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Neeraj Chopra might have stolen the limelight with his history-scripting silver in javelin throw at the World Athletics Championship in Oregon last week but the event exposed India’s doping in sports problem after Tamil Nadu trailblazer Dhanalakshmi Sekar tested positive for banned steroids.

Dhanalakshmi and B Aishwarya, two of the most promising and emerging athletes in the world, joined the list of athletes who failed dope tests and were sent packing. Their participation in next week’s Commonwealth Games in UK’s Birmingham looks doubtful at the time of writing.

When athletes come under the scanner for suspected drug use, their splendid recent performances are scrutinized and rightfully so. Dhanalakshmi, the speedster from Tamil Nadu, clocked an impressive 11.26s (joint-second in India’s all-time list) for the 100m in the Turkey event and then followed it up with a sterling 22.89s (in 200m) in Kazakhstan, leaving many stunned.

Dhanalakshmi and raw speed
Dhanalakshmi shot to fame when she defeated India’s top women sprinters Dutee Chand to gold in 100m and Hima Das in 200m heats. She set the tracks on fire during the 2021 Federation Cup with her raw speed.  Born in 1998 in a remote village near Tamilnadu’s Tiruchirappalli, the speedster went on to shatter the record of legendary athlete P.T. Usha in 200m race at the Federation Cup. P.T. Usha had set the record 23 years ago, a year before Dhanalakshmi was born. Her coach and veteran Tamil Nadu-based sprinter Manikandan Arunmugam once said that she lacked technique but had raw speed. Technique can be taught, but not raw speed.

Since her break-through in 2018, Dhanalakshmi had a momentous rise in India’s track and field set up. She finished with a bronze a year later in 200m in the Federation Cup and went to France and clinched gold in 200m. That was her first overseas meet. At the 2019 Inter-State championships, she was part of the Tamil Nadu team that secured a gold in the 4x100m relay.

Dhanalakshmi’s coach and veteran Tamil Nadu-based sprinter Manikandan Arunmugam once said that she lacked technique but had raw speed. Technique can be taught, but not raw speed

But all was not well for the trailblazer off the tracks as Covid hit and she lost one of her sister’s due to illness in 2020.

A roaring return
In 2021, Dhanalakshmi clocked 11.38 seconds (her own personal best in 100m) to qualify for the finals as the fastest runner. She went on to beat Dutee Chand and clinched her first national-level title. Interestingly, it was Dutee’s first loss at a domestic 100m event since 2015.

Dhanalakshmi finished third in her first-ever quartermile at a 4x400m mixed relay trials and went to the Tokyo Olympics. All her personal bests, in the 100, 200 and 400m came last month. The anti-doping agencies took notice and the 24-year-old returned a positive test for steroids in a test conducted by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU). Steroids, a banned substance, increase muscle mass and the responsiveness of muscles. Muscles repair themselves stronger and more accurately, resulting in muscle mass gain.

Performance enhancing drugs are banned as they help boost red blood cells that help in carrying oxygen to the muscles. Since the anti-doping agencies carry out two tests — one during the competition and one out-of-competition — athletes often tend to evade anti-doping agency officials who arrive at all event venues to collect samples of athletes under scanner.

If one looks at the list of latest sanctions against athletics stars for doping violations, many young athletes feature in the list. The list released by sport’s global watchdog Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) mentions names of athletes who consumed/injected a “cocktail of banned substances”.

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Indian let down
Several big names in Indian athletics have tested positive for banned substances apart from Dhanalakshmi and Aishwarya.  The list includes discus thrower Kamalpreet Kaur and javelin thrower Shivpal Yadav, quartermiler M.R. Poovamma, former national javelin record holder Rajender Singh, and national gold medallists Taranjeet Kaur and K Naresh Kumar in the last 12 months.

Kaur, a sixth-place finisher at the Tokyo Olympics, had tested positive for Stanozolol, an anabolic steroid banned under the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code. She was the first Indian woman to break the 65-metre barrier and was expected to win medals at the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games and the World Championships.

Even para athletes were caught in the doping net. In a major embarrassment for India, when its first batch of para athletes left for Birmingham, news broke that two athletes – Aneesh Kumar, (who was to compete in the men’s shot put IF1 category) and para powerlifter Geeta — both failed dope tests in an out-of-competition testing. They have been removed from the CWG squad.

According to a 2021 World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report, India is ranked third (152 cases) in doping cases, only behind Russia and Italy.

Why do athletes take the risk?
The premium placed on podium finishes in any major event is one of the main reasons for athletes risking everything to take banned drugs. Medals bring opportunities in India along with all the glitz and glory. The government jobs and other securities that follow a medal win send out a message that winning is all that matters.

The Covid pandemic also pushed many athletes to consume performance enhancing drugs as the regulations and travel restrictions left many events without the needed doping checks and balances.

According to a 2021 World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report, India is ranked third (152 cases) in doping cases, only behind Russia and Italy

Some experts have raised the role of doctors and coaches who often fail to guide athletes in such matters. “The athletes often trust their guru as much as their parents. So they would be willing to consume the banned substances when the guru suggests it,” Sports psychologist Advani told Mint in 2020.

“While we haven’t created a holistic ecosystem of having specialised experts for the overall development of athletes, it’s not because we lack such experts or resources in the country. And at some point, someone has to take responsibility. Otherwise, it’s only the athletes paying the price and losing out on their careers,” he sad, commenting on the chronic problem of doping in sports in India.


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