Anshula Rao of Madhya Pradesh became the first woman cricketer from India to test positive in a doping test conducted by the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA). The 23-year-old allrounder’s urine sample, which was sent to a lab overseas by NADA, showed up the anabolic steroid '19-Norandrosterone’.
According to studies on doping in sports, this steroid is among four commonly used by athletes to enhance performance. Research suggests '19-Norandrosterone’ not only helps build muscle and body mass, but also in recovery from injury.
Whether Anshula took this steroid for injury or not, and with full knowledge of what she was doing or not, is unknown. But this is not of consequence to NADA, which takes a harsh and unsympathetic view of such transgressions in its attempt to eradicate doping from sport.
Incidentally, Anshula is not the first cricketer from India to test positive. Among male cricketers, there have been quite a few cases. Last year, young opening batsman Prithvi Shaw was found in transgression and copped an eight-month ban.
In an oblique case, earlier this year, NADA had let off Smriti Mandhana, Deepti Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ravindra Jadeja and K L Rahul with a warning for not adhering to the `whereabouts’ clause for the national agency to conduct surprise tests if it wants to.
By and large, India's approach in such matters has been lax, with federations, officials, coaches, and athletes too guilty of misdemeanour. In fact, the urine sample of Indian athletes now goes overseas because India’s National Dope Testing laboratory has been suspended by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for not doing its job well.
How serious this problem is can be gauged from the fact that in 2018, there were 74 doping cases recorded in India and the number rose to 187 by 2019! Why, in June this year, The Times of India reported that 22 rowers who had participated in the junior Asian Rowing Championship in Thailand had subsequently tested positive.
The rowers themselves pleaded not guilty. The Rowing Federation of India (RFI) sprang to their defence, arguing that since all rowers had tested positive for the same drug, it could have been in a supplement approved by the Sports Authority of India, or spiked by someone with nefarious intent.
How this particular case plays out remains to be seen, but even if the rowers were victims and not villains, it does not diminish the worry that the incidence of doping in India is rising at a galloping rate.
What explains this?
Several hypotheses exist. Distill them, and the few factors that become paramount are greed for fame and money, and even more, a shortcut to a better livelihood. With sports getting increasingly popular in the country, it has become a platform for fast-tracking financial and/or career growth.
Sportspersons who excel -- and particularly those reaching the international stage -- receive not only honour today, but can also end up with healthy bank balances. Records and landmarks get them windfall monetary gains from the Central and state governments, federations and private individuals.
This is apart from prize money they may have earned. Then there are those who get promotions in their jobs on achieving milestones. While this may not necessarily be huge in financial terms, it certainly adds to the power the individual enjoys in public and personal life.
This could come in the form of lifetime free train travel for self and family, or getting into a senior management role in a company, vaulting over several seniors. The incentive to `boost' performance, therefore, is seen as worth the risk.
The decision to use extraneous substances for performance enhancement is hardly ever taken unilaterally by the athlete, barring at the elite level by seasoned ones who have the financial wherewithal to use high-level expertise, and the clout, to mask these nefarious deeds..
Generally, as several cases not just in India but worldwide have shown, sportspersons themselves become victims of the ambition and greed of those around them. These could be officials of federations, coaches and family members.
The agendas can be individual, in different combos, or as a collective. For instance, if only the coach has an independent agenda, he may keep the federation/family/athletes informed of what he is doing. But it is also known for federations and coaches to work in tandem towards this end, and sometimes with the family/guardians of the sportsperson.
This obviously involves serious breach of trust. But in unfettered human ambition and greed, such sentiments are easily swept aside, even if those to suffer will be those they are close to. And once sportspersons start seeing the so-called benefits of doping coming their way, the way becomes extremely difficult.
Dope-taking athletes enjoy an unfair advantage, which must be countered. In a wider perspective, these athletes also end up doing themselves a great deal of harm, for performance enhancers can cause major health problems which are too well-documented to repeat here.
Doping in sports, therefore, is a vexing syndrome. Not easy to arrest because it may involve not just many people, but also the complexities of human nature. That said, it is a curse on sport, and something that needs to be fought tooth and nail.