The reluctance of India’s leading women 400m runners to join the national camp under dope-tainted Ukrainian coach Yuri Ogorodnik is a cause for concern for those who want Indian sport to stay clean. The athletes don’t want to go for a camp in Turkey — from where doping violations have been reported — but the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) is threatening them with suspension. The AFI believes the women’s longer relay squad has the best chance among our track athletes at the 2016 Rio Olympics. However, past experience has not been pleasant. At the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games, the women’s 4x400m relay squad won gold but the nation was shamed when six runners were suspended for doping the next year. The federation insists that the camp in Turkey would be ideal to prepare the squad. However, the same body sent athletes to camps in Ukraine until the ministry banned them over doping concerns.
Despite Indian athletes showing promise in field events, their participation at national meets has dwindled. The AFI insists that elite athletes must train only in the central set-up, but it must first address the erosion of confidence among athletes in its methods. If athletes are caught for doping, they have to fend for themselves. That calls for a sound oversight mechanism to pin the responsibility of the federation, athletes and coaches, to prevent rather than manage afterwards. The Sports Authority of India, whose facilities and coaches are central to the training, should also become answerable.
In the last few years, there has been anxiety in the athletics federation to demonstrate that the Indian athletes are good enough to compete at the highest level. It is true in some cases, but rigorous talent scouting and training, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, are needed. Athletes need to be sensitised about the use and abuse of drugs and, more importantly, officials and coaches need to be checked from putting undue pressure or misguiding athletes. The AFI should send abroad the message that it won’t let anyone take shortcuts to stardom. More importantly, it must guard its credibility.