In a sedentary sport played mostly by seniors, taking life-saving pills can result in inadvertent doping. The Indian Express speaks with the hyper-cautious players.
Raju Tolani was scared out of his wits when someone had patted him on the shoulder soon after winning the men’s team bronze at the Jakarta Asian Games. The 58-year-old medallist in bridge’s debut Games at Asiad, was prepared with all the paperwork and permissions, had altered his lifestyle and was forewarned about procedures and the necessity (and likelihood) of anti-doping measures should he get onto the podium. A tap on the back still stopped him in his tracks with trepidation.
“We were hyper-cautious as soon as we knew bridge would be part of Asian Games program and our sport community wanted to ensure none of us brought disrepute to the country. I knew they can come and ask for samples after a medal. When someone stopped me, it was still scary. It turned out to be a volunteer telling me I’d forgotten to collect the box in which medals are kept! But dope testing is important and here to stay,” Tolani says, recalling the panic it caused.
Like most in their late-50s, he was prepared with his hypertension pills. Like many other bridge players, it was this very blood-pressure medication that posed the biggest challenge to these unique athletes who play firmly under WADA regulations.
A sedentary sport, played seated and often by seniors, steroid-violations weren’t exactly the muscle-bulging, eye-popping worry. Though a Washington Post report quoting a 2016 WADA summary of that year’s drug-test results pegs the number of positives returned at a staggering 22 percent of the total tests done on bridge players – up 3.6 percent from 2014. Diuretics and other masking agents were top of that list, though those were early days of testing and bridge’s unique playing demographic had not been factored in.
This last fortnight has witnessed cricket being finally leashed by the country’s anti-doping apparatus after a reckless young cricketer, Prithvi Shaw failed a test after admittedly taking a cough syrup.
For bridge players in India, who were ordered to get Games-compliant about 3 years ago if they wanted their sport to come under the Olympics umbrella, dealing with the changes was a non-negotiable. Bridge will continue in the Asiad programme when a cards-crazy China hosts it next edition – Taicang in Jiangsu province boasted a 70 percent bridge-playing population in 2012; the 2022 Hangzhou Games are not about to strike it out anytime soon. This means WADA will need to cater to a sport that is rushing into the mainstream.
Even as high-ranking IOA officials scoffed at bridge’s inclusion at last year’s Jakarta Games (calling it a ‘matka’ gambling game ignorantly), bridge players themselves with an average age of 57, had shown meticulous preparation in ensuring they were within the confines of Olympian ethics. It wasn’t of course as simple as not ingesting a banned substance. Tolani, for instance, gave up on pain-killers for a few months. “I could endure pain for some time if it meant my sport had a chance of being at the Asian Games,” he explains.
The bridge player of 35 years though sheds light on an all-encompassing challenge for what’s almost always a seniors demographic in India. “Most above 40 are dealing with diabetes and blood pressure. Some of our pills are even life-saving medicines so we had to prepare in advance,” he says.
An exhaustive list of banned substances – the root salts – were sent to all bridge players at the start of 2018. Both Tolani and partner Ajay Khare then went to their physicians who ran their medication list, prescribed for BP through the fine WADA tooth-comb.
In certain cases, medications were changed to fall in line with permitted substances, while Tolani and Khare sent the entire list to the world bridge body’s coordinator Anna Gudge.
“The world bridge body checked every medicine with their doctors, found them to be in compliance and we continued,” Tolani says. Khare though needed more than the physician’s consult. “My BP medicine had a certain diuretic which came under the list. It wasn’t a performance enhancer directly, but was more a masking agent. So I sought a therepeutic exemption,” says Khare, who had immediately accepted that being in the Olympic movement meant extra caution if he had to play the sport. “Of course there are performance enhancers in our sport. And if we want a level playing field and for fairness we have to come under anti-doping,” he explains.
When the two started bridge many years ago when the sport was popular in engineering and medical college hostels, the cash-rich circuit in Europe and America was all that was there to aim for. Tolani played at IIT Varanasi and Khare at IIT Mumbai and the duo would combine only 10 years ago just as the buzz over bridge mainstreaming into Olympic recognised sports, began.
Tolani recalls the early talk in Jordan 15 years ago where Bridge Federations of middle East and Asia (with some of the richest men of the region playing) were sounded out on the possibility of imminent anti-doping regulations coming into the sport.
“We were very conscious that country ka naam kharaab nai hona chaaiye because of a silly mistake. Ofcourse I was a bit shocked that my lifestyle would be affected. I consciously cut down on alcohol and pain killers. Alcohol the previous night before competition (which is easily part of club culture) was a strict no-no. As players besides battling stigma attached to our sport, we wanted to be proactively honest,” Tolani says, some opting to play at considerable risk.
“Our 3 medals did push the Indian tally towards 70, the target they’d set,” he says, adding that bridge players also got used to the double takes from younger athletes in food lines at Games Village who’d stare at their badges saying ‘Athlete’ when what they expected was manager or coach.
Maneesh Bahuguna, who took on the mantle of ensuring all Indian bridge players ensured anti-doping compliance, reckons Atenolol, a beta blocker used for blood pressure treatments, will be at the centre of a bridge-specific banned substances list once it’s zeroed down by WADA. “It’s still an evolving process though the world bridge federation is constantly in touch with WADA to cater typically to the bridge populace with its predominance of BP, diabetes and other cardiac ailments.”
“Look, some players took a risk carrying inferior medicines and a few took the decision to stop medication and go. There tends to be extrapolation with chess, but this is more like shooting. A BP medicine won’t really lend a competitive advantage like increasing RBC but beta blockers will definitely be a problem,” he reckons, adding that given the money purse on the international circuit, WADA will eventually be forced to focus on a sport with many 70-year-olds.
Beta blockers can help one concentrate for longer periods – relevant to bridge if a tournament runs 6-7 days and fatigue sets in.
Bridge in fact had the most high-profile positive test when former World No 1 Geir Helgemo was banned after last September’s World Bridge Series event in Orlando. The Guardian quotes “synthetic testosterone and fertility drug clomifene (which further pushes up testosterone secretion)” as the substances for which he was docked though the much-loved athlete from Norway had accepted his breach of anti-doping regs and “provided details of how the prohibited substances may have come to be present in his system”, according to the world federation.
Besides a 3154 GBP refund for cost of hearing, Helgemo was also expected to take full responsibility. “It is his responsibility not to take substances that are on the doping list, even though in this instance they are not performance enhancing in bridge. I feel for Geir in this situation and hope he will come back stronger after his ban ends,” the Norwegian bridge head Kari-Ann Ospal had said, as quoted by Guardian.
“Helegemo was a ridiculous victim of stupidity because those drugs had no bearing on the game. But it was only after that case that players got very vigilant,” Bahuguna says.
The bridge community might want to brush it off as a freak happening, but the sport is not immune to non-dope cheating.
Sly signalling, manipulating boards on which bids go back and forth, lying about respiratory disorders after being caught mock-coughing and communicating even with a little footsie under the table – all the video monitoring technology has managed to catch geriatric grifters. But just the thought of an elderly bridge player trickstering beta blockers into his body to enhance mental capacity will need to be believed even as diabetes and BP conditions are woven in.
Bahuguna recalls a bemused 70-year-old lady player from India quipping she would continue taking her medicine, though she doubted it helped either at winning or in completely reversing her ailment. At that age, bridge wasn’t solely about winning anyway. Those with Olympic aspirations though, will continue to pester physicians to find medication that passes muster for bridge in time of Diabetes and BP.