Athletes around the world have had their careers marred by doping, but Indian athletes, with easy access to legal steroids and limited knowledge about their consequences, lead the world in suspensions for performance-enhancing drug use…
The crumbling Old Moti Bagh Palace houses the National Institute of Sports, the training ground for India’s best athletes. One sweltering spring afternoon, the sprinter Ashwini Akkunji ran laps around its sprawling grounds, past broken fountains, a murky pool and monkeys that occasionally charged people with bared teeth. She and the palace, once home to Patiala’s royal family, had seen better days. A gold medalist in the 4×400-meter relay and the 400 hurdles at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Akkunji was a national hero and inspired awe in other athletes here. But eight months after those victories, Akkunji and five of her relay teammates tested positive for steroids and were suspended from competition for two years.
Athletes around the world have had their careers marred by doping, but Indian athletes, with easy access to legal steroids and limited knowledge about their consequences, lead the world in suspensions for performance-enhancing drug use. Nearly 500 have tested positive for banned substances since 2009, when India’s National Anti-Doping Agency, known as NADA, became fully functional. In 2012 alone, 178 Indians were barred from competition. Russia has had the second-highest number of suspensions, with more than 260 athletes barred since 2009.
At the same time, Russia, with a population of 143 million, has had great international athletic success, and India, a nation of 1.2 billion, has underperformed. India has won only 26 medals in the 113 years it has competed in the Olympic Games. Russia has earned 482 Olympic medals since it began competing as the Russian Federation in the 1994 Winter Games. “India cannot provide proper nutrition, training or medical care for its national athletes,” said Dr. Mohan Chandran, President of the Indian Federation of Sports Medicine. “So, of course, we are decades behind in our knowledge on doping.”
But John Fahey, the President of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said India had come a long way in its efforts to catch up with international standards. The increase in testing and the enforcement of WADA rules could be one reason so many athletes are caught. They learn to cut corners early, said Rehan Khan, a steroid supplier in New Delhi for more than 20 years. “Some of my biggest clients are the coaches of junior athletes,” Khan said. “Most of my clients understand what they are buying. They know they will get fast results, so it is worth the risks. If they don’t buy from me, they can just as easily order the steroids online.”
The salaries of coaches who train junior and national athletes are often dependent on the performance of their charges. Some of these coaches are not familiar with increasingly stringent doping tests; others believe that the drugs’ effect is worth the gamble. “Whether it is a junior meet or university meet, you see syringes all over the track,” said Ashwini Nachappa, a former track star who is the president of Clean Sports India, an organization that fights corruption in athletics. “Nobody has given it a thought. The onus lies in the training center to start education programs and start randomly testing the kids so that there is fear.” She said the Indian Government should also stop hiring coaches from former Soviet bloc countries that have a long history of using performance-enhancing drugs.
A Way Out of Poverty
Most Indian athletes do not expect million dollar contracts or lucrative sponsorships. Careers in medicine or engineering are more respected. Yet for the tens of thousands who come from impoverished backgrounds and vie for positions on national teams, successful performances can ensure Government jobs that will provide financial security for them and their families. Akhil Kumar, a boxer who competed in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, said he felt like a test animal at the National Institute of Sports. His coaches and doctors, he said, did not have the resources and experience to help him with injuries and often made his situation worse. “I know about doping because I have been in this sport for a long time and have educated myself,” said Kumar, 32, who is aiming for a comeback in the 2016 Olympics and works as a police officer, a common Government job for athletes. “The only way the next generation of athletes is going to have that knowledge is if they take it upon themselves to get educated, and people like me reach back and teach them.” Chandran, who is also a member of NADA’s disciplinary board, said the agency needed to do more to inform athletes about the risks of taking steroids because they are responsible for what they put in their bodies. But many Indians do not have the resources to research the contents of their supplements or to have them tested. “InIndia we are taught to never question the authority of our coaches, who are the center of our lives,” the track star Akkunji said.
Akkunji, whose suspension ended in July last year, is competing internationally and aiming for the 2016 Olympics. She and her teammates contended that they never knowingly took steroids. Akkunji said their Ukrainian coach had given them tainted nutritional supplements. Dr. Laxman Singh Ranawat, the executive director of the National Institute of Sports until he retired in October, defended its training methods while acknowledging, “There may be a few cases of doping inIndia, but those athletes were given the drugs by their foreign coaches.” Less than a mile from Ranawat’s office, the streets are lined with billboards showing bodybuilders flexing their muscles. They advertise steroids, available at pharmacies across India, where there is virtually no regulation of over-the-counter drugs. The most common drug Indians test positive for is norandrosterone, a steroid that has been prohibited in sports for more than 30 years, according to The ‘British Journal of Sports Medicine’. A month’s supply of banned substances can cost as little as $5 to $10, and some pills are only 25 cents, said Raj Makhija, the chief executive of Smart Brands in New Delhi, one of India’s few suppliers of authentic health food supplements.Nutritional supplements from abroad are subject to high import taxes. Makhija said that imported whey protein and recovery drinks could cost $60 to $150 a month, depending on the brand and serving sizes, and that a lack of regulation had led to the rampant sale of counterfeit products. One of the athletes Makhija sponsors is Yogeshwar Dutt, an Olympic bronze medalist in men’s 60-kilogram freestyle wrestling at the 2012 London Games. “You know if you take steroids, you can put on muscle and get a good performance fast,” Dutt said as other wrestlers crowded into his room to talk with Makhija at a training camp in Haryana. “A lot of young athletes take the easy route. Unless they are sponsored like we are, it would be difficult for them to even afford quality supplements.”
Pushing for Change
Cheema Palwinder, a former Asian Games champion weight lifter, knows the challenges of being an athlete in India. Now obese with painful joints, he looks a decade older than his 33 years. “In my day there was not so much testing,” said Palwinder, the superintendent of police in Punjab, where he presides over a dusty agricultural town with fields full of tractors and bullock carts. “When I was competing on the international level, I learned about steroids from athletes who came from countries with more sophisticated doping programs. They showed me what drugs would stay in my system and which ones would quickly flush out.”
Palwinder said he was trying to educate coaches, athletes and their parents about the effects of performance- enhancing drugs. But given the magnitude of the problem, he said, it is probably a losing battle. Rajkumar Merathia, a boxing coach at the National Institute of Sports, is more hopeful. “Sports in India is much better than it was 20 years ago,” Merathia said as he shouted commands to a teenage girl who traded bloody noses with her male opponent on a grass field. “We are starting athletes out younger, and we are winning more medals than we used to.” The Sports Authority of India, part of a Government Ministry, supports tens of thousands of athletes with a minimal full-time permanent staff: three sports medicine doctors, six physiotherapists, three physiologists, two psychologists and one nutritionist, Chandran said by email. Even the best athletes feel shortchanged.
Om Prakash Singh was dejected and depressed after placing 19th in the shot-put at the London Olympics. He returned to the National Institute of Sports, which offered limited medical care. “It’s so difficult to adjust to training in India after training in Europe and the United States,” Singh, 26, said after a workout as he folded his 6-foot-7-inch, 304-pound body into a blue plastic barrel filled with ice water. “Look at our facilities. If someone offered you steroids and said you would not get caught, wouldn’t you take them too?”