When President Pranab Mukerjee confers the Arjuna Award to the country’s outstanding sportspersons in the felicitation ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on Saturday, he won’t have any idea that international athlete Renjith Maheshwary should not have been in the list of awardees as he had failed a dope test in 2008.
The eligibility rule (4.2) for the award, as amended on March 15, 2010, states that athletes found positive for use of drugs banned by the IOC will not be eligible for the award.
During the 48th Open national athletics meet in Kochi, the urine sample of Maheshwary -- he won the triple jump title clearing 15.91m - had tested positive for the banned stimulant, ephedrine. He was provisionally suspended and disqualified.
However, at the hearing, the Athletic Federation of India (AFI) panel let him off the hook by slapping a suspension of just three months. It should have been six months. Ashok Ahuja, former sports medicine expert of the National Institute of Sports, Patiala, says the panel should not have compromised on such an issue. “It sends a wrong message,” he said.
It wasn’t the first time Maheshwary was having a brush with performance enhancing drugs. In 2005, while training in Patiala, he was hospitalised under mysterious circumstances. Chief athletics coach, Bahadur Singh, had said Maheshwary was down with jaundice after drinking contaminated water in the camp, but a medical expert treating him pointed out that the liver ailment was caused by an overdose of performance enhancing drugs.
Maheshwary’s case could be unique in the history of the Arjuna Award, instituted in 1961.
In 2002, shot-putter Bahadur Singh Sagoo of Punjab Police was not given the award despite winning the gold medal at the Busan Asian Games in the wake of doping allegations. He was not considered even when silver medalists Soma Biswas (heptathlon) and Madhuri Singh (800m) were awarded in 2003.
Selecting Maheshwary conveyed a message to the public that the award could be won through influence, says Ahuja. This year too, there was criticism of the selection panel after woman wrestler Neha was chosen and Babita Kumari, bronze medalist at last year’s world championships, was overlooked.
With such issues coming up, it only intensifies the debate whether the sanctity of the awards is being diluted.