It’s now a contest between chemicals. Indian athletes use the dope trick, but get caught

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By Rohini Mohan

Dark tidings Dope scandals have clouded India’s CWG preparations
Dark tidings Dope scandals have clouded India’s CWG preparations

A NERVOUS SILENCE hangs heavy over the sprawling sports campus in Patiala in Punjab. Clerks of all ranks in the main office of the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports (NIS) look shifty when asked for directions to the boxing hall. “No one is practising there,” insists Prem Sharma, the NIS coordinator, sitting in the crumbling Moti Bagh palace that is now a Sports Authority of India (SAI) office. In Asia’s biggest sports facility, where the entire Indian weightlifting, boxing, wrestling and a large section of the athletics contingent trains for the Commonwealth Games, Sharma performs the role of the man who talks to the media, but says nothing. In the past two months, he has successfully not talked about two major events: the surprise visits from anti-doping agencies, and the coincidental disappearance of some athletes.

About 300 metres from Sharma’s office, exactly like he didn’t say, boxers are in training. Three boys slam their red gloves into heavy bags, while four others punch the air. Akhil Kumar, gold medallist in the 2006 Commonwealth Games and this year’s hopeful, sits in the corner. In a ring in the centre of the air-conditioned hall, two boxers spar while a middle-aged coach screams at them in Hispanic-accented Hindi, “Kya kar raha hai?!” (What are you doing?!)

BI Fernandez has been coaching the Indian boxing team since 1990, when he was selected from a coaching workshop in Cuba. Today, Fernandez is training the 10-member contingent for the CWG.

On the evening of 10 September, after a strenuous practice session, Fernandez received unannounced guests. “They were two Australians — testers from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA),” he says. For three hours that day, urine samples were collected from eight of Fernandez’s 10 boxers, “which is not very random”. According to procedure, the urine was taken at the same time in two samples — A and B. The A sample is tested first. If the result is positive for banned drugs, the athlete can appeal for a retest with the B sample. The test result of the B sample is deemed final.

THIS IS the second such surprise the WADA has sprung on Patiala in the past two months. In the first one in August, a WADA official says several athletes simply disappeared or fled citing family emergencies. The national anti-doping agency (NADA) also attempted to conduct tests last month but their arrival was not as surprising as they had hoped. Twenty-one players were missing. This time, the WADA team has stayed put in Patiala, creating a sense of panic in the sports campus.

India already carries the disreputable legacy of having the most sportspersons fail dope tests in the international arena. Medals have been stripped off, careers have ended, and the country shamed. Yet more drugs are being taken.

It is puzzling how sportspersons training at different venues tested positive for the same stimulant

In the past eight months, as many as 103 Indian sportspersons, including juniors, have failed dope tests. With just days left for the Commonwealth Games, six wrestlers, three swimmers, one shot-putter, one discus thrower and one netball player in the Indian contingent have tested positive. All pleaded ignorance.

Every one of the 12 tainted athletes from the CWG contingent have tested positive for methylhexanamine, a decongestant. Since the results were announced, stunned coaches and athletes explained that since the drug was added in the WADA Prohibited Substances List only in January this year, they were not aware it was banned.

Sports medicine circles are puzzling over how sportspersons training at different venues could be testing positive for the same stimulant. The wrestlers were in Patiala and Sonepat and one of the athletes was in Delhi. The three swimmers who tested positive were in Pune, Bengaluru and Delhi.

“Different sports require different strengths, and therefore different stimulants. Why were they all using the same one?” asks Dr PSM Chandran, chief medical officer of SAI. In their submissions to the disciplinary panel, most athletes have said that they may have ingested methylhexanamine through some regular medicine, nasal drops, cooking oil or through diet supplements that have to usually be approved by SAI. The athletes seem to claim that SAI too, has overlooked the ban on methylhexanamine.

NADA Director General Rahul Bhatnagar does not buy this. “Every athlete is handed a booklet with the updated banned list in the camps. They had eight months to clean up. Ignorance is a silly excuse.” Bengaluru-based national swimming champion and now coach Nisha Millet too thinks sportspersons must stop crying innocence. “Nobody believes you,” she says. “Anyway, there’s no point arguing after you’re thrown out of a tournament because you didn’t care to check what you ate.”

