It has been 15 months since shot-putter Inderjeet Singh -- the first Indian track and field athlete to qualify for last year's Olympics -- was provisionally suspended by the anti-doping watchdog National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA). Yet, almost 10 hearings later, there are more questions than answers and he remains barred from participating after testing positive for banned substances.
The case is with NADA's Anti-Doping Disciplinary Panel (ADDP) and Inderjeet could face a four-year ban if found guilty.
Inderjeet, who won gold at the 2015 Asian Athletics Championships, was suspended in July 2016 after his June 22 'A' sample tested positive for anabolic steroids androsterone and etiocholanolone. A preliminary report sent by NADA to the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) mentioned that his June 29 test was negative. But the report was later retracted and NADA said that the test was positive. Tested under an independent observer, Inderjeet's 'B' sample also returned positive for the same banned substances.
A three-member ADDP, led by retired district and sessions judge Ramnath, began hearing Inderjeet's dope rule violation in September last year. The panel, which was formed well before this case, has now run its full term of two years. NADA says the panel will now have to be reconstituted following clearance from the sports ministry, stretching the process even further. This delay is in direct contravention to the WADA code, which stipulates that cases against athletes must be heard and disposed of within three months.
What has complicated the case -- to Inderjeet's disadvantage -- is the refusal of the Doping Control Officer (DCO) who collected his sample in Hyderabad to appear as witness in the case. According to Inderjeet, though the DCO -- who has since left that post -- had communicated his unavailability to NADA on August 29, the athlete's lawyers were not informed about it until September 6, the day of the last hearing.
"It's already over a year. I don't know how much longer I will have to wait to know my future in the sport." Inderjeet Singh
NADA denies it is willfully delaying the matter. "The athlete has been requesting for witnesses who are not willing to depose" NADA DG Naveen Agarwal tells ESPN. "We cannot use force on any witness to appear for a violator. Also the concerned person is longer a DCO with us." Inderjeet has cried foul and insisted that he's being framed and slow-roasted for speaking out against the sport's administrators. "It's already over a year," he says. "I don't know how much longer I will have to wait to know my future in the sport. Athletes who have been speaking up against the federation have routinely been harassed and slapped with false cases. As an athlete you give your sample for testing trusting NADA, not any particular official. So how can NADA wash its hands of someone who acted on their behalf? But I haven't given up training. I haven't given up hope." Now into his 30s, Inderjeet knows that each delay will only set him back even further on the road to a possible comeback.
"Initially, a bit of the delay was on our part since we needed time to prepare our defence," says Anish Dayal, Inderjeet's lawyer. "Cumulatively it has taken up a lot of time and now we're at a critical juncture, but witnesses aren't coming forward for cross-examination and the panel has also run out of its term."
There have been other similar long-running cases. Last month, Asian Games gold medallist quarter-miler Priyanka Panwar was banned for eight years (the sanction period for a second doping offence) -- 14 months after her samples were collected during the National Inter-State Championships. One among the core group of runners and part of the AFI's national camp, her case was striking since it bust the national federation's persistent claim of doping being largely a practice among non-campers. In 2011, Priyanka had been among six members of the relay squad who tested positive ahead of the Asian Championships. The case of Amar Muralidharan, an unheralded Pune swimmer, also brought the anti-doping agency's glaring lapses into focus. After he was notified of testing positive at the National Championships in September 2010, it took two years for the NADA-appointed panel to hear the appeal.
In Inderjeet's case, a new panel and a fresh batch of hearings are likely to take up much more time than the shot-putter could have been prepared for. For now, he has only questions to grapple with. Answers may take longer.