India's top athletes, including five gold medallists, not tested by NADA before Asian Games 2018

  • Five of the six individual gold medal winners in athletics at the Asian Games were not tested out of competition by the NADA prior to the event.

  • Ten of the 25 athletes in the NADA Registered Testing Pool (RTP) were not tested at all out of competition in 2018.

  • Nine other athletes in the pool were tested once out of competition through the year in clear breach of WADA regulations.

Five of the six individual gold medal winners in athletics at the Asian Games were not tested out of competition by the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) prior to the event in Jakarta-Palembang last year.

Ten of the 25 athletes in the NADA Registered Testing Pool (RTP) were not tested at all out of competition in 2018. Nine other athletes in the pool were tested once out of competition through the year in clear breach of World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) regulations.

These startling revelations in the testing statistics, made available by NADA, has strengthened the belief that NADA has been either trying to “protect” the leading athletes or is disinterested in catching the dope cheats among the top track and field athletes of the country. Whether the malady extended to other sports as well or not will require detailed review by a competent authority.

Out-of-competition testing is the foundation on which anti-doping measures have to be built. Leading athletes have to be monitored and tested so that they keep away from the temptation of consuming performance-enhancing drugs.

In the majority of cases in 2018, NADA seemed to have allowed the top athletes an out-of-competition dope-test-free window of four to six months in the run-up to the Asian Games. Was it done unwittingly, or was there complicity? These are questions that come up the moment one is struck by the staggering statistics of out-of-competition testing in athletics in 2018.

Anti-doping is a cat-and-mouse game. The element of surprise in testing an athlete is the key to catching a dope cheat. An anti-doping authority has to draw up the best possible test distribution plan (TDP) to ensnare the offenders. It is often a difficult task since the dopers know when to make themselves available for testing so that they would not get caught.

Those who fall easily into the trap are amateurs or else the odd experienced elite athlete who might have made a slight miscalculation in the “tapering off” process to fall into the trap. Positive tests during competitions are rare. The dopers are clever enough to avoid a positive test.

It is foolish to imagine that athletes would come into competition stuffed with steroids or take a shot of stimulant mephentermine just before “call room” entry. Professionals know when and how to do it and escape detection, often with the help of support staff.

‘Whereabouts’ testing

 Indias top athletes, including five gold medallists, not tested by NADA before Asian Games 2018

Five of the six individual gold medal winners in athletics at the Asian Games were not tested out of competition by the NADA. AFP

One of the instruments that the WADA has devised for the purpose of taking a prospective cheat by surprise is the RTP. It allows an authority to keep track of an athlete every day of the year at a pre-designated place so that the athlete does not evade testers. In theory, at least, that is the idea. In practice, we do know there are many loopholes to evade and explain an absence.

This is called “whereabouts”-based testing. Athletes are required to provide locations they would be available at for at least one hour every day so that testers can come and take samples if required. Three missed tests or filing failures can attract a suspension ranging up to two years.

The Asian Games year should have been crucial in terms of tracking the top athletes who had the best chance to bring home medals. NADA not only failed to effect changes in its outdated testing pool but also failed to test those in the RTP with any meaningful periodicity in mind.

Ten of the 25 athletes in the pool were not tested out of competition, four of them not undergoing any test at all through the year.

Ten others in the 25 were tested once out of competition, most of them after the Asian Games or just weeks before the Games, making it meaningless for the purpose of catching them by surprise if they were into doping.

Surprisingly, javelin thrower Annu Rani was tested five times out of competition last year, the most in track and field. She was also tested at four competitions. Initially rejected by the selection committee since she failed to come up to expectations in the confirmatory trials, she was included in the squad at the last moment but finished poorly with 53.93m for sixth. She was selected on the basis of her Inter-Railway meet performance of 58.17m.

No test in April

Amazingly, NADA did not conduct a single out-of-competition test in athletics in April last year. That should have been the beginning of a concerted effort to chase the dopers down in athletics in the build-up towards the Asian Games. From May, NADA managed 38 tests up to 31 July with 11 of them coming from the relay camp in the Czech Republic on 29 July and four from Thimphu, Bhutan, where the middle distance and distance runners were based, a day later.

The July-end testing, with the Asian Games athletics events scheduled to begin on 28 August, was of very little relevance from an anti-doping perspective. If NADA was looking for the red-blood-cell-boosting erythropoietin (EPO), it was ill-timed. No one wanting to use EPO would have done it with 25 days to go for the competition. It would be of little use. The closer to competition the better it would be. The fact that Monika Chaudhary, a middle-distance runner at the Thimphu camp was caught for EPO doping in the retrials in Delhi, indicated that EPO was much relevant in the Indian scenario.

