NADA's late arrival at junior nationals raises questions

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Not long after teenager Tejaswin Shankar created a new national record in high jump in Coimbatore on Thursday, his elation turned to panic. For a mark to be ratified as a national record, a number of procedures need to be in place. One of these is for the athlete to clear a dope test. And while Shankar was ready to give his sample, there was no one to collect it.

"I went around looking for where to give the dope sample. I went to the AFI (Athletics Federation of India) officials. But there was no dope sample collector. And then I couldn't give the sample on the next day also," Shankar says.

As it turns out, the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA), which is supposed to collect and test blood and urine samples, had not sent a team to the Junior Nationals. Shankar had to approach officials of the AFI at the venue before CK Valson, the general secretary of the federation, dialed the director general of NADA.

"I requested him to send a team to collect samples," Valson says. A three-member team eventually arrived at the Nehru stadium on Saturday morning.

According to Valson, NADA is informed of the athletics calendar at the start of the season. Valson says the AFI also sent a reminder to NADA on September 10, a month before the start of the junior nationals. Another AFI official says the federation had even arranged accommodation for the NADA officials, whom they expected to arrive on the first day of the event - which coincided with Shankar's high jump event.

"NADA believes that the doping is more common among senior athletes and not juniors," Valson says. "So they don't prioritise dope testing at the juniors."

Indeed, it is possible that had Shankar not jumped higher than the previous national record, NADA might not even have shown up at all. "When I called up the NADA DG, he was surprised that a senior record had fallen," Valson says. "Then they had to send a team to collect the samples."

Even after reaching Coimbatore, the NADA team is not testing all medal winners or even all record setters (three on the first day alone).

"Each sample bottle in which you collect urine is a specialized one," Valson says. "Once it is closed, the seal can't be broken. It costs about a hundred dollars each. There are four age groups [U-14, U-16, U-18 and U-20] at the junior nationals and around 125 events in all. So it's not possible to test every winner."

That still does not explain why NADA was not present at the beginning of the highest profile junior athletics event in the country.

Valson reckons NADA collected about 40 samples at last year's junior nationals in Ranchi. This time, having arrived on the third day of the competition, he thinks they will collect between 25 and 30 samples.

NADA's Director General Navin Agarwal for his part says that the reason for their absence was because they have a different approach to doping prevention.

"We believe more in preventive measures at the junior level and punitive measures at the senior level. We generally hold seminars for them to educate them that this (doping) is something that should not be done," he says.

"When we find there is an unusual result, we do the testing. Now we have done the testing. If they get barred for four years, they often say that they were not aware. We have a responsibility to first make them aware."

Valson disagrees with this assessment: "If you want to curb doping, you must test everywhere," he says. "If an athlete realizes he won't be tested, of course there are chances that he will dope."

This was cold comfort to Shankar. Incidentally, athletes present at the Nehru stadium in Coimbatore say no educational seminar was conducted either. When the NADA team did show up, Shankar was the first to give his sample. But as per the AFI constitution, the near 48-hour gap between event and urine sample collection should mean the 17-year-old's remarkable achievement cannot be ratified.

Once an athlete is chosen to be tested, he must be notified in the same session of competition. He is followed around by a chaperone until he gives a sample which is then sealed and later tested.

"If dope control is not done, then you can't ratify it. It has to be done at the time of the competition itself. After two days it doesn't make sense. After two days what are you testing for? Any sample has been taken out of competition," says a dope control expert.

Shankar will have to wait for his record to be made official when the AFI's ratification committee sits just before the federation's general council meeting, possibly in January next year. Until then, Shankar's mark will remain a personal best.

However there is precedent for Shankar's effort to become a national record. In 2013, long jumper K Premkumar leaped past the then national record. However, his dope sample was collected only a day after his event because neither the AFI nor the Railways Sports Control Board (RSPB) had informed NADA about the competition. The ratification committee eventually sanctioned Premkumar's mark as a national record.

In Shankar's situation too, the ratification committee will have to go through the report of the AFI's technical delegate, who is responsible for making sure the event is held under approved guidelines.

"It isn't that anyone who gives a dope sample five days after the event is considered," says Dr. Arun Mendiratta, chairman of Athletics Federation of India medical commission.

"These matters are treated on a case by case basis. If NADA was not in Coimbatore despite knowing about the event, it clearly isn't the athlete's fault. If the AFI can show that they had written to NADA then there is merit in ratifying the record."

Despite the delay, Valson says there shouldn't be any issue regarding ratification. "It isn't Tejaswin's fault. He gave the sample the moment he was asked to so there will be no problem," he says.

While Shankar's case might still have a happy ending, Valson says he will speak to Agarwal about the situation. However, Agarwal himself believes that there was no mismanagement in Coimbatore.

"No,there will be no change in policy (regarding dope testing among juniors). There was no incident. When we came to know there was an unusual record, we sent our team."