'Ignominy of doping ban made me suicidal' Weightlifter Sanjita Chanu on her mental struggle and fight for justice
A victim of administrative goof-ups and wrongful doping case, Sanjita Chanu lost two years of her prime. The weightlifter speaks about her mental struggle, her fight for justice and future plans
Khumukcham Sanjita Chanu expected things to go her way in 2018. The weightlifter from Manipur, who won her first Commonwealth Games (CWG) gold medal at 20 in 2014, repeated her achievement four years later at Gold Coast in 53kg category while setting a Games record in snatch. She returned to India amid huge celebrations and immediately set her sights on the gold medal at the Asian Games in Jakarta. But the euphoria came crashing down on 15 May when an e-mail arrived from International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) addressed to the Indian federation and the weightlifter saying she had tested positive for a banned anabolic steroid and was provisionally suspended.
Under the surface of the case was a melting pot of administrative blunders, callous attitude and irregularity. And thankfully for Chanu, who claimed innocence from the beginning, it came to a just end this month, more than two years after the suffering began. The doping charges against the Kakching-born weightlifter were dropped by IWF due to "non-conformities" after a recommendation from World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). For Chanu, the final decision has been bittersweet. There's joy of getting her name cleared but there are bigger questions still left "unanswered."
"I am happy that the doping charge has finally been dropped," Chanu told Firstpost. "But I have also lost those two years. I always knew that I was innocent after all I never took any banned substance. The suspension notification from IWF in May 2018 had quoted two different numbers for my urine samples and we knew immediately that there’s some mistake with the testing."
"We conveyed it to the international federation also that there was a mistake in the whole process but they didn’t pay heed. They knew from the beginning that it was a mistake on their part but they still wasted my two years. It was a very difficult phase for me because people kept asking me 'what banned substance did I consume'. Even when I did nothing wrong, I was made to go through a lot of humiliation."
"It was not easy for my family as well, it was a sad time for all of us. I had to stop going out, meeting people, talking to friends because they would say 'Sanjita won medals because of doping' and it was very tough to bear. But now it’s over and people know the truth."
The suspension, handed in May 2018, was for failing a dope test conducted by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) during the 2017 World Championships in Las Vegas. It took six months for IWF to communicate the ban to the Indian Weightlifting Federation (IWLF) during which the then 24-year-old competed and won at gold at CWG. IWF claims to have informed Chanu about the test result in January 2018 but the communique never reached the athlete. Even the 15 May e-mail from IWF included a massive blunder as it gave number 1599000 to the sample collected in Las Vegas in the notification but mentioned code 1599176 in the results section. The international federation later admitted to its "administrative" mistake.
Meanwhile, Chanu demanded to test her 'B' sample in June 2018 but it took an unusually long three months to be completed. The 'B' sample report report also came back positive but her brother - Bijen Kumar Khumukcham - had argued later that the analysis report of the second sample had "two different lab IDs of her sample and two different machine (equipment) IDs."
This ensued a long drawn legal battle and request for WADA to intervene. IWF eventually changed course on 22 January 2019, lifting the provisional suspension. However, it was done without giving a reason for the lapse. Athletes who get their provisional suspension lifted are generally allowed to compete in tournaments but the Manipuri weightlifter was denied permission. The decision saw Chanu's Tokyo Olympics dream go up in flames.
This month IWF owned up to its mistake and dropped the doping charge. The accreditation of the lab which collected Chanu's sample was also suspended for a month last year by WADA due to irregularities. She was informed of the decision by an e-mail which set IWF free of any liability but the 26-year-old has some tough questions for the federation.
"I want to ask IWF who will take responsibility for all that I had to go through. They knew from the beginning that there was a problem in the process but they still kept me suspended for two years," said Chanu.
"In those two years, I lost the opportunity to qualify for 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It’s a dream for all the athletes to participate in the Games, to win a medal at that level, I also have the same dream but today I lost that opportunity because of IWF. I want to ask them why they did such a thing to me and as they gave two different sample numbers, they must tell who does the other belong to."
And these questions are a result of the mental trauma Chanu was made to go through for two years. Unable to come to terms with her doping ban, she contemplated suicide but stepped back from taking any drastic step in order to fight for justice.
"There were huge celebrations when I came back from Australia after winning the gold medal but on 15 May I was informed that my sample has tested positive, at that time I was preparing for Asian Games. People started asking me about what banned substance I could have consumed. But I could never do anything like that. I have been competing for 10 years, have won multiple medals at the international level for India. We regularly give urine samples for testing and I never tested positive," Chanu said.
"We only consume the supplements that are given to us, I never take anything on my own. But when that false report came out, it became so difficult for me...It was in the newspapers, I feared even getting out of the room, facing people, I didn’t have the courage to call my parents and tell them what was happening. The ignominy of the doping ban made me suicidal. But I didn’t take that drastic step because people would think I did so because I was guilty. I decided to fight it out, to not stop till I get justice."
"I didn't get the support I expected from IWLF but I was never weakened...my brother was always there for me, the final decision is a product of his hard work. He fought against everyone, I got support from others as well but no one fought for me as much as my brother."
IWF's decision may not have provided her the closure she wanted but it has changed her world a lot. She now finds herself in a happier space with friends, colleagues congratulating her over the decision. Her plan now is to slowly get back to what she loves the most.
"We are not allowed to use government facilities when you are suspended, and I don’t have weights at home. So, in these two years I have not done any weightlifting...now, it's about slowly getting back into action. Whatever exercises are possible at home, I am doing them," she said of her short and long term plans.
"I am going to target the 2022 Commonwealth Games and Asian Games...It’s not going to be easy to make a comeback, it’s never easy for a weightlifter but my ambition is to make India proud again at the highest level...I should have won the Arjuna Award in 2018 but then things turned upside down for me. Now that all of it is over, I must be given the award this year, it's something I deserve."
Focused and determined but above all Chanu wants that her ordeal should serve as an inspiration for upcoming athletes.
"What happened with me should also be a reminder for upcoming athletes that we can get whatever we want if we are ready to fight for it, work hard for it," the weightlifter concluded.
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