Doping: Athletes need to take responsibility for their sport

The first time I heard about performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and their abuse in sport was when a cycling club that was doing well dissolved. One of their riders on the team was using PEDs and the others on the team disappointed to be associated with such practices, flagged him. 

The cyclists who flagged their then team-mate stood strongly together for their own hard work and clean sport. I gather that they chased the rider who doped, out of the city and eventually cycling. He could have been ignored but looking back I am very proud of those who fought against him, I can imagine it was not easy, but they showed that it could be done, a true story. 

As experiences since would help me realise, doping or the use of performance enhancing substances sadly seems to be the norm in Indian sport. I really hope to be proven wrong sooner than later.   

It took an anti-doping lecture in the UK during my M.Sc. in Sport Physiology for me to be ‘enlightened’ that India was amongst the top three doping nations. Imagine being in conversation with the best brains in sports science in a foreign land and feeling ridiculous for such a disgraceful yet important aspect of Indian sports. 

My heart did not want to believe what was being presented. The data would have been presented even if I (an Indian) wasn’t in the room. My willingness to disbelieve the data was strong but these were facts the rational thinker in me could not ignore. India has been famous for doping. Period. 

The module taught me a lot about the significance of the anti-doping war and technologies, more importantly it made me a critical thinker who does not mind questioning belief systems. There have been multiple claims of ignorance and lack of knowledge amongst Indian athletes, but is the system doing anything to change it? More importantly, does it want to?  As a nation, we speak about being intolerant to drugs in sports, but walk into any local stadium and look around and please tell me you have not seen evidence (such as syringes). 

Last year, I attended India’s first Sports Science and Sports Medicine conference where the focus was the country’s efforts towards clean sports. I must add that it was very disappointing to learn that there are only a handful of people in the country who are held responsible to educate athletes and coaches about clean sports. 

I could not stop wondering how these people with other responsibilities at work were supposed to spread information across such a large country at multiple levels. During the keynote lectures, I heard coaches talk about how the panelists spoke amazingly against doping, though in practice and reality all they want is medals and do not care how the medals happened. 

What’s worse, the coaches said the same orators would mostly make sure that athletes would take questionable “supplements”, I absorbed it all. It did not surprise me. Not this time. Instead, it gave my mind reasons to think and question the processes that clearly do not seem to be in place. Or are they just what the administrators want them to be? That is a question hopefully time will answer. 

As a personal swim coach/analyst, I have detailed conversations with parents about the swimmer’s ecosystem and I have heard significant number worry about current practices in the sport. A club, I am told, has a form where parents sign permissions to coaches to let the swimmers take “supplements”, including injections for power and energy for competitions.

There have been cases of illnesses and dropping off from the sport. My swimmer’s parents refused to allow their children to go through the “process” as they much rather have their children live a long healthy life and enjoy the water. Heartening. I hope more parents start refusing and there is an eventual revamp in the ecosystem. 

Discussions on Twitter from the likes of @kaypeem (KP Mohan) and @g_rajaraman over the last couple of weeks, got me writing this piece. There has been a small but significant wave of questioning in this realm from a few mainstream journalists and I have been following with interest as there is a need for greater involvement to be able to see any difference.  

Should a desire to win, no matter what be the normal? Are we on our way to losing the real joy of being involved in a sport completely, due to the dominance of the menace of substances that should be far from the playing arenas? 

At the National level, a lot of money is being pumped in. We want medals at the highest levels of competition. For everyone looking at it from the outside, Government’s focus is for India to be a “Sporting Nation”. What a dream that would be for many of us Indians! But can we, instead, focus on being a “Clean Sporting Nation” before we lose lives of hard-working athletes to drugs and distress? 

I am hoping that the World Anti-Doping Agency which is said to have taken 200 samples from National Dope Testing Laboratory in Delhi to be tested in the Montreal lab gives us all more food for thought. Six samples have discrepant results so far. I hope more questions are asked, as the health of athletes and integrity of sports are very crucial aspects that deserve no compromises. The arguments against the reporter who highlighted the issues in the system is weak, like in any other aspect. We can’t play the cards to our favour too long unless we start doing the right thing. 

Among the many things needed to bring in the big change, it is imperative that we have many more clean athletes – like those in the cycling team that I wrote about at the start of the piece, who take on the responsibility and prioritise their health and well-being along with shouldering the responsibility of the integrity of their sport.

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