The dope on cheating

Last Updated: Fri, Oct 19, 2012 19:40 hrs

The new allegation of Lance Armstrong’s serial and unrepentent doping has put a question mark on the credibility of sportsmen. Aabhas Sharma speaks to a tainted athlete, a sports-medicine expert and an Olympian for insights into the murky underside of Indian sport.

“At the national level, samples are taken on specific dates and athletes come ‘prepared’”

“I never drink water from anyone else’s bottle. Even if it is my own bottle, I make sure it is sealed and no one touches it” Krishna Poonia, National women’s discus champion

I don’t think that any athlete can say that he or she used illegal substances unknowingly. That can never happen. When they are caught doping, athletes often try to shift the blame on others but the truth is that they were aware of what was happening.

In my career, I have never been offered any illegal substance and I have never seen any athlete doing it in front of me. Doping obviously happens in Indian sport, but I have never had personal experience of it.

There are no “traps” and it is not difficult to stay away from doping. Watch everything you’re consuming, be it medicines, food or drink. For instance, I am extremely careful not to have water from anyone else’s bottle. Even if it is my own water bottle, I make sure that it is sealed and no one touches it. Some people might think that is being paranoid but why take a chance with something that can ruin your career?

You have to be very careful with certain things, especially medicines and even protein shakes. At times, even pills for cough and common cold contain some illegal substance. It is always better to consult doctors of the Sports Authority of India, who are, more or less, always at hand. No doctor has ever told me to take performance-enhancing substances. There’s just too much at stake for everyone involved. It’s not always about winning a medal or setting a record.

People say that at national camps the authorities aren’t strict about checking what gets through to players. I agree with that to a certain extent. I suggest that the National Anti-doping Agency follow the example of the World Anti-doping Agency. I am on the list of WADA-registered athletes and once you are a part of it, you have to be prepared for random blood tests. At the national level, samples are taken on specific dates and athletes sometimes come “prepared”. Stricter vigilance will help to cut down on doping.

I have never worked with a foreign coach as my husband is my coach. But I believe that no coach will deliberately do anything to sabotage the career of his protege. After all, his reputation is on the line as well. I also don’t believe that Indian athletes are suspicious of foreign coaches. Blaming the coach or feigning ignorance amount to accusing someone else of a crime that you have committed.

I have never understood why athletes indulge in doping. Yes, they are poor and, of course, they don’t have knowledge of medicines. But then they do know what is right and what is wrong, don’t they?

“Athletes aren’t properly informed by officials about what supplements to avoid”

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“The pressure to perform gets to many athletes and they resort to unfair means” PSM Chandran Specialist in sports-medicine, formerly employed with SAI and a member of the hearing panel of the National Anti-doping Agency

As far as I can say, doping has always been a part of sport and is prevalent at all levels. It may be a shortcut to success but it is also about mindset and awareness. A lot depends on the athlete. In fact, I would say that it is entirely up to the athlete how far he or she is willing to go to win. The pressure to perform gets to many athletes and they resort to unfair means.

I remember an athlete whose performance improved by five seconds in just five months. Is it possible without performance-enhancing substances? A lot of athletes feign ignorance and blame the coach for giving them food supplements. I would say that it is the fault of both the coach and the athlete. It is up to the athlete to acquire the knowledge of everything to do with his performance, especially nutrition and diet. When one can take interest in training and do what is right for the body, then why not food supplements?

In India, the authorities and federations at times turn a blind eye to doping. As a doctor with the Sports Authority of India, I had brought the issue of doping to the authorities’ attention many times, but it wasn’t dealt with harshly. Athletes aren’t properly informed by the authorities and since they come from rural areas, they aren’t aware of what supplements to take. The role of sports-medicine specialists isn’t well-defined in India.

But there are athletes who take special care and are often very careful about any dubious supplements. Look at how dedicated Sushil Kumar is to his diet and nutrition. Or for that matter, our boxers. They have a foreign coach working with them, but they are aware and know what to eat and what to avoid.

Doping is a vicious circle and very hard to get out of. Once you see your performance improving through unfair means, you can’t stop. Winning is like a drug — once you get addicted to it, it is hard to step away. At some level, I feel bad for the athletes who get caught in doping scandals. Once they are banned they are shunned by one and all and become outcasts. The banned athletes should be rehabilitated and the authorities should arrange counselling for them.

Doping takes a toll on athletes’ health in the long run. The supplements play havoc with their body. Glory through dope is short-term but the shame lasts forever. It’s not worth it and there’s no substitute for hard work. A balanced and nutritious diet coupled with the right attitude to success is what athletes should adopt and something the authorities must start drilling into them right from the junior, or even sub-junior, level.

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“I thought it was vitamin supplements”

“athletes caught in the doping scandal have admitted to taking intravenous fluids just before an event” an athlete caught in the doping net

To be caught in a doping scandal is perhaps the hardest thing to happen to an athlete. Suddenly you are all alone and there’s no one backing you. You’re an outcast and not even allowed to train in any of the SAI centres.

Looking back, I still believe I was innocent. I actually didn’t know that what I was doing could be labelled as doping. I thought I was having vitamin supplements which my coach had offered — it was common practice — but it was actually an anabolic steroid. I had never heard of the term before I was accused of doping.

I would have never had it if I knew the substance was illegal. The consequences have been severe. I missed out on the Olympics and many other events. It has been a nightmare.

The doping commission, which puts you on trial, tries to understand the circumstances in which you were caught. But once you have tested positive there is not much you can do to prove your innocence. When you get accused of doping you get little support from the authorities. I wasn’t counselled by anyone on what supplements to take and what to avoid.

You trust your coach and take his word for the legitimacy of what you are having. All athletes do so since on the field, the coach is someone who knows you better than anyone else. And you believe that his ambition is the same as yours — to help you improve as an athlete. But, unfortunately, that trust gets broken sometimes. Coaches too are sometimes misled; they don’t necessarily give banned substances on purpose. They too, at times, are unaware of the side effects.

In sports such as weightlifting and athletics, sportspersons are told to take steroids to improve their performance. Athletes who were caught doping have admitted to taking intravenous fluids just before an event. I have never indulged in such activities as I believe in hard work.

I believe that the authorities should conduct camps and seminars to give athletes information about banned substances. Lack of information is the biggest reason athletes get caught in doping scandals. I didn’t know anything about medicines, I just knew how to do my best in my sport. We weren’t taught as kids to take the illegal route to success. Honesty is best in every walk of life, but sometimes circumstances are such that you get caught in a scandal without knowing or understanding what led to it.

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