It takes some effort to dislodge Mahendra Singh Dhoni and company from the top of the sports pages of the dailies or from prime time shows on news TV channels. Over the past week, eight track and field athletes, some of whom did the nation proud last year with superb showing in the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, managed that by testing positive for performance enhancing drugs.
It begs the question: Why do elite athletes risk using prohibited substances? In the Indian context, the answer is simple: the lure of cash awards that are offered as incentive for winning medals at the international level is strong. But that would be true if it were only the athlete is responsible. In a nation starving for success in the sporting arena, it is our hunger that drives athletes and those guiding them to seek shortcut methods. From the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports to the National Sports Federations to the coaches and trainers, everyone wants good results from the elite athletes.
Let us address some more basic questions on doping.
When their samples turn up adverse analytical findings, can athletes claim ignorance about how the prohibited substance entered their system? Not really. For, athletes are expected to be aware of what gets ingested into their system and they alone are responsible for everything that shows up in their samples. Even if coaches and trainers advocate the use of supplements, athletes become solely responsible for consuming them. There has been some talk in the corridors of power about how semi-literate or illiterate athletes cannot be blamed if they do not know what is being prescribed to them. Modern elite athletes have learnt to even ask their family physicians if some medicine they prescribe contains any prohibited substances.
Who decides on the list of prohibited substances and methods? The World Anti Doping Agency publishes a list on October 1 each year for the following calendar year. The list is drawn up by a panel of experts. The list identifies substances and methods prohibited in-competition, out-of-competition and in particular sports. The substances are classified by categories like anabolic steroids – both those that are ordinarily capable of being produced by the human body and those that are not – stimulants and masking agents. Of course, athletes can apply for Therapeutic Use Exemption for medical reasons.
Who carries out the anti-doping tests? The samples of two athletes – Manjeet Kaur and Juana Murmu – turned up positive in tests conducted by the sport’s world body, International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF). The six others who returned adverse analytical findings were among those tested by the National Anti Doping Agency (NADA) at the request of the Athletics Federation of India.
These tests will be frowned upon by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) as it abhors pre-competition testing that would ensure that only ‘clean athletes’ are sent for competition and they do not test positive in competition. These tests could be interpreted as NADA’s compliance with what is possibly a systematic doping programme followed in National camps.
Can dietary supplements used by athletes lead to them testing positive for prohibited substances? WADA says dietary supplements are a matter of concern because in many countries the manufacturing and labeling of supplements may not follow strict rules, leading to a supplement containing an undeclared substance that is prohibited under anti-doping regulations. Taking a poorly labeled dietary supplement is not an adequate defence in a doping hearing.
So, what is in store for the athletes who tested positive recently? The athletes whose samples return an adverse analytical finding are notified by the Anti Doping Organisation – in this case, the Athletics Federation of India – and are handed provisional suspensions from their sport. They are given the opportunity to ask for the B samples to be tested in their presence or in the presence of their representatives.
Some of these athletes have already had their B samples tested and others are in the process of doing that. If the B sample also throws up an adverse analytical finding, the AFI will proceed with the result management process including the right to a fair hearing within three months. The hearing will then be conducted by a panel constituted by the AFI.
AFI will then determine what sanctions will apply to each individual case. Athletes are given the opportunity to establish a basis for eliminating, or reducing the sanction, or having the sanction partially suspended. Sanctions for violating anti-doping regulations may range from a reprimand to a lifetime ban. The period of ineligibility may vary depending on the type of anti-doping violation, the circumstances of an individual case, the substance, and the possible repetition of an anti-doping violation.
Of course, athletes have the right to appeal any decision regarding a positive test or a sanction imposed following an antidoping rule violation. Athletes must file the appeal before an appeal body within the AFI or the Court for Arbitration in Sport.
What does India need against doping in sport?
The official machinery needs to stop paying lip service to the anti-doping philosophy since most adverse results in sports like weightlifting and athletics have come from National camps that are run by the Sports Authority of India at its centres across the country. There has to be a realisation that doping does not only bring shame but also has adverse effect on the athlete’s health.
Collectively, India needs to ensure that the desire to win international recognition does not include a desire to win by unfair means. And this has to start from the very top of this machinery – from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, the Sports Authority of India, the National Sports Federations and percolate down to the athletes and fans.
Since out-of-competition testing is one of the best ways to curb the menace, NADA has to ensure that its test distribution and testing itself is stricter than its results show then to be. In 2010-11, NADA carried out as many as 2684 tests across all sports and found 122 samples positive. Yet, out of 1483 out-of-competition testing that it carried out, just 12 tested positive. The low percentage of positives is an indication that there is something seriously wrong with NADA’s testing programme. To start with, NADA must ensure that the samples are not replaced.
(This article first appeared in The Economic Times on Sunday, July 10-16, 2011)