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As Narsingh Yadav doping saga inches closer to climax, a look at how tainted wrestler's defence collapsed

It had the trappings of a mystery novel. A celebrated wrestler who wanted to go for his third Olympics failed to get a trial ordered by a court to challenge a less-heralded, less-accomplished opponent before the Rio Games in 2016. Then came the cruel twist, the selected wrestler tested positive for dope. He cried foul, alleged sabotage and a disciplinary panel sided with him and exonerated him without a shred of evidence proving that there indeed was sabotage. He went to Rio, but failed to compete in the Olympics, though.

The Narsingh Yadav doping saga is close to completion. The CBI has apparently found nothing to pursue in a case of sabotage that Yadav, a 29-year-old Mumbai-based UP wrestler, alleged for his exclusion from the Olympics following a decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) at Rio, hours before the Indian was to begin his campaign in the 74kg freestyle class in what would have been his second Olympics.

 As Narsingh Yadav doping saga inches closer to climax, a look at how tainted wrestlers defence collapsed

India's Narsingh Yadav (C) arrives at the National Anti-Doping Agency in New Delhi on 27 July, 2016. AFP

In a case that attracted national attention not because of the positive dope test alone on one of the outstanding wrestlers of the country, a world championship bronze medal winner, but also because of the hurried manner in which a panel accepted the ‘sabotage’ allegation, Yadav returned crestfallen from Rio, his Olympic dreams shattered, his reputation in tatters and he branded a ‘doper’.

Now, more than two years later, the CBI, according to a report in The Indian Express, was planning to tell the Delhi High Court that there was no evidence to pursue and it better close the case.

The story of an ‘intruder’ walking into the Sonepat centre of the Sports Authority of India (SAI), Haryana, and mixing daal and drinks with steroids was not even fit for a B-grade mystery movie. ‘Sabotage’ is something that athletes often allege in doping cases when left with little to defend.

As the CAS panel noted in its decision: “…all in all (the panel) found the sabotage (s) theory possible, but not probable and certainly not grounded in any real evidence.”

‘Sabotage’ is always tough to prove. Two cooks saw an intruder mix something in daal that was being cooked, 20 days before Yadav was first tested on 25 June. He was tested again on 5 July on the advice of WADA. That was the only piece of evidence that the Indian panel had in coming to the conclusion that sabotage was possible though it had nothing to do with the alleged spiking of amino drink later.

Yadav had approached the high court since the CBI probe apparently made little headway. He had missed one Olympic Games, a Commonwealth Games and an Asian Games because of the doping ban and he was in a hurry to get back into contention if that was possible before the Tokyo Olympics. The CBI is now waiting for a document from abroad before seeking closure of the case in the high court.

It was only the support that Yadav received from the WFI that took him this far in his fight to seek what he termed was “justice”. The WFI president is Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, an influential BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh, and his position gave credence to the belief that he would be able to play a decisive role in this doping drama. He did.

The way the Yadav dope hearing got completed at the Lodhi Road offices of the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) in New Delhi, did not give a hint to what was to follow. The next day, there was an in-camera meeting that the panel held with some “witnesses” at the Sonepat mess without the presence of lawyers on either side, and it came out with the decision to exonerate the wrestler.

The sabotage theory allegedly involving Jithesh, a junior wrestler at the Sushil Kumar akhara, mentioned only the 5 June incident. The rest were purely conjectures. The panel believed these allegations and conjectures and did not even try to find out who mixed the drinks, when did this happen, from where did the drug in question originate etc.

The significance of daal in the Yadav defence could be attributed to his lawyer’s keenness to prove that an ‘intruder’ had attempted something earlier also. Since the curry was thrown out it had lost relevance in terms of having a direct role in the positive test.

Yadav’s lawyers first thought of bringing in the ‘supplements argument’. They had a batch of them tested at the NDTL. Nothing was found in any of them. Then the ‘daal and froth’ theory came up, but it was of no use since the daal was washed out. CBI recreated the scene and apparently found no ‘froth’ when daal was mixed with methandienone!

Then came the amino drink angle. Once Dr Christiane Ayotte, the head of the WADA-accredited laboratory in Montreal, gave her expert witness account as to how the methandienone long-term metabolite had shown an upward graph in the second sample and contended that there was a second ingestion of the substance, the going became tougher for Yadav.