Millet remembers talking to her friend Aparna Popat when the badminton player was serving a six-month ban for testing positive for a banned chemical that turned out to be an ingredient in D’Cold Total. “She put the fear of God in me,” says Millet. “Before I ate, drank and applied anything on my body, I first checked online or asked a doctor: what’s in this?” The onus, she believes, is on the athlete. “After all, it’s rarely the coach’s career that ends.”

Genuine lack of awareness does not explain repeat offenders too. Senior weightlifter Sanamacha Chanu, who recently tested positive for methylhexanamine, accuses the Indian Weightlifting Federation of not creating awareness about the drug. “I can’t even spell it properly,” she says. But Chanu has already served a two-year ban for failing a dope test at the 2004 Athens Olympics. She was stripped of fourth place when she tested positive for furosemide, used as a masking agent for other drugs. Making several contradictory statements, Chanu first said, “Someone has mixed something in my tea or coffee.” She then went on to openly blame her then Belarusian coach.

Swimmer Nisha Millet admits that less educated players from poor families, often dependent solely on their coaches for training and diet information, fall prey more easily to using performance enhancing drugs. When she was 15, and attending a training camp in Bengaluru, Millet says a coach advised all the girls at camp to have a spoon of sodium bicarbonate every day. “Simply dissolve it in water and drink it straight,” he apparently said. “When I told my dad this on phone one night, he screamed! It was baking soda, meant to reduce lactic acid in the body.” For a long time, lactic acid was widely believed to impair performance by making muscles tired. Recent studies have shown this to be false. “Lots of girls who took the coach’s advice felt gassy, fell sick, and threw up every day.”

Oral inhalers used by asthma patients are also widely misused by Indian swimmers. The albuterol in the inhaled medicine has properties that enlarge your lungs. Millet says, “Few really need it, but many swimmers use the inhaler so that they have to come up fewer times for air. It reduces their lap time.”

Although it is banned, many wrestlers and boxers use diuretics to quickly lose weight. Commonly called the water pill, this drug induces a rapid loss of fluid from the body. The more water you lose, the less you weigh. “The less you weigh,” says boxing coach Fernandez, “the better you fit in the weight category.” The fallout, however, is that the athlete tires more easily. In the long term, it could also affect one’s kidneys. “When a boxer needs to lose one or two kilos, and training is not helping, they just pop the water pill,” Fernandez says. “No coach can watch a player 24×7.”

Doping in Indian sport is often unscientific and misguided, a sort of trial-and-error that is self-prescribed

BANNED BETA blockers are sometimes used by shooters and archers to reduce their heart rate. “That way your hand remains steadier,” says shooter Samresh ‘Goldfinger’ Jung. He explains that when athletes in the US and Europe were found using it in the 1990s, WADA included the drug in its prohibited list. Beta blockers are often taken immediately before a match because they work their magic only for a few hours. However, traces of the chemical remain in the blood for 72 hours. In international sports events, medal winners are dope-tested within 24 hours. “For national selections, they have a free hand and use beta blockers but once they go abroad, they stay off the drug,” says Jung. “This sometimes explains why a national- level high performer does dismally on an international platform.”

The nature of doping in Indian sport is, in a sense, plebeian. While sportsmen around the world sharpen the mechanics of drug cheating, Indian athletes follow a crude science. It seems to be a series of self-prescribed trial-and-error that thrives on the abuse of regular over-the-counter drugs, misguided peer advice, and complete disregard for long-term health. If 103 national level players have failed drug tests today, Dr Chandran says, “It does not mean that only 103 people have used banned drugs. It means that only 103 have been caught.” He admits that in the business of record-breaking and short athletic careers, ethics and fair play become “just mild irritants”. In the desperation for medals, but not corresponding quality of infrastructure and facilities, short-cut routes are tempting.

“The only thing that can reduce doping,” says Dr Chandran, “is the fear of getting caught.” The monitoring, then, must become more stringent. China started to conduct surprise dope tests on its athletes eight years before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, forcing athletes to reduce drug intake before the games.

