Anjali Devi of Haryana clocked 51.53 seconds, the fastest 400m time by an Indian this year, to win the National Inter-State Senior Athletics meet in Lucknow on August 29. The timing, which is the 21-year-old’s personal best, is also within the qualifying standard for the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha next month. However, Anjali’s performance, which makes her faster than Hima Das this season, has once again brought to light the rather unprofessional way in which the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) and the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) go about implementing anti-doping measures.
Anjali’s timing in the final of the 400m women’s race has raised credible concerns. There is a doubt that the spectacular improvement is a result of taking performance enhancing drugs rather than the natural evolution of the athlete.
Anjali came into the spotlight in September last year when she posted an impressive 51.79 seconds at the Open Nationals in Bhubaneswar. That was a one-off showing, though. Her performance dipped soon after. She was part of the national camp and had a training stint in Poland earlier this year, but returned home after poor results, which she blamed on an ankle injury.
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Prior to the race victory in Lucknow, her bests this year were 54.50, 55.98 and 56.40. The AFI, on its part, is reluctant to clear her name for the World Championships, and said another trial — a “reconfirmation” race — would be held before finalising Anjali’s ticket.
With so much at stake, and so little time to make it (qualifying deadline for the World Championship is September 6), there is always a possibility of athletes attempting shortcuts to boost performance. It is understandable that the AFI, with its second screening of Anjali, is trying to prevent any embarrassment at the Worlds, where the global glare would fall on India and its dope-testing programmes, which is already under criticism. WADA, in fact, has banned the National Dope Testing Laboratory for six months because of the substandard methodology used.
That said, if the AFI and the NADA wants to set a blemish-free doping record, face-saving last-minute re-trials are not the way to go. The professional way to address this is to set up stringent rules which blacklists erring athletes, alongside programmes to educate the youngsters.
They could start by getting the young athletes understand the World Anti Doping Agency’s (WADA’s) rules, and why it is paramount that each one of them should adhere to it. Also, constant monitoring of the upcoming athletes, especially those in the national camps and the Sports Authority of India’s hostel network, to ensure there are no influences in the system which encourages athletes to dope for immediate gains, especially in tournaments where dope testing is not mandatory.
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These are just two steps which the federation can take without the need to invest too much into technology or manpower. The need to institute a set of rules and framework, and implementing them, are the next steps. At present, though, the federation is forced to use knee jerk “trials” because of the absence of concrete protocols.
AFI has a precedent for such confirmatory trials. It is usually held for athletes who are not part of the national camp, and also when a sudden dip and rise in performance is noticed.
“Before the Asian Games, we had conducted similar confirmatory trials for athletes like Sandeep Kumari (discus throw) and Monica Chaudhary (1,500 metres) as they were not part of the national camp but had qualified,” the Indian Express quoted Lalit Bhanot, chairman of AFI’s planning commision. “AFI has been asking Anjali to join the national camp for the past few months but she has given different reasons for not doing so. So we will have to see her performance at the confirmatory trials. Only after that will we decide on her selection for the World Championships.”
AFI’s concern stems from the suspicious way in which Anjali avoided tests when approached by NADA officials for an unscheduled check in June. Anjali, who left the national camp citing an ankle injury a couple of months prior to that, was training at her home ground in Rohtak. She, alongside a few other Haryana athletes, reportedly ran away when doping officials reached the stadium.
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That raises the point as to why an athlete, who was avoiding dope tests, was allowed in competition in the first place. It shows the rather ad hoc protocols the AFI have in place to tackle doping. The NADA, which was present at the Inter-State venue, was also selective in testing.
While wilfully skipping dope test is a valid reason for Indian athletics officials to raise the red flag, Anjali’s recent performances — the dip and sudden improvement in her timing — could also be a sign of foul play.
“Having not run since the Federation Cup (in March), I knew I would have to give my best in the final,” Anjali told PTI after the race. “I am grateful to all those who stood by me when I was getting my ankle treated. The national coaches have been in touch with me and I have trained under coach Rohtas Siwach at home before coming here.”
Going by her timing at the Inter-State meet, and assuming she comes clean after further screening by the AFI, Anjali is the fastest 400m Indian runner this year, beating Hima’s 52.09s set at a meet in the Czech Republic in July. She is the only Indian woman to achieve the World Championship qualification mark of 51.80s.
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