Indian Athletes Underperform, except in Drug Use

By Byerly, Rebecca | International New York Times, January 4, 2014 | Go to article overview

Indian Athletes Underperform, except in Drug Use


Byerly, Rebecca, International New York Times


Athletes around the world have had their careers marred by doping, but Indian athletes lead the world in suspensions for performance-enhancing drug use.

The 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 4x400-meter relay and the 400 hurdles at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, which were held in Delhi, 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 N.A.D.A., 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 W.A.D.A. 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. …

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