You too Dutee! An Unending Tale of Doping in Indian Sports

Dr. Lovely Dasgupta


The fact

Dutee Chand, an icon for many, a fighter for still many others, finally fell to the malaise called doping. Dutee first came to limelight, for her achievement outside the track and field arena. She produced one of the rarest victories from an Indian athlete before the Court of Arbitration for Sports. Hence it was a headline news when on 18th January 2023, Dutee was reported to have failed an out-of-competition doping test. Accusations against her are part of the spate of doping violations that have seen large number of Indian athletes face doping related sanctions, in 2022-23. However there is nothing new about this story. For doping in Indian sports has been there since long. And to some extent the Indian state is responsible for it.

What’s Wrong!

India was one of the first countries to have adopted the World Anti-Doping Code (hereinafter called WADA Code) in principle. However, despite adopting the same, there has been lots of skirmishes before the National Dope Testing Laboratory got the WADA Accreditation. The accreditation notwithstanding, things have never looked up for the Indian sports persons. Hence the Indian athletes have always been found to be on the wrong side of the doping enforcement. There are several reasons which are imbedded within the Indian sports system, that makes Indian athletes susceptible to doping.

To begin with the Indian sports is clearly divisible into the privileged and the under privileged. The one sport which has stars and gains the maximum leverage both in terms of money and popularity is cricket. The sport is also privileged in terms of the fact that cricket is not an Olympic sport yet. Hence the doping incidents are hardly reported and the consequences are less severe. On the other hand, the Olympic sports like track and field events are under the scrutiny from WADA. The WADA Code involves complex system in terms of compliances. And this compliance requires highest level of information and diligence. Considering that a large number of athletes are from rural or semi-urban backgrounds, the level of awareness vis-à-vis doping is not necessarily the best. Justice Mukul Mudgal’s report on the matter has highlighted the inherent plight of the Indian athletes. This lack of awareness about anti-doping compliances leads to the athletes relying on the coaches and other support staff.

Herein it is important to note that the coaches and support staff are largely provided by the Government of India/State governments. Not many athletes have the financial wherewithal to hire private coaches. Consequently, the burden to comply with WADA falls squarely on the shoulders of the ignorant athletes. Dutee Chand for instance, comes from a remote village of Odisha. And there are many such stories of athletes, across the spectrum whose humble background, adds to their problem in complying with the WADA Code. The WADA Code is governed by the fundamental principle of strict liability. Consequently, the rule implicates an athlete for anti-doping violations based on any one of the listed infractions. To establish doping, the requirement of intent is done away with. In case of analytical proof, presence of prohibited substance leads to anti-doping violations. In case of non-analytical evidence, conduct and circumstances are proof of anti-doping violations.

In order to be WADA Code-compliant, the athletes have to ensure that no prohibited substance enters their system. Further they must ensure that they do not fail to meet any of the stipulations and standards prescribed within the Code. Now if we take the example of athletes from humble backgrounds, it is unrealistic to expect them to know everything about the WADA Code. Considering that athletes are entering into the sporting system at a very young age, they need proper guidance. In the context of India, this guidance is provided by the coaches and the trainers. Apart from cricket, Indian sports, is primarily driven through Central and State government patronage. The recognition by the State is important for the purpose of receiving funding. Hence the entire system right from scouting talent to getting them prepared for international tournaments is within the domain of the State. The on-going scheme of Khelo India is an example of the same. Further the success of the Indian hockey teams (men and women), in the recent times, is attributed to the patronage and support of the Odisha government.

Against this background the role of the National Sports Federations, the State sports federations and the local clubs and coaching centers is important. For it is these grass root level operators that bring the athletes into the system. And hence it is at theses levels that the information and awareness about the WADA Code and its complexities and compliances needs to be conveyed. For the compliances need to be embedded within the system. However, as the current spate of doping infractions reveal the same doesn’t appear to be the case. Another important aspect which one needs to understand is that unless the athletes are clearly conveyed that doping is not allowed, they will not take it seriously. For them it’s the training aspect and getting selected and winning that counts. This is so because within the Indian system, sports for many are a way to get a job. Largely the public sector, but even private sector also offers jobs based on sports quota.

Hence, for the athletes, it is primarily about getting selected, either at the state level or at the national level. The selection at the international level is desirable but not achievable, in view of excessive competition. Though getting selected for international competitions is tough, but in the Indian context, being the most populous country makes its tougher. Hence to survive the competition the athletes are always on the lookout for ways and means to do relatively better. In the Indian context, the argument of doing better does not mean winning medals. For, an empirical review of India’s performance in the International Competition, shows that we have miles to go. Being the most populous country our performance in Asian Games and Olympics, pales when compared with China. For till last year China was the most populous country in the world. The total medal tally count in the 2018 Asian Games was 69 medals for India 289 for China.

