Saturday, July 16, 2011

An article from the Sydney Morning Herald

Here's an article from today's Sydney Morning Herald:

As an aside.....did you know that the organiser of the Delhi Commonwealth Games (Suresh Kalmadi) is now in jail because of corruption ??

Pumped-up dream deflates in disgrace

Ben Doherty
July 16, 2011

Losing their lustre ... Ashwini Akkunji, Manjeet Kaur, Mandeep Kaur and Sini Jose celebrate their 4x400m relay gold medal. Three have since failed drug tests. Photo: Reuters

Amid the colour and calamity of Delhi's Commonwealth Games, these were India's
golden girls. The women's 4x400-metre relay team, competing in the penultimate event on the track, ran down the seemingly impregnable Nigerians to claim an unexpected, barely believable, gold medal.

All of India celebrated. Wrapped up in 3½ minutes was the story of India's Games as the public wished to see it - the nation defiantly snatching a last-minute victory in the face of international scepticism. It was a raucous arrival as a bona fide sporting nation.

But now even that golden moment has been tarnished. Three of the four women in the team - Mandeep Kaur, Sini Jose and Ashwini Akkunji - have tested positive for steroids this month. And, to the country's chagrin, they appear to be at the epicentre of a widening scandal that threatens to engulf all sport in India.

Easily available ... steroids are cheap at suburban pharmacies. Photo: Ben Doherty

Eight of India's best track and field athletes have tested positive for steroids in the past fortnight. The results have unmasked what many have long believed is the rampant and systemic abuse of drugs in Indian sport, and highlighted the problem of the ready availability of steroids.

Dr Ashok Ahuja, a former sports medicine officer at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala, says the country is ashamed and humiliated by the scandal but he says the spate of positive tests comes as little surprise.

"This has been going on for quite a long time in India at all levels of sport … if we go back into history, there have been too many instances of people doping," he says.

India sent only one athlete from the Commonwealth Games village in disgrace for a failed test. But in the lead-up to the Games, 12 ''probables'', including four wrestlers, were caught. The country's weightlifting federation has twice been banned from international competition because of doping violations.

Ahuja told the Herald that despite the national euphoria over the relay win, many viewed it with suspicion.

"To be honest, we were very surprised by the way these girls improved to achieve Commonwealth gold and Asian [Games] gold. To improve five seconds in one year is not possible, it is physiologically not possible. There was something more to that. They improved in leaps and bounds, too much."

As medallists, all four runners were drug-tested after their Commonwealth win and passed, apparently clean, but Ahuja believes they had been involved in doping regimes of varying sophistication for months, if not years, before.

"I think so. No only these girls, but many athletes in India have been involved in doping over a long time. These runners went over to other countries before the Games, perhaps to get access to masking agents,'' he says.

"This has been going on for three or four years, that's why there was the shadow of doubt in our minds about their performance."

The athletes have protested their innocence, saying they unknowingly bought, and took, contaminated food supplements after those supplied by the Sports Authority of India ran out. They have pleaded they were only following their coaches' orders.
"I have full faith that I did nothing wrong … I'm not mad enough to take steroids," Kaur said.

The Sports Minister, Ajay Maken, has backed the runners' version of events, saying the positive tests happened "out of sheer ignorance on the part of the athletes, who are generally from the rural areas or are not highly educated".

Blame has instead been laid at the door of foreign coaches, in particular the Ukrainian Yuri Ogorodnik, a coach in the former Soviet Union before he landed a job with the Athletics Federation of India, and who regularly took his athletes to Ukraine and Belarus for training camps. Six of his athletes have failed drug tests.

Maken this week sacked Ogorodnik, and warned that any other coaches whose athletes tested positive would follow.

But the result of a single race, however significant, is overshadowed by the broader
issue of drugs in Indian sport, and the health risks run by those who take them.

Steroids are easily and cheaply available everywhere in India. This week, the Herald visited five suburban chemists in Delhi, asking at each for a number of different steroids. Each chemist had steroids in stock and sold them without question. Not once were we asked why the drugs were needed, or for a prescription.

Ten tablets of stanozolol, the powerful steroid most famously used by the disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, can be bought on the streets of the Indian capital for 42 rupees (88¢). Chemists even had a selection of brand names to choose from.

Vials of nandrolone, popular with runners, tennis players and baseballers, are sold, along with a syringe, for 115 rupees. Two doctors at a Delhi hospital, where steroids are dispensed legitimately, independently confirmed the drugs were genuine.

Anecdotally, steroids are being used not only by India's elite athletes but at school, collegiate and club level, Ahuja says.

The president of the Indian Federation of Sports Medicine, Dr P.S.M. Chandran, says drug abuse is Indian sport's worst-kept secret.

"Anabolic steroids are extremely widely used, they are rampantly used, because they are easily accessible and because they have a proven history of improving performance,'' he says.

''That's all the people care about, they don't listen [to warnings] about the side-effects, the damage they will do to their bodies."

The dangers of steroids are well-known - psychotic episodes, shrunken testicles in men and menstrual irregularity in women. Dr Chandran says lax government controls on drug manufacture, import and sale have created a culture of impunity around steroid abuse.

"This is probably the greatest failure. These drugs are so easy to get, not just for athletes, but the common man can just walk into a chemist and buy these drugs with no prescription, nothing,'' he says.

Ahuja and Chandran have called for more education about the dangers of steroids and support for elite athletes unsure of the rules. But for the three women at the centre of the current scandal, whatever reforms might emerge will come too late.

They face two-year bans from their sport and their chance of winning India's first Olympic track medal in London next year is almost certainly extinguished.
Akkunji, only 23, was the darling of Indian sport after her Commonwealth Games success and subsequent Asian games relay and individual golds.

Her story resonates with so much of aspirational India: the farmer's daughter who grew up chasing cows around her family property in Karnataka, whose ability was glimpsed and whose parents made endless sacrifices - even pawning their jewellery - so she could go to a school with a track coach, where her talent would be nurtured.

This week Ashwini's second sample, used to confirm test results, came back positive
for the steroid methandienone.

London is lost, almost certainly, but she intends to run on, and she wants her teammates alongside her.

"It's really sad that all this has happened to us. We are totally innocent,'' she says. ''But we will continue our preparation. We will continue with our practice."

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