The July and August out-of-competition testing by NADA looked a desperate measure, either to fulfill the requirement of testing all the competitors before the Games or to boost number of samples. It was a failure.

NADA went into overdrive in the month of December. It looked to achieve two targets – increase the overall number of tests, and show somehow that the leading athletes were indeed tested out of competition during the year, forget for a moment the Asian Games were over.

From August to December NADA did 162 out-of-competition tests in athletics with the last month of the year contributing a whopping 111. Had these 162 tests come in May-July, there might have been a different tale to tell. One is not suggesting that Indian athletes were on drugs. Far from it. Often, we are told, our athletes do not know what doping is, and what the names of the drugs are! This might be difficult to believe in today’s world of dope-driven athletics.

But NADA is expected to do its duty all the same. Instead of concentrating on junior athletes as it did in its out-of-competition testing in May last year for no apparent reason, NADA should have been expected to focus its attention on senior campers, at home and abroad. They were left alone.

NADA, which became functional in January 2009, started its domestic RTP in May 2015. The RTP took its own time to evolve. At first, there was no clear-cut policy in adding or excluding athletes in the list. From an original list of 40 track and field athletes, it grew to a total of 178 sportspersons including 64 athletes in November 2017.

This looked good on the eve of the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games year. NADA was tightening up the screws against dope cheats, one thought. But suddenly, it whittled the list down to 113, which was 65 less than the previous figure. Worse, athletics was cut down from 64 to 25.

Why should there have been extra focus on athletics? Both in 2017 (21 positive cases) and 2016 (23), athletics had topped the dopers’ charts. Weightlifting was always a close second if it was not on top among the Olympic disciplines. Athletes needed closer monitoring and so, too, weightlifting.

NADA, unfortunately, had an outdated RTP list in May-June, 2018 (whittled down from 64 and updated from Nov 2017) a list that contained many an inactive athlete or athletes who were no longer leading in their events or those whose inclusion in the first place defied logic.

It should not have been too much of a problem to compile a list of athletes who were prominent and among the medal-contenders in the Asian Games, at the beginning of 2018, based on the list of campers, NADA’s own RTP at that time (2017) and current performances, if any available. NADA apparently bungled.

An invitation to dope?

Last May also came the news that Asian championships gold medallist Marimuthu Gomathi had tested positive. AFP

Asian Championships gold medallist Marimuthu Gomathi tested positive in May 2019. AFP

Overconfident much of the time in its own approach, having a philosophy “let’s not hound the athletes” and “you can’t test the same athlete over and over again”, NADA left a huge vacuum in its out-of-competition testing in the lead-up to the Asian Games that looked an invitation to dope.

Most of the leading athletes were not tested between 5 March and 25 June, the gap between the Fed Cup and the inter-State meet, the two competitions that formed the final selection trials for the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games respectively. One would have thought they would have been tested at least twice during the intervening period.

There is a catchy line that the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) has adopted: “Our athletes do not dope, they don’t have a chance to dope in camps since testers arrive every other day.”

AFI President Adille Sumariwalla on 2 August last year tweeted: “AFI has always said that in national camp athletes are tested every few days and if they are stupid to dope, they will get caught. Hence the extra smart ones either don’t dope or avoid camp.”

Three of those who competed in the Asian Games (quarter-miler Nirmala Sheoran, distance runner Sanjivani Jadhav and discus thrower Sandeep Kumari) tested positive after the Games in re-tests ordered by WADA. Two others who were part of the national camps at some stage or the other, middle distance runner Jhuma Khatun and shot putter Naveen Chikara also tested positive. Jadhav has since been handed out a two-year suspension by the IAAF. This May, Asian Championships gold medallist Marimuthu Gomathi tested positive. AFI can no longer say athletes in camps do not dope.

As for the NADA testers whom AFI keeps referring to, they might have spent time in camps, but did they actually test the elite bunch of athletes there? ‘No’ is the unfortunate answer. Manjit Singh (800m), Jinson Johnson (1500m), Tejinder Pal Singh Toor (shot put), Neeraj Chopra (javelin) and Swapna Barman (heptathlon), the eventual gold medallists in the Asian Games, were not tested out-of-competition prior to the Games.

Could NADA have foreseen the gold medals in the Asian Games and concentrated on the above athletes? No.

