That realisation came to Briton Dwain Chambers 10 years ago, when he found his best was not good enough to outrun his American competitors in the 100m sprint. On his little island, he was used to winning, ever since sprinting helped him outrace his disadvantaged childhood.
“At the time I was thinking, just what was it that the Americans had that the rest of the world didn’t? Drive, determination, facilities, money? Who knows? I’d given heart and soul to my sport and hadn’t come anywhere near a medal position. Something wasn’t right,” says Chambers in his 2009 confessional autobiography Race Against Me: My story.
To make it right, Chambers found tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG, a performance-enhancing drug, for which he tested positive, served a two-year ban but is still ostracised from European athletics meetings. The taint to his character is permanent. It doesn’t matter that he has been the fastest sprinter on the continent this season and has faced his inner conflict better than most.
Ashwini Akkunji, winner of the 2010 Commonwealth Games 400m hurdles and member of the champion 4x400m relay team, India’s new poster girl of athletics, may be facing that conflict. Over the past nine days, Akkunji and seven other athletes have tested positive for banned drugs, mostly for a testosterone clone called methandienone, used to spur exceptional weight and strength. The tests were conducted in advance of a 37-member Indian team leaving for Kobe, Japan, for the Asian Athletics Championships, which begins today.
Temporarily suspended pending another test, all the athletes face two-year bans. There is no western conspiracy to frame these athletes, as we are wont to proclaim. The dope tests were conducted on June 27 by the National Institute of Sports in Patiala, and the athletes were suspended by the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA). The dope-testing facilities are state-of-the-art, so do not expect too many errors. Last year, 11 Indian athletes failed dope tests and tales of discarded syringes and vials are rife at sports facilities.
Like many Indians, I am not a little depressed. The national athletes accused of doping, like Chambers, are rousing stories of grit and rural determination, especially the women, who had the hardest journeys and grandest victories. Long of limb, strong of sinew and steadfast of purpose, Akkunji is a farmer’s daughter from a remote village in coastal Karnataka’s Udupi district (she is a Bunt, a community that also threw up actor Aishwarya Rai). Like suspended team-mate Mandeep Kaur, a sturdy Jat from a Punjab village, Akkunji overcame community disapproval of a woman with athletic dreams. Sini Jose, the third suspended member of the gold-medal quartet, is a Kerala farmer’s daughter. The 400 m relay team, India’s main athletic medal hope for the 2012 Olympics is now unlikely to make it to London.
Sport is no more than a mirror of human life. George Orwell called it “war minus the shooting”. India’s new athletes reflect the nation’s rise — quick, confident but a long way from the top. As they learn to win, it appears Indian athletes must now grasp that winning cannot be the only thing; they must learn there is a fine line between the obsession with winning and the will to win, and that it is not all right to do anything it takes. Of course, this is easy to say.
The obsession with winning consumes modern sport. Vince Lombardi, a legendary US football coach in the 1960s, reflected the American approach when he once said, “If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?” Though there are many who have returned to athletics after serving doping bans, the British sprinter Chambers is kept away from his shot at winning because his country’s athletics federation is apparently trying to reclaim the goodness of sport; to go faster, higher and stronger — without drugs.
This, too, is the avowed aim of those who run Indian athletics. A reputation for drug-taking does not sit well with an emerging nation with pretensions of moral superiority over the rest of the world. However, we are still quick to blame the foreigner.
In the recent round of doping shame, Indian authorities on Tuesday sacked Ukrainian Yuri Ogorodonik, the national track and field coach, who trained six suspended athletes, all 400 m runners. The implicit message: He led us into this. “It’s happened out of sheer ignorance on the part of the athletes, who are generally from rural areas, or not very highly educated,” says India’s sports minister Lalit Maken.
“My daughter told me she has nothing to fear since six of her teammates have also failed the dope test,” says Akkunji’s father Chidananda Shetty in rural Udupi. Akkunji insists she is innocent. “I will prove it,” she told The Asian Age. “I won’t let my years of blood and sweat be tainted.”
These are smart, focused young women and men with considerable athletic experience. The emerging evidence points to a long-running conspiracy of silence between India’s government-run sports establishment and athletes. To many athletes, taking drugs is now so natural that guilt is hard to accept.
“Perhaps at this time the devil was slowly sowing the seeds for my conversion to the dark side,” writes Chambers in his sometimes florid book. “The dark side of athletics, a world of deceit and lying, a world where the athlete wriggles and squirms in an attempt to evade the testers, a world of double standards, of potions and pills and chemically manufactured substances… a world of drugs and a world of hell.”