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Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Among country’s fastest athletes, even dope testers can’t reach her

During a recent national athletics meet, the athlete ran several seconds faster than her previous best timing, made it to India's all-time best list, and qualified for the World Championship.

Written by Nihal Koshie | New Delhi |
Updated: May 10, 2022 5:30:29 pm
AthleticsBut the AIU testers have not been able to trace the athlete — and she has gone incommunicado, The Indian Express has learnt. (FILE)

A CAT-AND-MOUSE game is on between one of the country’s top 400m woman athletes and dope testers after her sudden improvement in timings caught the attention of a global anti-doping watchdog.

During a recent national athletics meet, the athlete ran several seconds faster than her previous best timing, made it to India’s all-time best list, and qualified for the World Championship. The performance also brought her on the radar of Monaco-based Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), an independent body with an aim to weed out cheats.

But the AIU testers have not been able to trace the athlete — and she has gone incommunicado, The Indian Express has learnt.

The athlete was to fly to Antalya in Turkey mid-April with other quartermilers and members of the 4×100 women’s relay squad but did not report before departure.

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Presuming she would be in Turkey, dope control officers authorised by the AIU travelled to Antalya to collect her samples. Keen to track her down, they then travelled to Mumbai and Haryana, where her personal coach hails from, but have had no luck so far in locating the athlete who is one of the country’s fastest runners.

According to sources, officials and coaches of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) have tried to reach the athlete over phone but they are still in the dark about her whereabouts. Her current personal coach, who has been punished for doping in the past, told the AFI that the athlete has not been in touch since early April.

The Indian Express called the athlete’s registered phone number multiple times on Monday but found that it was “out of network coverage area”. Senior AFI officials declined to comment.

“She was to travel with the team to Antalya, Turkey, on April 14. But she did not show up. We have not been able to contact her because her phone number has been switched off. We do not know why she has not joined the camp. She should have been in Turkey with the rest of the athletes but she is absconding. The AIU is also looking for her to collect samples for dope testing,” an AFI source said.

The woman athlete was part of the national camp four years ago after she clocked sub-53 second timings at a university meet. But coaches were baffled after she slowed down considerably at the camp.

The AFI is keen that the athlete joins the national camp for two reasons: her timings make her a strong contender for the 4x400m women’s relay squad, and athletes at national camps are regularly tested for banned performance-enhancing substances. If a relay team finishes on the podium and one of the runners tests positive, the team loses the medal.

There have been a number of cases in the past of athletes staying away from national camps, training with their personal coaches and then failing dope tests.

Prominent among them is quarter-miler Nirmala Sheoran, the 2017 Asian Athletics Championship gold-medal winner. A year later, at the Asian Games she was not fielded in the relay squad, finished fourth in the individual 400 metre race — and failed a dope test a couple of months later to receive a four-year ban.

Dope testing in Indian athletics has been in the news after the AIU announced last week that discus throw star Kamalpreet Kaur, a sixth-place finisher at the Tokyo Olympics, had tested positive for Stanozolol, an anabolic steroid banned under the World Anti-Doping Agency code.

Kamalpreet was in the national camp before the Summer Games. She is the first Indian woman to break the 65-metre barrier and was expected to win medals at the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games and the World Championships.

A male javelin thrower, who is an Asian Athletics Championship medallist and Tokyo Olympian, had also failed a dope test.

Although there is no dope taint yet about the woman athlete’s recent blistering run, intelligence-based out-of-competition testing is a strategy used to keep the sport clean.

Since 2017, the AIU has taken over World Athletics’ anti-doping programme, including testing and intelligence-gathering. Corruption, betting, and manipulation of age and results also fall under the AIU’s purview.

Top athletes across sport are named in a registered testing pool and must be available at a self-declared location during a specified one-hour window every day during which testers could land up to collect samples. Others whose performances improve out of the blue, like the woman athlete, are on the radar of agencies which fight doping in sport.

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