Karela Fry

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Sports measures the health of a nation

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Winning the gold for women's relay in the Delhi Asiad

India produces few athletics champions, and is in the middle of a doping scandal every few years. In the latest scandal 8 athletes tested positive for banned drugs. The sports ministry immediately fired the coach, as Rediff reported:

Minister for sports and youth affairs, Ajay Maken announced the sacking of India’s Ukrainian athletics coach Yuri Ogrodnik on Tuesday.

The government also announced that a high court judge will be appointed to probe the doping scam in which eight leading women athletes have been found guilty of use of banned drugs to enhance performance. The minister has asked Sports Authority of India (SAI) to probe how banned substances entered NIS Patiala where the drugs were given to the athletes.

This is not the first time that Indian athletes have been found guilty of using steroids. Weight lifters have on many occasions in the past tested positive for use of banned drugs.

“We have decide to relieve the foreign coach (Ogrodnik of Ukraine) attached with these athletes with immediate effect. I will personally see to it and ensure that officials who are responsible for it (scandal) should be penalised,” he said.

Ogrodnik coached six of the eight athletes who tested positive, all of them women’s 400-meter runners.

Indian athletics was rocked by a doping scandal in the last few days when CWG and Asian Games gold-winning relay quartet members Mandeep Kaur and Sini Jose as well another qaurtermiler Jauna Murmu tested positive for a banned substance — methandienone — in out-of-competition tests.

Apart from the trio, another quartermiler Tiana Mary Thomas tested positive for anabolic steroid epimethandiol while long jumper Hari Krishnan Muralidharan and shot putter Sonia were the other two athletes who have tested positive in the last few days.

The scandal grew in proportion on Monday with two more athletes, including the country’s new golden girl Ashwini Akkunji and another quartermiler Priyanka Panwar testing positive for the same anabolic steroid — methandienone, hours before their departure for Japan for the Asian Championships.

Maken says he advised the national athletics federation to remove any other foreign coaches suspected of encouraging the use of performance-enhancing substances.

He wondered how the coaches could put the entire blame on the athletes and get away with their own complicity in providing them with the drugs.

A statement by the sports minister was widely reported. Here is the Calgary Star on the incident:

India’s sports minister Ajay Maken said this week that the test results were because of “sheer ignorance on the part of the athletes.”

Most elite athletes, he added, are “from the rural areas or are not highly educated.”

Saina Nehwal, the badminton player currently ranked 6th in the world, got drawn into the controversy. Here IE reported:

Saina Nehwal on Wednesday claimed that weightlifters and athletes have readily admitted to her that they consumed performance-enhancing substances during competitions. “The athletes and the weightlifters had spoken to me and they told me that they take drugs, but I really never expected this to happen,” she said.

Saina felt that the awareness of doping in sport should increase and players should be internet savvy so that they can check which substances are on the banned list. “It is really sad that the athletes don’t know what they take. The WADA website is very informative and has a complete list of the banned substances. A player can easily log on and see if the drugs that they are consuming are in the banned list or not,” she said.

Saina also blamed the lack of education as a reason for the increase in the doping menace and felt that the athletes were overdependent on their coaches. “Athletes and the weightlifters, in most cases, are less educated or not educated at all. They just take what their coaches give them,” she said.

There is a lot of ongoing tamasha: the coach miffed at not being given a hearing before being fired, dope shops found outside the National Institute of Sports in Patiala, an investigating committee formed by the ministry, a standing body set up by the Sports Authority of India, and so on. All positive steps are welcome, of course, if they last and take root.

However, given the repeated scandals, one cannot help seeing in this another botched short-cut to progress.

For children of middle-class urban Indian, athletics is not a career option. The minister and Saina Nehwal do speak an unpalatable truth: athletics is the way up only if you start from pretty far down. This may be true in many parts of the world, but there is a further twist to this story in India.

Just below the middle class, health indices are appalling. While obesity and diabetes are rampant in urban India, the mean body mass index (BMI) remains among the worst in the world (even Haiti has higher mean BMI). Undernourished children do not develop the muscle mass needed in world class athletics. It is clear that India cannot be a sporting superpower unless the general standard of living rises to match our slightly better-off neighbours: Bhutan, China, Pakistan.

This is not to say that there cannot be individual flashes of brilliance. However, as long as aspiring athletes come from perenially undernourished parts of the population, India has no pool of well-developed athletes to draw upon. How can we then produce winning athletes? The answer is clear: identify promising youngsters, and then develop their physique during training.

In India planning horizons are small, and such a shortcut leads down the path of institutionalized doping. This is exactly what seems to have happened.

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