Khumukcham Sanjita Chanu, the weightlifter whose two-year ban from competition for a dope violation ended after the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) cleared her name citing “non conformities” in the handling of her samples, has a lot of questions she wants answered. There is relief as she walks out of the “dark period” in her life, but the scars of the ordeal remain. Chanu is unequivocal in what happens next: She will pursue legal action against the world body, seeking monetary compensation for the years lost as well as an explanation as to why she was “wrongfully” punished or “framed”.
A two-time Commonwealth Games champion, Sanjita tested positive for testosterone in an out-of-competition test conducted by the United States Anti Doping Agency (USADA) ahead of the 2017 World Championships in Anaheim, USA. She was served with a ban right at a time when she believes she was on the cusp of taking her career to the next level.
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The Manipuri burst onto the scene as a 20-year-old at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Interestingly, Mirabai Chanu, the 2017 world champion and touted the best among the Indian lifters right now, finished with a silver behind Sanjita in that competition. Sanjita was unable to follow that up with medals at the Asian and world level, and despite missing out on qualification for the Rio Olympics, she was confident of a good show at the 2017 Worlds. That is where the test that would change her life occurred.
The IWF is trying to hide something from the people’s eyes. I will not let them go scot-free since they ruined two years of my life, and I want to know whose sample it was that tested positive.
-- Sanjita Chanu
While the samples were getting tabulated, Sanjita moved on and won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast, Australia, breaking the Games record for the snatch in the process.
However, in May that year, an email from the IWF addressed to the Indian Weightlifting Federation (IWLF) reached her inbox. It read that she had tested positive for a banned anabolic steroid and was provisionally suspended.
Sanjita ended up losing two years of a career that promised much more. Had she been competing the weightlifter believes she would have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. She claimed innocence throughout the process and now instead of feeling vindicated, she feels wronged, or even framed. The perplexing sequence of administrative errors, irregularities in the labelling of samples and a general callous attitude from the authorities under which Sanjita was banned adds legitimacy to her claim. She was eventually given a clean chit by the IWF -- a body that itself is under the scanner for alleged unethical and corrupt practices -- after a recommendation from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
However, being cleared of wrongdoing owing to administrative errors -- and not after testing/retesting -- is a burden in itself. There will always be a shadow of doubt on her credentials. She knows she can’t escape that burden. There is renewed motivation though and she wants the IWF to further explain and clarify the situations so that at least some of those doubts are doused.
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As she prepares to get back into competitive mode, with the added challenge of the Covid-19 lockdown and a change in weight division to deal with, Sanjita is trying her best to focus on the journey ahead. The international body has removed her weight division (53kg) and she will have to either go up to 55kg or come down to 49kg, the division ruled by Mirabai. Both prospects come with their own share of challenges. To add to that, Sanjita is also opening up a new battlefront -- a legal tussle with the International body.
In an elaborate interview with Newsclick, the weightlifter opened up about the dark period as well as the journey ahead.
Newsclick (NC): You missed qualifying for the Olympic Games....
Sanjita: The IWF wasted two years of my playing life. They knew the sample that came positive was not mine, but they still stalled the process of clearing my name because they were in the wrong. I ended up facing the consequences. I always said I am innocent and I told the IWF that I did not consume any banned substance from the time they placed a provisional ban on me. It is a mistake, I kept telling them. They did not listen to me. They pushed me down for 2 years, and now my chances of competing at the Olympics are over since the prerequisite to appear in the qualifiers is that you have to compete in the Asian Games or Commonwealth Games. The qualifying rounds of weightlifting are over now.
NC: Did the IWF contact you to clear the air after they sent the email giving you a clean chit?
Sanjita: The IWF is trying to hide something from the people’s eyes. I will not let them go scot-free since they ruined two years of my life, and I want to know whose sample it was that tested positive. My name and reputation has been tainted. People said things like ‘Sanjita ne dope kha kar desh ke liye medal laaya’. I sent emails to them many times and they did not reply to my queries even once.
NC: How tough was the period of ban for you, both physically and psychologically?
Sanjita: When people would repeat hear-say about me consuming dope, I was in a very bad place psychologically. I wanted to commit suicide. But then i wanted to clear my name, and didn’t want people to just assume that I committed suicide because I was in the wrong. That is why for the last 2 years, I have been approaching IWF to understand whose sample got mixed with mine. I have not heard from them.
NC: Do you think there was foul play involved?
Sanjita: There are players [rivals] in my weight category, and that is what is making me wonder why am I being framed, and who are the IWF trying to protect. I have been thinking about this fact for a long time and have been losing my mind over the fact that I was framed in a false case.
NC: Who helped you get through these tough times and also take up your fight with the IWF?
Sanjita: We were hoping to get a very good lawyer but we could not come to a common point with them. So my brother fought the case for me. He has been a constant support for me through this. Right now, I want written answers from the IWF for each and every query that I have. I also want to know why they took more than two years to get my name cleared and I think they will only give answers only when we take the legal route.
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NC: What is the course you are going to take now?
Sanjita: I am also planning to take a legal route with the IWF. I had also asked for monetary compensation for the time these people wasted in going through the whole process of rechecking the samples, and wasted my opportunities to compete. I am just looking for a good lawyer who can understand the intricacies of the case and my situation and who would represent me without any conflict of interest.
NC: Now that training has resumed, will you be joining the national team set-up?
Sanjita: Right now, because of Covid-19, all the gyms and centres are closed. I will start using the facilities when the lockdown is over. For now, I am training at home as much as I can and trying to get back in shape.
NC: What are your immediate goals?
Sanjita: For now, my only goal is to participate in every competition that comes my way and win a gold medal for the country. I am just trying my best. I have started.
We were hoping to get a very good lawyer but we could not come to a common point with them. So my brother fought the case for me. He has been a constant support for me through this.
-- Sanjita Chanu
NC: Weightlifters have a tainted image and the sport is marred with doping controversies. Has it also got to do with the shady reputation that IWF carries. What can be done to clean the image of the sport?
Sanjita: I think a lot of athletes carry a tainted image because of what the previous athletes had done. Some athletes would take dope, and some would knowingly mix substances in water. I cannot comment on that. But all I know is that I was wrongly accused of using a banned substance.
NC: What is your message or message of caution to the young and upcoming athletes who take up the sport after you?
Sanjita: What happened with me was wrong, and should not happen to anyone else. No athlete should consume drugs or supplements unless they are approved by their physician or the Indian Weightlifting Federation (IWLF). And if you think you are right, then don’t lose hope and focus on what you are doing.
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