Asian Championships shot put medallist Manpreet Kaur returned a dope positive this week, bringing the focus back on the athletics federation, notorious for its high numbers of doping cheats among the elite athletes. AFI president Adille Sumariwala addresses a few issues while dealing with the latest setback.
One more elite athlete tests positive – this time shot-putter Manpreet Kaur – and AFI has suspended her. Can it deal with this more proactively?
We talk to athletes whose sample return positive. But it’s the same story always – they’ll come meet us, they’ll cry and say ‘I didn’t do it.’ They’ll say ‘Maine kuchh nahi kiya ji,” ‘Galti ho gayi ji’. I sometimes want to tell them at least say something different and give a valid explanation. It’s stupid that they continue to take these risks and don’t realise they will get caught sooner or later. This is synthetic stuff – you just go to a shop and you get it. I can understand if someone’s taken a pain-killer or a cortisone injection. But these are blatant cases. Athletes need to understand they will be in the dope net finally if they err.
There are allegations of institutionalised doping for years now.
I think it’s a misleading usage of the word ‘institutionalised.’ There might be institutions in Sonepat or Panipat where doping is rampant. But it’s not like Athletics Federation of India or Sports Authority of India is helping its athletes dope.
Can you say with certainty that AFI is not involved?
Yes AFI isn’t involved. And I want to pass a signal as the Athletics chief and be very clear that we have zero tolerance for doping. The biggest problems are junior coaches and coaches at local level. We first need to catch those guys.
What steps have you taken as deterrence?
Recently a banned substance was found in an athlete’s room, about two months ago. I was given to understand that the coach knew about this and I immediately suspended him for a year even before a full-fledged enquiry. A group of coaches came to me and said if I sack someone like this ‘sab coaches ka naam kharaab ho jaega’. There was a lot of resistance, and even the NIS Patiala office was delaying issuing his suspension orders. I said I will personally come there and terminate his duty if they don’t issue orders and he was suspended. But these are complex issues and there are wheels within wheels, and I don’t have a magic wand. I hope this acts as a deterrence for coaches.
Narsingh Yadav, in a recent interview, accused former AFI official Lalit Bhanot of being able to manipulate test results…
I don’t know what he’s talking about, I’ve never ever heard or known of an incident where Mr Bhanot’s involved. I’m not here to defend him, but we use his immense knowledge of athletics for annual planning and competitions. I take inputs from him like I take from other experts. But to say he can fix doping results, I think he’s out of the loop with current officials in ministry or NADA. Frankly, it might seem to people he’s running the show because he sits in Delhi and people drop in to say hello and athletes go to him with their problems. But to say he runs everything and is still all-powerful is an extremely misplaced notion and overstating his influence. In fact, whenever we’ve got an unusual spike in performance, he’s warned me that ‘Adille get this one tested or they’ll get caught at World Championships’ and he’s red-flagged several athletes internally. That’s my understanding of the situation, though I repeat, I’m not defending him.
What about the younger athletes?
I was in Nairobi last month for the u-18 Worlds. I sat there for half an hour with all the athletes and told them for God’s sake, do not fall into this trap of doping. I told them there’ll be seniors and coaches who will approach you and tell you this is the only way to succeed. But I was clear that they will get caught sooner or later and it’s not worth it. When I was running, 100-150 samples used to be tested. Now close to 1200 samples are checked, and I want to ask athletes: Where will you run, and for how long? There are2 70-80 elite athletes in India, and they cannot escape testing forever.
You said there’s a rate-card between Rs 50000 and 5 lakh to help athletes escape testing. Can you elaborate?
Yes, I have it from strongly reliable and multiple athletes that this is happening at centres like Sonepat. It’s what I’ve heard and we need to fix our system of testing because the athletes try to make testers run in circles. As soon as I heard – and this is at least 6 months back, I had reported this matter to the concerned authorities. But I’m not an investigating agency or the police so my duty is to inform whoever I need to inform. I’ve been saying it for the last two years that doping needs to be criminalised. It’s nothing new.
On what basis are you saying Sonepat?
Look at where all these guys are getting caught from. Do I even need to take names of centres that have a doping problem? Everyone knows it, but they just tell me – aap bolo, aap bolo – names of centres. Problems are mostly with athletes who are not in the national camp, or who run away from camps. At the camp, you are tested every 10-12 days, it’s getting difficult to get away with it. Look, I sit with athletes on the ground and they usually open up. They sometimes give us information to get another athlete in trouble and there’s instances of jealous coaches sniping at each other, so we have to weigh each accusation.
Athletes rationalise doping by saying it’s impossible for Indians to win without doping and that the rest of the world is doing it. Your take.
It’s not a new phenomenon. Let’s be realistic. Athletes cheated at the first Greek Olympics – that time it was alcohol when they ran. Banned substances and methods have gotten sophisticated and I’ve heard that discussion several times how sab kar rahe hai, toh legal kar do. I’m aware of that thought process. But as administrators who govern this sport, we cannot allow doping to happen or encourage this. Athletes come and tell me the cruder analogy of ‘humaare paas laathi hai, aur unke paas AK-47’ (others have more sophisticated dope and our’s is rudimentary), but you can’t just normalise doping. The health of my athletes is the most important to me. Over a period of time, as testing gets tougher, the difference between doped timings / distances and undoped will start narrowing. Now with blood passports and freezing of samples, laws are catching up with cheats. I tell athletes – tum aaj nahi toh kal pakde jaoge, toh mat karo.
Any other ways of deterrence?
I’m not for throwing the baby with the bath-water. And we should compensate athletes who work hard and win the correct way. But there should be a way in which athletes should be asked to return the money they get in cash prizes if they are found to have tested positive later. That deterrence is important so that athletes don’t dope for smaller medals and then fail at highest stage.