Murky World of Doping


DopingThe 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi were a great high for India, where it scored a century of medals and finished second behind Australia on the medal tally. Indian athletics team did particularly well where they won 12 medals including two golds. The most incredible memory was of Indian women’s 4X400 relay team winning gold. The same golden run was repeated later at 2010 Asian Games.

But in July 2011, earth shook for these golden girls. Six athletes of Indian 4X400 relay team tested positive for doping. Ashwini Akkunji, Priyanka Panwar, Tiana Mary Thomas, Jauna Murmu, Sini Jose and Mandeep Kaur tested positive for anabolic steroids. All of them claimed innocence claiming they had consumed ginseng tablets, a permitted substance, which the coach Yuri Ogorodnik – who was sacked after the controversy  erupted – had purchased from China because the official supplements at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala were finished.

Unfortunately, these tablets were contaminated and according to the strict WADA rules, the liability lies on the athlete if any banned substance is foundinside their body.

If the system was working properly, this national doping shame could have been averted. Action should have been taken against those NIS officials who did not sourced new supplements after the stock was over in late 2010. Don Catlin, founder of UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory told Wall Street Journal in 2012 that steriods found in Indian athletes “are old-time doping agents. You don’t see them in the U.S. Anymore.” If the athletes would have been educated about doping issues, they would have cared more about the label and the authentic brand  of supplements.

Indian weightlifting team has been infamous for being banned twice by the world governing body because of continuous flow of dopers in Indian side.  Just days before the 2010 CWG games commenced, four Indian wrestling team probables were dropped from the team after they tested positive for the stimulant Methylhexaneamine. In 2011, National anti-doping agency tested 51 kabbadi players for the world cup team selection, 19 out of them tested positive. It has been noticed multiple times that Indian  athletes were not able to give their best at the international events. Indian sports Legend Milkha Singh famously said that Indian athletes dope in domestic events and when they go to international events,  due to the fear of being tested, they compete clean and perform poorly.

Doping has historically been rampant in nations which are either isolated and want to show the world their strength or which are developing or poor. Countries like East Germany till 1990, Russia, North Korea fit the first scenario and countries like India, Kenya and other African nations where the awareness about doping is extremely poor and the incentive of few wins or medals can make an athlete’s life.

I remember last month seating in Indira Gandhi Velodrome in Delhi, a 16 year old cyclist confiding in me about one of his team-mates, who is even younger, injecting doping substances with the help of team coach before a race and winning a medal in recently concluded national school games in Ranchi. Doped winners are rewarded and clean losers are left to sulk. Rahul Bhatnagar, director of the National Anti-Doping Agency, told Wall Street Journal in 2012that there is horrific amount of doping in Indian athletes. He claimed nearly 15 per cent of the 60 athletes tested at the national  school games – in which children ages 12 to 18 compete- returned positive results for banned substances. The incentive is huge, a win at these  games might provide you admission at a prestigious college. At the senior level, win or medals might provide you government jobs. We need all these things to encourage sports but we must ensure all our youngsters are clean and play in a level playing field.

In the list of banned athletes published in Jan 2015 by the IAAF, Russia – which is a global giant in athletics – tops the list with 68 athletes banned and  India – which rarely sees its athletes in finals on world level – is second with 36. Even  after such ridiculously high number ofdoping violations in Indian athletics, IAAF is constrained by finances and has only two Indian athletes – Tintu Luka and Arpinder Singh – under its  Registered Testing Pool (RTP) system – where athletes have to submit their whereabouts information for doping test purposes.

Clearly the image of India about the doping issues has improved in last few years but there is a long way to go and the efforts of Indian sports administration are still lacking, there  is huge requirement of educating our athletes and coaches about doping issues.

NEW WADA CODE (In effect from 01 Jan 2015)
  • Punishment for first time doping offence has been increased to up to four years from two years.
  • Athletes need to inform in advance their schedule so that testers can come any time for an out of competition test. Three whereabout failures in 12 months will result in a doping positive. Earlier it was 18 months.
  • Athletes are prohibited from associating with coaches, team personnel who have been sanctioned for doping violation.
  • The Samples will now be stored for future testing purposes for 10 years instead of earlier provision of 8 years.
  • The STATUTE of LIMITATIONS for anti-doping rule violations has increased from 8 years to 10 years.

A Global Phenomenon

On 8th July 1998, Willy Voet, a Belgian soigneur (team assistant) in his early fifties working for a French professional cycling team named Festina, was travelling from Belgium to France. On the Belgium-France border, his fate failed him. In over 30 years of driving, it was the first time he was stopped. Custom officials discovered several hundred grams and capsules of anabolic steroids, Erythropoietin (EPO), syringes and other doping products from his car. He is immediately taken into police custody and within few hours his allegations of systematic doping in cycling teams were reported in the media. Three days later, Festina team, which was the top team in the world at that time, started the Tour de France and distanced itself from Voet. Police alleged systematic doping in the Festina team and arrested its manager and doctor.

Cycling was not new to this menace of doping. During a Tour de France stage in 1967, British cyclist Tom Simpson died of heart failure. Doctors said he died because of dehydration and heat exhaustion and amphetamine abuse contributed to his death. In 1980s and early 90s, many cyclists died mysteriously during their sleep. During this period, drugs such as EPO came in market which increased the number of red blood cells which transports oxygen in the body and was not detectable in drug tests. Cycling always faced doping suspicion but Festina scandal was an eye opener and stunned the world over the extent of doping in the sport.

Although nearly all the sports face doping problem, but few sports like cycling, athletics, weightlifting and boxing are at greater risk. Doping positives ranging from Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson to American runner Marion Jones, Kenyan marathon runner Rita Jeptoo, American sprinter Tison Gay and Jamaican sprinters Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson are example of doping in athletics.

This led to the genesis of WADA – World Anti-Doping Agency – in November 1999. Wada which receives equal contribution from International Olympic
Committee and governments all over the world.