Though Yadav’s counsel argued that there could have been a second sabotage by Jithesh (in order to explain the second ingestion as argued by Dr Ayotte) it carried little conviction.

Dr Ayotte was also able to explain that the roommate of Yadav (Sandeep Tulsi Yadav) would have ingested the same substance about 12 to 20 hours after Yadav.

It is almost impossible to prove that an intruder got into a facility, came into a training hall unnoticed, mixed prohibited substance in the amino drink of an athlete and left. More difficult to prove that he came back a second time and mixed it in the drink of his training partner and left. It becomes almost laughable when you argue that the intruder returned around 10 days later and went through the process all over again, mixing drinks of two athletes!

Unaware of the scientific explanations that came up during the hearing at Rio, the WFI had backed Yadav, alleging conspiracy that involved SAI and NADA officers. It would be logical to expect an unconditional apology by WFI to these two organisations and their officers once the case is disposed of by the high court.

“I have said then and I’ll say it again, Yadav is a victim of conspiracy. We’ll meet the PM and the home minister in this regard as it is very important to hold a CBI enquiry as the guilty has to be punished,” Brij Bhushan Singh told the media as Yadav returned from Rio.

The most unfortunate part of the whole controversy was one of India’s celebrated athletes, a double Olympic medal winner and a youth icon, Sushil’s reputation was tarnished. The WFI which had refused to consider a trial request by Sushil before the Rio team selection, was clearly hostile towards the one of the most decorated Indian sportsmen.

Sushil’s name was kept out of many a statement and deliberations, but the CAS order named him. “In summary, the athlete had submitted that the sabotage must have been carried out by Mr. Jithesh, who had previously attempted to tamper with the athlete’s food and who was an associate of Mr. (Sushil) Kumar, a rival wrestler who had made threats to the athlete; these threats had been made known to the police; the sabotage must have taken place on 23 or 24 June 2016, at the training facility where the athlete, his roommate and Mr. Jithesh were all present,” the order stated.

Will Sushil sue Yadav and WFI now? That is a pertinent question to ask. He had only expressed support to Yadav when the allegations were made. It was clear he was deeply hurt but he was advised to keep quiet.

The lessons from the Yadav doping saga should not be lost. First, dope-hearing panels have to be not only independent, they also have to function as independent of government and political pressures apart from other influences. Second, athletes have to realise that somewhere along, ‘sabotage’ theories could be exposed if a panel, assisted by experts and investigators, review such claims. Third, national federations have to take a ‘neutral’ stance in these situations instead of plunging headlong into an issue and taking sides with and against individual athletes or groups. Fourth, in view of the CBI probe revealing that Yadav was tested just nine times in five years and that he had not been subjected to a test for nearly two years before the June 2016 test, NADA will need to explain to the public why it is seemingly trying to ‘protect’ the top athletes which is not its job. This is not the first time NADA has been exposed attempting to do this.

One thing that has baffled many observers, including legal practitioners, has been the CBI claim before the Delhi High Court that it wanted to “question the members of the CAS” panel and the scientists (who deposed as expert witness), they were all abroad and hence the delay in completing the process.

Can an investigation agency question judges when they give their verdict in a case during an appeal stage? Or can they even re-examine expert witnesses that too from a WADA-accredited lab?

It seemed the CBI was trying to go into the merits of the case, the conclusions arrived at by the CAS panel and the expert opinion provide by Dr Ayotte rather than probe whether ‘sabotage’ actually happened, leading to the positive test, who was the culprit and who were the mastermind behind such a ‘sabotage’.

In order to even have a remote chance to re-open the case on an appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal, Yadav would have required a conviction in the ‘sabotage’ case, and to prove that Jithesh had done it as directed by Sushil. Even then it would have been up to the SFT to rule for a re-hearing in CAS in the light of the police case in India viewed in the backdrop of Dr Ayotte’s testimony.

Yadav and WFI obviously pinned their hopes on CBI clinching the issue and SFT and CAS doing the rest. Not many others would have believed that such a turn of events was possible.

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Updated Date: Mar 05, 2019 15:49:45 IST