In the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, Indian sports authorities now have an additional variable to deal with -- the ever-looming spectre of doping. Due to precautions taken by sporting bodies to arrest the spread of the global pandemic, dope testing, understandably, has taken a back seat. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has taken cognisance of the issue and is keen to monitor and rectify the gaps in testing once things settle, especially in areas where the Coronavirus pandemic has hit the worst.
Meanwhile, in India, it has come to light that there has been a significant rise in dope violations last year and in the first two months of 2020. This, coupled with the reduced random tests being conducted at the moment now, would shatter the already fragile anti-doping programme in the country.
There were two bans right at the start of this month, for athletes who tested positive in samples collected sometime last year. Powerlifter Keranjeet Kaur was served with a ban in the first week of March, and a few days later, athlete Prachi Choudhary tested positive for a banned substance. Prachi, a 400m specialist, was tested on December 30 in Patiala by Dope Control Officers. Her urine sample came out positive for the anabolic steroid, Oxandrolone, from Qatar's Doha testing laboratory.
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A couple of days back, Union sports minister Kiren Rijiju, while addressing the doping issue in the Parliament, stated that the number of doping cases in India have increased last year from what they were in 2017 or 2018. There were 89 cases of athletes testing positive for performance-enhancing substances in 2018, while in 2017 it was just 48 such cases. It is definitely not a healthy sign when dope violations rise closer to the Olympic year.
The total number of cases from 2019 up until February 2020 are 99. Among individual sports, weightlifting led the list with 29 cases, up from 21 in 2018. Two sports have seen an alarming rise in the number of cases -- athletics and wrestling, a sport which is expected to bring in medals at the Olympics. In athletics, dope failures grew from 14 in 2018 to 27 over the last 14 months. While in wrestling, it has reached double digits -- 12 cases in the given period.
To make matters worse, the National Dope Testing Laboratory (NDTL) in New Delhi lost its WADA accreditation in August last year. That meant, the National Anti Doping Agency (NADA) had to take the more expensive and time-consuming route of getting samples tested in labs abroad. The problem of an accredited lab is not the biggest issue NADA faces though. It is the level of mismanagement or organisational incompetence.
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This was best illustrated when wrestler Ravinder Kumar was handed a four-year ban at the start of the year for failing a dope test. But NADA created confusion by identifying him as a world silver medallist which was not the case. A clerical error, no doubt. But these, and many similar incidents in the past, have given errant athletes loopholes to escape, and bring down the reputation of the agency.
Indian authorities -- the ministry and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) -- are trying to shore up things. Rijiju also revealed that they are working with the Tokyo Athlete Passport Management Unit to implement the Athlete Biological Passport programme in the country.
Internationally, things are not so efficient either at the moment. Though there is a cloud over the fate of the Tokyo Games, with just months left, this is usually the time when WADA steps up its monitoring of athletes and sports programmes in countries. However, anti-doping organisations around the world have their hands tied down at the moment.
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WADA is continuously advising anti-doping Organisations (ADO) across the world to prioritize health and safety of the athletes and testers. But with the organisers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games insisting that there is "no need to take drastic action" and postpone the Games, WADA has been forced to step in to monitor the anti-doping controls to detect any testing 'gaps'.
“The Agency has put in place a number of strict protocols to protect its staff and its surrounding communities including enabling WADA staff to work from home. As the situation develops around the world, WADA continues to assess the situation closely and follow the advice of local and global health authorities,” WADA said in a statement.
"As the situation develops around the world, WADA continues to assess the situation closely with particular regard to how the pandemic may impact the conduct of anti-doping testing activity worldwide. It is essential that all ADOs follow the advice of local health authorities to ensure proper protection of athletes and doping control personnel while protecting the integrity of doping control programs, particularly in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games."
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