Rich Rewards and ‘Easy’ Escape? Doping Cloud Returns To Haunt India Athletics
As many as five Indians have failed dope tests ahead of the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
Performance is high on the agenda for most human beings. It is an element of accentuated significance for athletes, who seek to live on the edge of excellence. No wonder that ordinary human beings tend to worship the elite few that find the edge and dance on it.
The concoction is hard to resist. Instant recognition, immense wealth and a degree of post-career security motivate athletes to find their best. But often, their best isn’t nearly enough to challenge for honours.
Enter, the complicated science of performance enhancement drugs.
There are four broad categories of performance enhancing drugs – steroids, erythropoietin, human growth hormone, and stimulants.
Anabolic steroids help build muscle, increase speed, and aid recovery. Androstenedione can be used as a source of testosterone, as the body converts the hormone to produce testosterone. HGH is known to increase muscle mass and performance.
Epoetin has been known to be used by those seeking endurance, such as cyclists. Diuretics tend to trigger urination, thus reducing body weight or escape a drug test. Stimulants are used to moderate blood pressure and heart rate by moderating the central nervous system. Needless to say, many of these substances have serious side effects, including persistent diseases or even death.
Move Investing in Sport, More Finding Loopholes
Sports is no longer just an honourable quest for perfection, it is a profession, with a winner takes all approach. Mere participation guarantees nothing beyond a wounded body and a disappointed mind. At least that is the modern construct for professional sport. Winning is everything, or at least that is the majority perspective.
Individuals and organisations have been working overtime to produce masking agents that render doping tests irrelevant or ineffective. The prospect of a rich reward and an easy escape are too hard to resist for young athletes desiring to carve their names into the annals of sport. Pharmaceutical giants have dedicated teams delivering complex compounds, some of them out of reach for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), to enable athletes push the limits of human potential.
Despite attendant risks to health, many athletes and their support teams are happy to hunt for substances that help their bodies produce protein, often quickly. Protein can help grow larger muscles and increase power. Strength and stamina are also part of the reason for ingesting banned substances.
India's Continued Struggle With Doping
The long list of offenders continues to grow in India too. Sekar Dhanalakshmi and Aishwarya Babu were the latest additions in the lead up to the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Even though details are yet to emerge, another sprinter from women’s 4x100m relay team is also believed to have tested positive for a banned substance.
According to a December 2021 report by WADA, the global doping watchdog, India was ranked third on the list of worst offenders.
With 152 anti-doping rule violations in 2019, India is barely trailing Russia (167) and Italy (157). We are catching up fast. In 2018, India had 107 offenders, compared to 144 by the Russians.
India's National Dope Testing Laboratory, in fact, lost its accreditation in August 2019. Eventually, NDTL regained its status only in December 2021. It is the clearest indicator of the gaps that persist both in practice as well as in the pursuit of offenders.
In a clearly worsening trend, India has been a consistent top ten offender since 2013. Over the years, a long list of named offenders spilt over from weightlifting, swimming, discus throw, javelin throw, and wrestling. Russia suffered the ignominy of being unable to field its national team at the Tokyo Olympics, after failing to comply with anti-doping regulations.
But, Why Dope?
There could be many factors influencing the slide for Indian athletes. Over the past two decades, governments at the state and national level have started to shower lucrative rewards for winning medals in internationally significant events. Athletes are also offered jobs in the public sector for successful performances at the nationals or in multilateral events abroad.
Our dalliances with foreign coaches could also be a factor. Some of them could be from regions where PEDs are considered a sophisticated intervention for success in sport. In January, the Sports Authority of India appointed six foreign coaches to support the Indian team’s preparations for the Paris Olympics in 2024.
It would be childish to assume that foreign coaches are solely to blame. As Pullela Gopichand suggested many times in the past, a healthy combination of Indian and foreign coaches is essential to nurture India’s growing aspirations in sport. Also, it is rarely the case that foreign coaches are necessarily reliant on doping for results. In these situations, cultural differences and communication gaps could play an equally important role.
Some observers have demanded increased testing to ensure offenders are caught. It could be even more important to introduce early awareness interventions for both athletes and coaches to prevent the shame and distress associated with cheating.
Athletes and their support teams need to learn of the health risks associated with doping on the one hand and the emotional price of carrying the stigma of being caught on their sleeves through the rest of their careers. Sport might also be served well if confirmed offenders have their career wiped away from the record books in its entirety, and not just for the period of their punishment.
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