For more than a week following the Asian athletics championships in Doha in April, the Indian media was flooded with stories about Gomathi Marimuthu, a little-known 30-year-old woman from Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu, who had braved penury and bereavement to bring home the gold medal in the 800 metres.
Here was a woman who was from a poor family, who had to overcome the grief of losing her father and coach in succession and yet fought against all odds to maintain a career that could hit a ‘high’ only this year.
Gomathi was featured across the sports pages of leading dailies, magazines and websites. As she narrated her struggles to eager mediapersons and her father’s sacrifices to ensure a bright athletics future for his daughter got publicised, many wondered whether our country did bother about talent, poverty, lack of training facilities and incentives for such athletes.
Gomathi had moved from 2:05.25 in 2014 to 2:04.89 in 2015 (Wuhan Asians) to 2:06.28 in 2016 to 2:08.59 in 2018 before coming up with her personal best of 2:02.70 in Doha for the Asian title that also helped her gain a direct entry to the World Championships later this year.
Today, a little more than a month past her phenomenal success in the Asian championships in an impressive finish down the home straight in Doha, Gomathi has hit the headlines again, for the wrong reasons. News about her testing positive for a banned substance at the Asian championships, broke on 21 May.
Since then more reports have appeared to confirm that the Tamil Nadu woman indeed has tested positive notwithstanding her protests and pleas, and the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has also placed her under provisional suspension and announced it on its website. If the charge is proved, she could be facing a four-year ban, effectively ending her career.
During the past few days, many people have wondered whether it could be possible that an athlete who had defied several odds in life, who was nurtured and encouraged by a doting father, who was no more, and who could make light of two disappointing Asian championships in the past, in 2013 and 2015, could have doped. Time will only tell whether Gomathi would be able to get out of this doping episode that has brought shame to her and the country.
Gomathi, not unexpectedly, has vehemently denied that she ever took banned drugs. She, in fact, expressed her surprise at the news itself on the first day, asking who was spreading such information about her, prompting a section of the media to start doubting the veracity of the news itself. Soon, however, the officials of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) were able to confirm the most disappointing news to have hit Indian athletics since another Asian champion, shot putter Manpreet Kaur tested positive in an Asian Grand Prix meet in China in April 2017. Manpreet had been slapped with a four-year ban but she has appealed that decision. Manpreet’s Fed Cup positive was reported, it may be recalled, about one and a half months after sample collection.
When an athlete tests positive in a competition the results in that competition would be disqualified irrespective of the final outcome of the hearing unless it is established that the it was a “false positive” report in which case the laboratory will most likely be suspended by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Manpreet and Gomathi are thus set to lose their gold medals.
It now transpires, Gomathi had also tested positive in the Federation Cup in March that formed the selection trials for the Asian championships, for the same substance that she was reported for in Doha, 19-norandrosterone, a metabolite of steroid nandrolone.
This is where the case takes a mysterious turn. Gomathi ran the Fed Cup final at Patiala on 16 March, clocking 2:03.21, her personal best till then. She was apparently tested on the final day of the meet on 18 March. Was it an afterthought or a tip-off from a rival or anyone else that promoted NADA to test her? From 18 March to 14 May, when the NADA claims it conveyed the positive dope test reported by National Dope Testing Laboratory (NDTL), it is just short of two months.
Can a dope test report take two months in being put together?
The NADA Director General, Navin Agarwal, was quoted as saying in a report that the reason for the delay (in giving a timely report) should be enquired from the laboratory.
Even if we accept that it might have taken 10 days or let’s say an additional test like the Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry (IRMS) could have taken a total of two-three weeks, was it not possible for the NDTL and NADA to provide a report by the end of March or the first week of April to prevent Gomathi’s participation in Doha where the Asians began on 21 April?
An IRMS analysis is required when the concentration of 19-norandrosterone is between 2.5ng/ml and 15ng/ml except in cases of pregnancy or the presence of tetrahydronorethisterone. In the case of pregnancy, an IRMS is done when the concentration is greater than 15ng/ml. The test conclusively establishes that the endogenous (within body) substance came from an exogenous (outside body) source.
Nandrolone is an endogenous steroid produced within human bodies and thus the WADA has kept a threshold of 2ng/ml beyond which only the detection of the substance would be pursued by the laboratories. It would be interesting to find out what the levels of 19-NA were in Gomathi’s samples. Though it is not known to have aided middle-distance athletes, except for training harder, it is not rare for such athletes to test positive for nandrolone or other steroids. One of the famous Indian athletes to have been caught for nandrolone was middle-distance runner Sunita Rani in the 2002 Asian Games. She was later exonerated of the charges because of poor documentation by the Seoul lab but the fact remained the steroid was detected in her system.
Agarwal told the media following confirmation of the Doha test by the AIU that the NADA received the laboratory report on 14 May and Gomathi was immediately put under provisional suspension which is mandatory for a steroid on a positive result from the ‘A’ sample.
Enquiries, however, revealed that the NDTL reported the positive result to NADA on 2 May. Why did NADA keep the report under wraps for 12 days?
Even the claim of an immediate provisional suspension on 14 May lack conviction since AFI sources were denying any information about the NADA test even on 21 May! Without the federation in the know of it, there would be no way of imposing a provisional suspension.
It is not yet clear which agency would carry forward the rest of the ‘results management’ and hearing process, now that there are two positive tests. Going by past examples it could be NADA and an Indian panel that would hear the two cases combined since these would be treated as one. An athlete has to be informed about a first positive before the second one is recorded for offences to be treated separately.
Many people associated with athletics are doubting whether everything claimed so far had been above board. Was there a cover-up attempt, people ask with some justification.
It is not the first time that we have come to know about a previous positive test either at the games or championships venue or after the event. In 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, a para powerlifter with the Indian team was sent home after the team management came to know of a positive test from NADA at Glasgow.
In 2010, sprinter Suresh Sathya was cleared for participation in the Asian Games, competed and was then told he had tested positive for a steroid prior to departure. Luckily for India he did not win any medal nor was he tested at the Games. There was a delay on the part of NDTL to report Sathya’s positive test and the federation made matters worse by not pulling the athlete out even though it had come to know of the test report in Guangzhou, China.
In order to avoid embarrassment for the country at major international competitions, a practice was in vogue during those days and several years earlier where every athlete who was selected to compete in an event abroad was tested. Only a clearance from NADA enabled the athlete to be sent with the team. That practice seems to have been discontinued even though it is no longer considered unethical or against regulations the world over.
It is essential for NADA to speed up the process of testing when Indian teams are competing abroad. Agarwal has talked about 10 days or more when additional tests are to be done. NADA has a turnaround time of 48 hours or perhaps even lesser for routine tests when the situation demands. Such tests might cost more than the 10-day or 20-day tests. How does it matter when one department of the government has to pay another department?
There is a hush-hush around dope-testing in our country. Even such information that could readily be given out, like for example annual testing statistics that NADA is supposed to publish as per its own rules, are kept close to its chest by NADA. The sports ministry needs to step in decisively.
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Updated Date: May 25, 2019 20:06:11 IST