Hence, incidents of doping make sense in China or even in the cases of other countries which are power house in sports. Primarily because, these countries are able to provide stellar performance at the international competitions. And hence the motive of winning at all cost incentivizes the doping. In case of Indian athletes, it makes no sense, since large number of them who have been caught are not star performers. Not that they all have won medals in Olympics or Asian Games. Still the continuing incidents of doping has lead India being ranked as the country with the third highest number of anti-doping rule violations. And with more and more doping incidents coming in the forefront, India may soon compete with Russia for the top spot. The primary reason for the large number of cases of doping, as stated above, is the lure of jobs. Further for coaches and trainers at different levels, its about ensuring more athletes make the cut for getting selected. Its actually all connected. A successful coaching stint, even at the club level or state level, means that they can open their own private sports academy.

On the other hand, more athletes getting selected, means more publicity for the academy and more students. The point is that getting selected and having a chance to get a job, are the main driving force behind athletes blindly following their coaches and trainers. And in turn the coaches and trainers, to prove their success rate, feed whatever they can to increase performance. This the reality of the Indian system. A look at the National Anti-Doping Agency’s (hereinafter called NADA) website will reveal how poorly we are handling the issue. The NADA’s website comprises of the mandatory tabs, informing about WADA and its compliance requirements. However, it isn’t helpful in terms of education and awareness about compliance with doping rules. The maximum it provides are few videos and a list of organization that have conducted awareness programs. As an athlete able to use internet and surf, the website will provide the video about doping and its effects. It though does not help one to take measures to prevent anti-doping violations. That requires hands on training and specially designed courses. Unfortunately, there is complete lack of imagination on this aspect.

Dutee and More to Come!

In view of the large number of doping cases, as seen in 2022-2023, the solution lies within. Long back Justice Mudgal had recommended that we up the ante on education and awareness programs regarding WADA Code. Dutee may be a star athlete who is caught for doping and her reasons might not be all about lack of awareness. However, its not a lone instance, for the others who have been caught for anti-doping violations, are not all superstars. And the first step to stem the rut is to start young. Not everything can be left to the private sector. The Central Government and the State Government has to invest heavily in developing world class anti-doping education and awareness programs. The first step has to be to incorporate anti-doping awareness programs at school level, and co-opt parents and guardians. Once awareness spreads, more guardians and parents will be wary of what the trainers, the coaches and the academies are feeding their kids.

The second step is for all the governmental bodies in charge of sports, including Sports Authority of India (“SAI”), NADA and the national and state sports federations to develop specialized literature on anti-doping compliances. The important point here is that programs and the literature developed has to be in vernacular language. Apart from English and Hindi, other languages have to be drafted in to explain in the simplest way the WADA Code and the entire anti-doping program. In addition, both the coaches and the athletes have to be given hands on training as to how to detect, report, find out the content of the products that they are consuming. The entire effort has to be on not only protecting the athletes as well as the support staff but making them self-sufficient enough. This will enable them to be vigilant by default and ensure better compliance with the WADA Code.

Dutee and such other high-profile cases, like that of Dipa Karmakar  might not be avoided for there are reasons which lures the best to doping. However, India can definitely try to minimize the incidents of anti-doping violations, by ensuring that incidences of compliances go up. And this will ensure that there is no suspicion against the State. As mentioned above, since in India training and other facilities are largely funded and provided by the Central/State government, rise in doping cases also implicates the State. As in the case of Russia, India too may appear to be facilitating doping amongst the athletes. Hence a robust anti-doping awareness, education and prevention program is the need of the hour.

It is not enough to promote sports, and it is not enough to encourage youngsters to indulge in sporting activity. It is equally important that we accept the reality that compliance with the WADA Code and its anti-doping program is a sine qua non. Hence any person choosing to be an athlete/sports person, and aiming to represent the district/state/nation, will have to mandatorily be on the right side of the WADA Code. One needs to also understand that investing in a robust anti-doping program is necessary. If a star athlete like Dutee too gets caught, the plight of a non-elite athlete can only be imagined.     

The author is an Associate Professor of Law at WBNUJS, Kolkata and Director, Centre for Sports Law and Policy, WBNUJS.

Categories: Sports