Chuck de, India!

“Originally published on 1-May-2012 in livemint in an online column ‘Lawyers Day Out’ by Anish Dayal now Senior Advocate Delhi High Court

Paan Singh Tomar, the recently screened film by Tigmanshu Dhulia leaves you sad and thoughtful, rueing the state of sports in our country. The film is set in post independence India and traces the life of an Indian Army soldier who was seven-times national steeplechase champion during the 1950s and 1960s, represented India at the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo but due to family land disputes in his village and lack of support from the administration, ended up becoming a bandit in the Chambal ravines. He dies in a police ambush in the 1980s. After three decades his life became the script for this hugely acclaimed film. Irrfan Khan’s portrayal of this real life character brings to the fore a continuing chink in India’s sporting DNA. The ingredients of Tomar’s life story are true for many Indian athletes even to this day.

Sporting talent is discovered in promising youngsters from villages and mofussil towns. Coming from poor, low income backgrounds they practice and nurture their talents in rough local conditions and are propelled only by well meaning coaches and mentors at the local or state level. Slowly life gets taken over by the sporting establishment, first at the state level and then, if exceptional, at the central level. For them and their families sports is a means out from poverty and acquires a social and economic dimension for them, much more than sport itself. If good, they get jobs in government organizations and then move from sporting camp to camp and from competition to competition. However, unless they are cricketers, they continue to live, play, compete and win in relative anonymity. For those who still harbour any doubt – the Indian sport has two distinct, separate, mutually exclusive worlds – cricket and non-cricket. The former is available in all its glory, glitz and glamour 24X7 on news and entertainment channels and at least 4 pages of any daily newspaper. The other you will either miss noticing completely or it will hit you with turbo force at some point of time in your life.

Which is what happened to me last year when I was representing the six girl athletes who had done Indian proud by winning the gold medal at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth games in the 400m relay. It was India’s rare golden triumph on the track. These girls (Ashwini Akkunji, Mandeep Kaur and others) were super talented, worked brilliantly as a team, belonged to different parts of the country (from Muzzafarnagar in U.P to Udupi in Karnataka), had sweated it out for the last many years to give all of us the pleasure of waving the Indian Flag in the stadium during the Games. But hardly had the confetti settled down, about six months later it was reported that they had been tested positive for steroids during a doping test before another local competition. The media went beserk as if suddenly all of India’s sportsmen had been found with their grimy hands in the doping jar. The girls were hounded like criminals, the 74 year old Ukranian coach had to leave India and the Indian public went “shame shame”.

While what remained in focus was a serious problem of doping (which exists probably everywhere in the world of sport), what was not really discussed was the reasons why this should happen to athletes in India and how it needs to be addressed. As soon as the news broke, the girls were thrown out of national camps and were abandoned like derelict juvenile offenders. For a long time the Indian Olympic hopes were practising in parks and local running tracks! Their entreaties that steroids must have entered their body through contaminated ginseng given by their coach fell on deaf ears. The fact that they had tested negative for all these years and during all competitions where they got gold medals was completely ignored. The fact that they could hardly speak English and would find it impossible to navigate through the complex doping laws and would not have the resources to fight their way back, knowing well that they had been victims of a completely unfortunate incident, was missed in the media melee. We fought their cause and case before the National Anti Doping Panel and which found on the basis of evidence that the steroids indeed came through the ginseng bottles (ginseng being a food supplement allowed to athletes) which happened to be contaminated and had been bought by the coach from the official games village in China. And the coach decided to depend on his own sourcing since the Athletics Federation or the Sports Authority had run out of supplements. What was well intentioned originally turned out to be a disaster. However the Doping Panel including the Appeal Panel found in favour of the girls, after a protracted legal fight, ordering only a year’s sanction to finish in June 2012 before the Olympics began, giving a window of opportunity to these golden girls to run for India. The story is not yet over. The International Athletics Federation reportedly has filed an appeal against this to the Court of Arbitration for Sports in Switzerland challenging this and to probably determine that these girls should not compete for India in the Olympics and serve an extended ban.

These girls are probably a wee bit luckier than Pan Singh Tomar who died fighting his own battles in the 1960s. But scrape and peel the layers of these real stories and what do you have. A draconian doping law (applied by India as per an international Convention) which holds the athlete responsible for all which is found in his or her body. An athlete who trains and practices in dismal local conditions has no control over the food that is offered or supplements that are given by coaches (who could either be desperate for performance or may be extremely well intentioned). Sports federations hardly ever bother over whether athletes are being supplied consistently with proper supplements and medical advice. Sportsmen in India (except for the elite ones) cannot afford their own doctors or sports medicine experts. One could get a prohibited substance in one’s body after eating a contaminated paracetamol or vitamin tablet or getting a body massage using any of the regular aromatic oils available in the market, so the sources of problems are endless. To compound issues, there are numerous unregulated supplement shops that have sprung up all over the country. You can find then in markets in Delhi too catering to the body building, gym enthusiast, peddling huge jars of “whey protein” or “muscle builders” (from some American or Chinese manufacturer or the like) promising the earth. There are no laboratories provided by the Government or by any private organization where an athlete can walk in and give sample to test for contamination. And yet, the international doping law requires imposes the same standard of care to an Indian athlete as it does to his or her much more privileged compatriot in the western world.
Yes, it’s understandable that it is critical to promote complete deterrence and fight the battle against doping, but in its wake and with half-hearted efforts in India, our athletes are inadvertently becoming victims of circumstances. There is no comprehensive education programme organized by NADA, the local anti-doping body. They don’t even have a medical counsellor/legal counsellor available for regular advice to troubled athletes, and till recently they did not have even a list of simple Dos and Don’ts on their website. In the girl’s case, the Doping Panel bemoans the lack of facilities and education in India (the order is available to read on ).

So while the “punitive” gets implemented, the “preventive” languishes. And therein perhaps lies the rub. We are fast to impose punishment and render judgment on people alleged and accused, but we do hardly enough to ensure that such situations do not arise in the first place. It’s the same as having a large police force to challan people on the roads, but hardly any effort goes to make sure that they don’t get a driving licence until they know each rule of the road by heart. Ensuring the “preventive” requires tedious management and discipline and is usually a matter of policy than law. The “punitive” is a mandate of law and therefore is brought into action more readily (even though ham-handed).
A growing and developing economy deserves to give better treatment to its sportspersons. One cannot just rely upon raw talent and exploit economic desperation and social status of these sportspersons and their subservience to an apathetic sporting establishment, where in fact millions are spent trying to win over sports federations elections, by already well fed minsters, politicians and other busybodies! It’s probably time to chuck the inertia and recognize that each sportsperson deserves the support of every citizen well before he or she gives you a chance to applaud and cheer and feel flushed in the victory of the tricolour on the tracks.

Anish Dayal is an advocate at the Supreme Court. An alumnus of Cambridge University, he works closely on policy and legislation, media, entertainment and sports law.

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