False lead

Last Updated: Fri, Jul 15, 2011 20:00 hrs

With its athletes and coaches at the centre of the doping scandal, Patiala’s famed National Institute of Sports has suddenly gone very quiet.

Right outside the gates of the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Patiala, Harpal Singh runs Welcome Tea Stall. In the past one week, Singh has sold more aerated beverages, cups of tea and samosas than he normally does in a month. NIS, after all, is in the eye of the storm of the recent athletic doping scandal. Journalists and ordinary onlookers, keen to know what’s going on beyond the formidable iron gates, often come to his shop for a snack. “It has done wonders for my business,” says Singh, the shine of profit unmistakable in his bright eyes.

We reach NIS at 11.30 in the morning. Patiala is clean, busy and fashionable. Before the doping scandal broke, it was famous for its unique style of Hindustani classical music, the Patiala Gharana, and its generous measure of whiskey, the Patiala peg. Now the spotlight is on NIS. Set up in 1961 to “develop sports on scientific lines”, it is housed in the palace of the erstwhile rulers of Patiala, and its campus is spread over 268 acres. It can boast of students like boxers Vijender Singh and Akhil Kumar, and athletes like Mandeep Kaur who won a gold medal at the Guangzhou Asian Games in 2010.

Today, the guards at the entrance are surly and unfriendly. We may not enter the premises without a “permission letter”. It is clear that trespassers — especially from the media — will no longer be allowed in freely. A coach who had agreed to meet us is suddenly out of station. Most of the directors are busy in meetings or are doing “rounds” of the institute. Prem Sharma, a coordinator, says new rules are in place: “Media days have been restricted to the 1st and 15th of the month.” Rules are evolving rapidly here.

Perhaps it is not wrong that there is such a clampdown at NIS Patiala. It has been a tough 10 days for the management. Six of the eight athletes caught in the recent doping scandal were from NIS, which is considered one of the top sporting institutes in the country. The National Anti Doping Agency (NADA) conducted a surprise raid at the campus; the medicine shops around NIS have been raided as well. Justice Mukul Mudgal is conducting an enquiry. The security guards are under strict orders to not let anyone in without permission or the NIS identity card.

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L S Ranawat, NIS executive director, believes that the storm will soon pass and NIS will restore its image as the best sports institute in the country. “We want to ensure that NIS is a drug-free place where athletes come to get prepared to be world-beaters on merit,” he says. Indeed, the NIS website says: “This institute is known as the Mecca of Indian sports, and has produced coaches of high caliber.” It is no small irony that the athletes blame the coaches and the authorities for the mess. The authorities blame the foreign coaches, who in turn blame the “lack of professionalism in India”. A senior official, who does not want to be named, says: “The athletes might cry ignorance and lack of awareness, but at times they are aware what a supplement will do.” Others share this view. Saina Nehwal, the badminton star, recently said that she knew a lot of Indian athletes who took such substances.

Most people in the city have different stories to tell about the doping scandal. A pharmacist says the medical stores don’t stock steroids, and that even if they do, they don’t sell them without prescriptions. Some say the athletes bought steroids from those shops raided by the health department. Jitender Singh, a health officer, says the shops have 21 days to respond to the show-cause notice for selling performance-enhancing drugs without prescription. “We will go to the depth of this [sic] and find out what’s going on here,” he says. Under scrutiny, shopkeepers are opaque and even turn hostile on being asked questions about the raids. “Those shops aren’t here,” says one chemist, whose shop is at the upmarket Rajendra Prasad Chowk. “All those shady deals happen near NIS.”

But where do the steroids come from? Some say they come from countries like China and Ukraine. An Indian coach claims that foreign coaches bring them along whenever they come to NIS. He does not blame the foreign coaches, though. “Every supplement is passed through the sports medicine department. Either they don’t do their jobs properly or they aren’t informed enough about such supplements,” he says. Ranavat says the athletes should know what food or supplements to take. “We can’t check on each and every athlete in the camps,” he says. There are about 8,000 athletes at NIS. Ranawat backs his institute to the hilt. “We make sure that there isn’t any wrongdoing happening in the institute.”

P S M Chandran, president of the Indian Sports Medicine Federation, believes that the blame cannot be laid on one person. “Taking a performance-enhancing supplement isn’t that easy. The doctors, coaches and athletes all know how and when to take them,” he says. Used to raise testosterone levels, steroids are sold under names like Mixogen and Despamen. There are other steroids like stanozolol and methandienone, for which track-and-field athlete Ashwini Akkunji tested positive. Most athletes say they rely on the word of coaches or doctors — what else to expect in the land that claims high standards of the guru-shishya tradition? Athletes say the supplements given by the Sports Authority of India are of poor standard, and they have to rely on whatever the coaches give.

It’s a murky world, and the doping rot runs deeper than most would like to believe. NIS has built a credible reputation as a sports institute. But the doping scandal means that questions are being raised. “Someone needs to answer these questions and soon, as the future of our athletes depends on an institute like NIS,” says Ashwini Nachappa, an Indian Olympian. NIS could start by being transparent and not acting as if it has something to hide on its sprawling campus.

The day after our visit, Sanjib Nandi, the former medical officer of NIS and whistleblower in the doping scandal, is allegedly roughed up by the guards at the entrance. Clearly things have taken a turn for the worse.

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