherish hard-earned victories for a long time rather than cast our minds back to wonderful times and wonder if those were the result of smart short cuts adopted by the system, with the athelete at the centre of the universe. And only then will the cheers echo as such.