The dope menace

Print edition : December 06, 2002

The Sunita Rani episode once again sheds light on the use of performance-enhancing drugs by Indian sportspersons and exposes the cavalier attitude of sports administrators in the country.

Sunita Rani in the women's 1,500-metre final at the 14th Asian Games in Busan, South Korea, which she won. She was stripped of the medal after failing in a dope test.-BOBBY YIP/ REUTERS

THE Asian Games at Busan in South Korea turned out to be eventful for India in more than one way. The performances by Indian sportspersons were remarkable, but the fact that a leading athlete was stripped of her gold and bronze medals after testing positive for a banned drug, nandrolone, drew more attention. Sunita Rani, the middle- and long-distance runner, was the athlete to suffer the ignominy; of 794 tests carried out in the Busan Games, and she was the only one who was `caught'.

Sunita Rani's urine samples, tested after the 1,500 metres and 5,000 metres, showed nandrolone levels well above the limits prescribed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Nandrolone is a `close cousin' of the male hormone testosterone and is a muscle-building substance which also aids recovery, strength and endurance.

However, the beleaguered athlete from Sunam town in Punjab, has found a messiah in the Amateur Athletic Federation of India (AAFI) which, after an independent inquiry, has almost exonerated her. The one-man inquiry commission, headed by Sushil Dutt Salwan, Vice-President of the AAFI, has alleged several discrepancies in the urine tests conducted at the laboratory in Busan. The report of the Salwan Committee states that "it would not be proper at this stage to hold Sunita Rani guilty" and suggests that the AAFI challenge the Busan laboratory test results.

Suresh Kalmadi, AAFI President and Member of Parliament, said that Sunita Rani "has to be vindicated". The issue will be taken up at an International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) meeting to be held in Monaco. Salwan, who is also the convener of the AAFI's legal committee, will argue Sunita's case there.

This inquiry committee was appointed by Kalmadi soon after it was confirmed that Sunita Rani had been stripped of her two medals. Most of the arguments made by the Salwan report revolves around the variation in the levels nandrolone, in the A and B urine samples of the athlete. Interestingly, only abstracts of the report were released to the media while the full report has been kept under wraps.

The IOC permits a level of two nanograms of nandrolone per millilitre of urine for men and five nanograms for non-pregnant women. Nandrolone is known to be produced `naturally' by the body, though in very small quanities. The IOC limits are actually well above the normal levels found in humans. In Sunita Rani's case, the nandrolone levels in the A and B samples were 21 ng/ml and 6 ng/ml respectively. It is this variation that the AAFI is basing its challenges on. However, the report fails to state that despite the variation in the A and B samples, the levels of nandrolone oncentration are still higher than the limits prescribed by the IOC.

In his report, Salwan states that "the reason given for the difference between A and B by the director of the Busan Lab appears far too simplistic" and quotes the Busan Lab director as having stated that the A sample is "just to compare the concentrations between the sample urine and the known concentration of spiked urine whereas the B sample is quantified using a calibration curve." Salwan concludes that the results released by the laboratory for the A sample are actually believed to be an approximate value and is not necessarily accurate and do not indicate the actual concentration of a drug or drug metabolite.

The AAFI report expresses surprise that the results of the A sample, which are known to be approximate values, are reported to the IOC. Salwan labels the procedure followed at the Busan laboratory, which is accredited by the IOC, as "crude". He has even questioned if the B sample had been stored according to requirements. The report also hints at some procedural flaws regarding the dates on the print-outs of the results received from the Doping Control Centre in South Korea.

But most interestingly, the report questions the very basis of the standards set by the IOC regarding nandrolone. It states that insufficient emphasis seems to have been placed on the aspect of "acceptable levels" and that no proper explanation regarding the prescribed levels for males and females has been given. It also argues that nandrolone has not only been found in individuals who have not consumed the drug but has also been found to be present in a wide variety of naturally occurring herbal substances. The report states that the body may naturally create a form of nandrolone if very large quantities of meat is eaten. The report laments that the `strict liability' policy of the International Court of Arbitration for sports holds the athletes responsible for any drug in their system and does not consider the issue of intent.

The report mentions that "some studies report that levels considerably above the stated accepted references have been recorded in perfectly normal individuals." However, it does not provide references about the authors or other details of those studies. Similarly, Salwan takes great pains to explain that there is a worldwide debate on the currently prescribed levels of nandrolone but fails to give it details about this debate.

A redeeming feature of the report is that it acknowledges that doping in Indian sports has to be tackled. At the same time, it places the onus on the athletes, the coaches and the team doctors. The report contains recommendations, some of them directed at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and other federations. Sports bodies have been criticised for not being serious about drug testing and dope control. The report is particularly critical about the non-accreditation of the SAI laboratory.

At a time when a growing number of cases of doping have been reported among Indian sportspersons, the cavalier attitude of the sports administrators in the country has been appalling. That three cases were reported from two successive events, the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, within a span of three months should have caused concern among sports officials, the Union Ministry of Sports and the government as a whole. Instead, what was visible was pathetic attempts by the officialdom to down play the Busan fiasco. The media were accused of giving exaggerated reports and misleading the country.

Several questions arise from the episode. How did Sunita Rani test positive for nandrolone in Busan after she was cleared by the SAI laboratory? Who administered the drug to her and at what stage and for how long? It is evident that the drug must have been in her system for several weeks, or some other drug could have triggered a reaction that led to the nandrolone-positive test result. Sunita Rani has denied taking any drug apart from Liv-52, a liver tonic. The doctor who accompanied the athletics team, Jawahar Jain, has rejected accusations that he had supplied a masking agent to the athlete. Masking agents are used to prevent the detection of banned drugs in urine samples.

