Originally published in the Indian Express, November 21st 2009.
More than 15 months after the hugely successful Beijing Olympics concluded, doping has once again reared its ugly head with five athletes, including two medallists, being found guilty of having used CERA. CERA is a new and improved variant of the now famous EPO, which has become a part of folklore for its constant presence in biking and the Tour de France. Rashid Ramzi, who won the first ever track and field gold medal for Bahrain in the highly competitive 1500m event is the involuntary poster-child for this latest debacle — but the rot has pervaded virtually every nook and cranny of global sports. Factor in Andre Agassi's tryst with crystal meth, and the reputation of outstanding athletes is nothing short of fragile.
While some degree of compassion wouldn't be misplaced for these full-time athletes who simply try to go one step ahead of their competition, the fact remains that there is too much harm that is caused by substance use and abuse, and cracking down on offenders is a requisite measure that must be taken to protect the image of sport. More than just the offenders who knowingly flout the rules and enhance their performances, it is the innocent athletes who must deal with the universal stigma which is now attached to their performances, asterisking every record that is broken, or vilifying every freak achievement or feat that they accomplish.
Unsurprisingly, and justifiably, the most aggrieved in the wake of any drug admission or suspension are the athletes' peers or predecessors. This is simply because the pall of suspicion that is cast is wide and all-encompassing, and this is why anti-doping in the global as well as Indian context is a necessary process in sport, and perhaps the single most important factor governing the sustainability of events such as the Olympics, and the viability of professional leagues around the world. Out-of-competition testing is the first step in controlling substance abuse, and it needs to be aggressively tackled. Just because numerous champions and medallists test negative for drugs during in-competition testing does not necessarily mean that they are clean, apart from in terms of perception-wise. While they may be clean, and many are, the fact remains that the doping industry is far too lucrative, well-funded, and vital for WADA and its offshoots to ever be able to compete with it in terms of resources and R&D. The doping industry is roughly a thousand times larger than the anti-doping commissions globally, which is why WADA has to find practical solutions such as the "whereabouts" clause, making sure that the fear of random testing, as well as ensuring that random out-of-competition testing is enabled, could conceivably reduce drug-use in the long run. What athletes and leagues fail to realise is that accountability brings with it a chit of surety, and athletes like Usain Bolt, Tiger Woods, and Roger Federer, who are yet to fail a drug test, add to their aura of invincibility and demi-god stature.
Doping is harmful not just for careers and reputations, but also for the long-term health of athletes. The burning questions would be to what extent associations are willing to accept questionable explanations for egressions on the part of their star athletes without further queries or probes and, more importantly and worryingly, the extent to which associations are likely to gloss over warning signals from certain star athletes who more likely than not could have used performance enhancers or cosmetic drugs during their careers.
A dynamic and receptive anti-doping commission in India would not only go a long way in promoting clean sports, it would also automatically inculcate a winning culture, and a mind-set where effort precedes short-cuts. India having a young sporting culture and history, a procedure put in place right at the offset will pay huge dividends, and eliminate future controversies such as the BCCI and ICC are embroiled in.
The fight against doping will be a long and arduous one, but as Ramzi can testify, the loss significantly outweighs the gains in every which way. There are legal ramifications, health ramifications and, above all, personal ramifications that are virtually impossible to overcome. It is time to take matters out of the hands of associations and athletes, and defer entirely to the anti-doping commissions. A clean sports industry will have far greater allure over the long run, and it will be more viable from a financial stand-point as well. In a year full of notable achievements such as Roger Federer breaking the French Open and slam number 15 barrier, or Tendulkar's 20th year at the top, it's a pity that we might associate the year more with the Whereabouts controversy and Agassi's Open. Sports globally need a boost to their reputation: not just induced by a banned performance enhancer.
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