Could it have focused at least on its RTP athletes among them and tested them more? Yes.

Johnson, who was in the Bhutan camp but was not tested though a few others were tested there, along with Chopra and Barman were among the registered pool athletes. Going by the WADA guidelines and the logic behind whereabouts-based testing, they should have been subjected to at least three tests during the course of the year. They were not.

Johnson was tested out of competition once on 22 December and Chopra twice, on 21 October and 21 December. Barman underwent no out-of-competition test at all through 2018. In fact, the only in-competition test that she was subjected to in the year (outside of any test she might have undergone by an international agency) was at the inter-State meet in Guwahati on 29 June last year, when she took the title, got selected for Asian Games and went onto win gold in Jakarta despite an assortment of injuries that she had suffered.

Triple jumper Arpinder Singh was the lone gold medallist tested out of competition before the Asian Games. He was tested on 7 March, a day before his competition in the Fed Cup. He was tested again in-competition. It was illogical but it prevented a clean sweep of the eventual gold medal winners in Jakarta being omitted for out-of-competition testing prior to the Games.

Among the silver medallists at the Asian Games, Dutee Chand (100m, 200m) and Muhammed Anas (400m) were not tested out of competition by NADA through the year. It must be noted here that Anas (also shot putter Tejinder Toor) was in the registered pool of the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in 2018 and might have been tested. That also could have been the reason behind NADA not testing him on 29 July in Jablonec, Czech Republic, where it tested almost all the campers preparing for the Asian Games. There was no bar on NADA testing him there, however.

Tests poorly timed

Considering that the athletics events were starting on 25 August, the tests conducted by NADA in Europe prior to the Asiad, probably outsourced to another agency, were not ideally timed. That it did arrange for tests abroad was laudable. More such ‘missions’ especially during a long Europe training programme of athletics, an integral part of the preparations nowadays, will assure ‘clean’ athletes that NADA means business.

Long jumper Neena Varakil (one out-of-competition test in August 2018) and steeplechaser Sudha Singh (one test in January 2018) were among the silver medallists tested before the Asian Games. The relay team members, both male and female, except Muhammed Anas and Arokia Rajiv, were tested at Jablonec, Czech Republic, on 29 July, 2018.

The two bronze medallists in the Asian Games, discus thrower Seema Antil Punia, and middle-distance runner PU Chithra, were not tested out of competition before the Asiad. Punia was tested once, on 8 March, at the Federation Cup at Patiala, and it was shown as out of competition which it was not. She underwent no other tests throughout the year. She competed in only one competition at home in 2018. Nothing has been heard of Antil Punia this year except that she had been training in Russia. Chithra was tested at Patiala in March and at Guwahati in June, both in-competition tests.

The oft-repeated claims of AFI about constant testing at camps become mute when one asks the number of times each athlete had been tested. “NADA will know that,” is the stock reply.

Now, we have numbers.

In a meagre total of 252 out-of-competition samples in athletics (13.07 percent) out of 1927 samples across all sports, NADA could not test 78 among 137 campers (base number from February 2018). That is nearly 57 percent of the athletics campers went without an out-of-competition test in 2018!

WADA wants NADA to do more out-of-competition tests than in-competition testing. That simply looks beyond the capacity of NADA. In 2018, it did 4194 samples in total in all sports, out of which 1927 (45.94 percent) were out of competition. There are plans to target more this year, perhaps even double last year’s count. But the positive results are also steeply climbing. This is where NADA and the government’s dilemma comes in. More adverse results would mean the dubious distinction of being among the top-three or top-six as had been the case in the past.

Here's a look at the Adverse Analytical Findings for samples collected last year:

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Will WADA be tempted to investigate the lack of adequate out-of-competition testing in India in the crucial months of April-July 2018? It had done an investigation into the Jamaican anti-doping commission (JADCO) doing just one random test between March and July in 2012 in the run-up to the London Olympics, as revealed by the former JADCO Executive Director, Renee Anne-Shirley. Nothing was known about the outcome of the “extraordinary audit” done by WADA following the allegation. WADA had done a ‘compliance audit’ of NADA in March 2018.

Should India go all out and catch more cheats or should NADA apply the brakes and bring the numbers down? That question will keep coming up for NADA and the sports ministry, especially when multi-discipline games or World Championships are round the corner. The recent statement in Parliament by the sports minister, Kiren Rijiju, that 187 positive cases were reported during the 2018-2019 financial year is an admission that doping goes on unabated in the country.

Updated Date: Jul 23, 2019 12:52:34 IST