In the Commonwealth Games at Manchester, two weightlifters, Krishnan Madasamy and Satheesha Rai, had tested positive for banned drugs after being cleared by the SAI laboratory in Delhi. Madasamy, according to some reports, had tested positive on two earlier occasions at the SAI laboratory. Last year, weightlifter Kunjarani Devi was caught for using a stimulant in the Asian Weightlifting Championships in Korea and was given a six-month ban by the International Weightlifting Federation.

The SAI laboratory has been in existence since 1988 but has not received accreditation by the IOC. In any event, it should have conformed to IOC standards of testing and ensured that a colossal embarrassment to the country did not ensue in international meets. It has been argued that testing should not merely be done immediately prior to international competitions and that steps to discourage drug use among athletes must be taken earlier. Unfortunately, the SAI has only adopted the policy of testing prior to competitions and critics say that this not only is against the ethics prescribed by the IOC but is an abetment of an illegal practice at the taxpayer's expense. The SAI runs all national camps and is directly responsible for screening and monitoring of athletes. Four hundred tests were carried out at the SAI laboratory in the month prior to the Busan games. National federations and the SAI have failed to initiate any action despite being in the know of such malpractices. In Sunita Rani's case, her coach, Renu Kholi, has been suspended.

Either the SAI's test on Sunita Rani in Delhi was not perfect or the athlete consumed something prior to the event to enhance her performance. And, by all accounts, the dope control machinery at Busan was lax. This raises the question of whether Sunita was made a scapegoat both within the country and abroad.

Recent studies have shown that some foods were contaminated with nandrolone. A team of Portuguese scientists have revealed that eating pork could lead to increased nandrolone levels. To be effective in competition, the steroid should be taken in tablet form according to a prescribed cycle, and the dosage stopped at least six weeks prior to the event, in order to ensure that urine samples do not reveal the presence of the drug. The steroid, taken through injection, is believed to remain within the body for more than six months.

There are doctors who argue that sportspersons should be allowed to use performance-enhancing drugs. Dr. P.S. Chandran, Director of the Sports Medicine Centre of SAI, admits that doping has become very visible in sport. The question is whether drug use should be eliminated or controlled, he argues. He told Frontline that it was worrying that doping cases were going up and as a doctor he was concerned about the health of sportspersons. Dr. Chandran explained how sometimes non-allopathic drugs taken to enhance performance could contain substances that were on the banned list. In weightlifter Kunjarani's case, a substance equivalent to strychnine was found in her body. Strychnine is one of the many banned substances by the IOC. Dr. Chandran said that some 2,000-odd drugs were on that list and it was virtually impossible to keep track of the list all the time.

Dr. Chandran is of the view that the tightening of civil laws would go a long way in ensuring that anabolic steroids are not easily available over the counter. Doctors who prescribe such harmful drugs should be penalised, he says.

It is difficult to place all the blame for doping on sportspersons. Coaches, doctorsand other sports administrators seem to aware of the practice but often choose to turn a blind eye. A SAI official who did not wish to be identified, said that though Sunita Rani was the only one to get caught, she was not the only one to have taken performance-enhancing drugs. He said that unlike other offenders, she did not camouflage the drug efficiently.

DESPITE growing cynicism that doping has come to stay, there are people who are ready to take on the system. Sunil Abraham, a former coach quit his job in disgust. He told Frontline that after the first reported case of doping in 1906, the number of international cases had gone up. It had permeated every sport. The IOC had done little either to check or educate the sporting fraternity about it. Sunil Abraham said that the message was "do it but do not overdo it." None of the international federations wanted to come clean on doping cases, he said.

Abraham said he had seen young girls undergoing physical changes. According to him, it is happening everywhere, including in smaller regional sports hostels. Syringes and needles have been seen on athletic fields and in the rooms of athletes. He is sympathetic to the athletes who, he says, mostly come from small towns or villages and are oblivious of what awaits them. Sunil Abraham first suspected that doping existed among Indian athletes at the 1982 Asian Games, when some "elite" Indian athletes began doing very well. Since then, performance levels have been steadily going up, he says. He said that doping was so prevalent in every field that even the world snooker body had introduced dope testing. Sunil Abraham says that an ordinary coach would never resort to doping unless he saw it happening at top levels.

Milkha singh, the 1960 Olympics hero, also laments that doping has entered athletics in a big way. Talking to Frontline from his residence in Chandigarh, the legendary "Flying Sikh" said that athletes who used performance-enhancing drugs were unable to repeat their performances in international events because of the rigid testing. He said that the SAI had reported that some youngsters in the National Institute of Sports, Patiala, were involved in doping. "It was not so in our times," he said.

Milkha Singh suggested that all federations, in association with the IOA,should dissuade youngsters from adopting such practices. Like Sunil Abraham, he placed all responsibility on the federations and recommended strict action against coaches and doctors. He also felt that the IOA should take strict action against anyone found to be using drugs.

On November 14, the Sports Ministry announced the formation of an inquiry committee headed by a former Sports Secretary. This committee will study the circumstances that led to Sunita Rani testing positive and the role of the AAFI and SAI. Last year, the SAI had submitted to the Delhi High Court a list of 257 persons found positive in the years 1991 to 2000. Only a few of these 257 offenders were punished by their federations, and those punished included 17 junior athletes. As pointed out by a sports journalist, ideally, the SAI should recommend that the Sports Ministry not send for international meets individuals who yielded a positive tests. The respective federations should also initiate action against those using drugs. But then, everyone from the Ministry down to the SAI, the federations and the athletes are merely interested in winning medals and not in the way in which the medals are won.

The need of the hour is transparency. It is time the officialdom functioned within the rules and in the true spirit of sports.

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