A top podium finish in doping

Coaches or senior athletes, aware of the perilous situation youth from poor background face, coax them into consuming supplements in the pretext of health drinks. A lot of them aren’t educated enough to decipher the ingredients of a supplement and blindly take them.
Last Updated : 13 April 2024, 13:23 IST
Last Updated : 13 April 2024, 13:23 IST

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Bengaluru: This year Indian sports received two dubious honours that have the potential to cause long-term damage if not addressed at the earliest by the authorities concerned. First came the findings of ‘Operation Refuge’, a broad analysis and examination of doping amongst minors in sport by the World Anti-Doping Agency. India, where sport has grown immensely since the start of the millennium reflected in the country breaking the 100-medal barrier at last year's Hangzhou Asian Games for the first time -- was ranked second after Russia in a 10-year global study of doping amongst minors (under the age of 18). The report sent shivers down the spines of sports administrators both at the national and international level. 

“The data, conclusions and stories in the ‘Operation Refuge’ report should reverberate loudly for us all throughout the sporting world,” said WADA president Witold Banka after making public the report in January. “My hope is that the findings, and more importantly the first-hand accounts from minors and their support networks, will create a strong sense of urgency within the anti-doping community regarding the ways we can better protect youths who find themselves in these types of situations in the future,” the Pole added, deeply concerned about how easily youth are being targeted by coaches, and in some countries probably by the system, to attain gratification the wrong way.

Then came another bombshell report in the first week of April. Among countries which tested more than 2000 samples for the year 2022, India recorded the highest percentage of Adverse Analytical Findings (AAFs). India tested 3865 samples (urine and blood combined) in 2022 and 125 of them returned positive for AAFs, a percentage of 3.2. South Africa returned the next highest percentage of AAFs (2.9 percent from 2033 tested samples). In the report, WADA also said while India was 11th in terms of samples tested, the number of doping violations were higher than major sporting nations like Russia (85), USA (84), Italy (73) and France (72). 

“The two reports are a matter of grave concern and deeply disturbing,” lamented celebrated former long-jumper Anju Bobby George who won India’s first World Championship medal (bronze) in 2003 in Paris, in a chat with DHoS. “What really bothers me a lot is the alarming rise in positive dope cases amongst teenagers. Things are relatively okay at the senior level because athletes are educated about the dos and donts of doping, it’s at the grassroots level that’s a big concern for all of us. I fear India may end up being punished like Russia if the trend continues. Sadly, innocent hard-working athletes will then up paying for the sins of criminals,” added the current Senior Vice-President of the Athletics Federation of India.

There are many reasons why many minors consume prohibited substances. A significant number of Indian athletes, especially in disciplines like athletics, wrestling or boxing, come from extremely modest backgrounds and sports is a way out of poverty. Many, whose families scrounge for one meal a day, just want to use sports to get a government job in sports quota that would secure their lives. Deep inside they know they are not cut for the elite and a medal at state or national championships is all they aspire for as that would get them employment. A job that guarantees food on the table and health benefits for them and family is all they aspire for. For the more privileged kids, success in sports is a way to get educational scholarships either at home or abroad. Their ambitions are to get an engineering, medicine or masters degree.   

Coaches or senior athletes, aware of the perilous situation youth from poor background face, coax them into consuming supplements in the pretext of health drinks. A lot of them aren’t educated enough to decipher the ingredients of a supplement and blindly take them. While some of them are wary, many fall prey because they are told they won’t get caught at the domestic level. They are even told the substances will get flushed out of system by the time competitions start. Gullible kids consume them a couple of months before competitions but then end up on the wrong side of the law as NADA’s checking machinery is so advanced now that it even captures most of the masking agents. Also, unlike a decade ago when NADA collected samples only of major meets, they know are at work even in inter-university or state-level events, giving little room for cheats to escape.    

“There is an unholy nexus between coaches, senior players and sellers of supplements,” said wrestling coach  Kuldeep Singh. “Sellers entice coaches by offering their products, mostly assembled in India with barely any regulations in place, that their substances will get flushed out in 15-20 days. But it all depends from one person to another person. A substance which gets flushed out in 20 days for one athlete may take 45 days in another. Supplements are a vital part of an athlete’s growth and given how badly nourished a majority of the minor athletes are, it’s really really important for them.

“Problem though is the cost. The completely imported ones which pass through a lot of checks are expensive and totally out of bounds for most athletes. Then there are ones which are either assembled in India or completely made in India. They are much cheaper than the imported ones but then most of them are adulterated. To draw an analogy, there’s the expensive Scotch whisky, Indian made foreign liquor and then arrack! You know which causes the most harm.”

Anju felt unless the Government of India enforces strong punitive measures on errant coaches and support staff as well as sellers of adulterated supplements, doping will continue to thrive in the country which could sabotage the reputation of clean athletes and the image of India. “In many western countries if a coach or support staff member is found guilty of orchestrating doping in a minor, that person is jailed and their coaching licences are cancelled for life. Kids’ lives are extremely precious and no-one should mess with them. Sadly, in India there is still no strong law to punish those found guilty of orchestrating doping.

“If a minor is found to have consumed a prohibited substance, then a thorough investigation has to be done. Whoever is found guilty must be handed out a severe punishment. If it’s a coach or support staff member, then their licences must be cancelled for life and they should never be allowed near a kid again. Also, companies which sell adulterated supplements have to be punished severely so that another company doesn’t do the same. Doping has to be criminalised and people responsible for it must be treated like criminals. Doping should be considered as a heinous crime. Only when punishments become extremely severe, can we hope to eliminate it.”

Former NADA Director-General Navin Agarwal, while hailing the Operation Refuge programme, reckons stronger education at the grassroots level is essential to kill doping that's cancerous now. “All WADA is concerned about is ensuring there’s a level playing field at the international level. It really isn’t concerned as to what happens at the domestic level. The onus to ensure kids at the domestic level don’t fall prey to doping lies with national federations, state associations and district bodies. Micro-management is the way to go but in a country as large and diverse as India, how do you ensure it’s clean at the lowest level. It’s tough. There isn’t much education. Kids in schools and colleges must be educated about doping. It should be a part of their curriculum.”

Fight against doping, just like the battle against drugs in open society, is always an uphill and never-ending battle. But like how consuming narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances for non-medical or non-scientific purposes is a criminal offence in India, doping too should be considered a criminal offence. A start has to be made and pronto. 

Why India ranks highest in Adverse Analytical Findings?

According to Agarwal, one of the reasons why India is ranked highest percentage-wise in the AAFs is because unlike western countries that have a two-tier system – one for international athletes and another for domestic – India just has one system. Western nations like the US and others feed only the sample collection results of international athletes into ADAMS (Anti-Doping Administration and Management System) of WADA while the vast majority of the samples collection results of domestic athletes are maintained by their own databases. On the other hand, India feeds the data of both international and domestic athletes into ADAMS. Agarwal reckons India, with a rise in international athletes and domestic competitions, too needs a two-tier system.

Published 13 April 2024, 13:23 IST

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