In the Tour de France, the biggest global cycling event, dope monitors reported in June 2010 that although drug cheating still occurs, the stringent penalties and regular tests have reduced the drug intake. Cyclists have come up with newer methods like blood transfusion, but this increases their stamina by two percent, as opposed to the eight percent in chemical doping.

The Indian sports fraternity still lets dope cheats slip through the cracks. NADA’s recent spate of tests seems to have started only two months ago. Samresh Jung says that most dope testing occurs before a team goes abroad. “That is at least a week before the final event,” says Jung. “It’s completely useless, because no one takes drug stimulants that early!” Ramesh Kumar, a bronze medallist in the World Wrestling Championship, admits that since 1997, he has never had to give a urine test for nationals.

Even if the testers do arrive at the right time, the common solution, it seems, is “to run away”, says boxer Akhil Kumar, who was tested three times in the past two months. “If you try to escape a dope test, WADA will straightaway declare you positive and ban you for life.” This rule though, is widely ignored when the tests are done in India. Dayachand, a dope testing official in the Athletics Federation of India, admits that when an athlete absconds, another one is picked up. “We cannot search for everyone who disappears,” he says.

In India, drug abuse in sport took root in the 1970s. In that period, former sprinter and Arjuna Awardee Ashwini Nachappa says, India began to hire coaches from countries that have a history of systematic doping. Young weightlifters training in Patiala admit that some foreign coaches are not averse to casually suggesting a stimulant or muscle-building steroid.

“This conversation is usually had when we’re in the gym, when it’s usually one-to one-training,” says a senior female weightlifter. “It’s always with the knowledge of the federations,” says Nachappa. At the moment, a group of 400m women runners has been sent to Ukraine, another country with a doping past, for training till the end of September.

The IWF just paid a $50,000 fine to avoid a life ban. Now again, weightlifter Chanu has failed a dope test

Karnam Malleswari, a weightlifter for about 20 years, and now vice-president of the Indian Weightlifting Federation, admits that it is her sport that is most mired in doping controversies. “It is true that Indian weightlifters have made it a habit to take stimulants and steroids,” she says. Six Indian weightlifters were banned for drug cheating in September 2009, and the IWF faced an international ban for the third time. To escape the life ban, the federation had to pay a fine of $50,000 to WADA in January this year and conduct anti-doping classes for its weightlifters and officials.

“We had to root out the attitude problem at the IWF, which was to be lenient on dopers, because they thought that was the only way we could win medals,” says Malleswari. Going by Sanamacha Chanu’s positive dope test again this month, not much seems to have changed. “I don’t even know the name of the drug she has tested positive for,” she adds.

Passing the buck The 2010 Commonwealth Games has generated more controversies than sporting news
Passing the buck The 2010 Commonwealth Games has generated more controversies than sporting news

IN SWIMMING, where India has had a relatively clean international record, three big names tested positive before the Commonwealth Games. All three are from the CRPF team. “It is common knowledge among sportspersons that in intra-police meets, it’s a free-for-all. Used syringes can be found everywhere,” says a former swimmer on condition of anonymity.

“We always tell them to not get caught taking drugs before games,” says Virendra Nanavati, general secretary of the Swimming Federation of India. “So it is shocking to see seniors like Richa Mishra testing positive.” Some of Mishra’s peers, however, do not find her dope test results surprising. “At the National Games in Hyderabad around 2003, Richa was a star,” says Nisha Millet. “But when the dope testers came, she had run away. She did have something to hide.” Richa’s father and one-time coach, Prasanna Kumar Mishra, refused to let TEHELKA meet his daughter. When asked about the earlier charges of doping, Mishra said, “Richa has had a good career for so many years. If the allegations come now, nothing will be ruined.”

Mishra may claim no cause for worry, but back in the locker rooms at Patiala, there is much nail biting and breath-holding among the athletes. The tension, however, is not about their performance at the upcoming CWG, but about the results of the dope test. As Dr Chandran puts it, “Sports is no more a race between human capacities, but a race between chemicals.”

With inputs from Thufail PT and Samrat Chakrabarti

Photo: AFP, Indian Express Archive, Getty Images, Reuters


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