A Long Road Ahead for Narsingh Yadav

Yadav’s suspension should serve as a reminder to India that governmental interference can only bring harm to the country’s sports-related interests in the global arena.

Narsingh Yadav, who was all set to compete in his wrestling category before being disqualified on doping charges. Credit: PTI

Narsingh Yadav, who was all set to compete in his wrestling category before being disqualified on doping charges. Credit: PTI

The four-year ban imposed on Narsingh Yadav at the Rio Olympics is the first time India has had one of its competitors barred from the games following the intervention of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

The global agency challenged the decision of a national hearing panel to exonerate wrestler Narsingh Yadav of a doping charge and managed to get a four-year suspension for the Indian competitor. The decision was taken at the ad hoc division of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

Coming as it did, with less than 24 hours till Yadav started his eagerly-awaited Olympic campaign, the CAS decision came as a shock to the Indian sports officialdom, the wrestler and his supporters. But the WADA appeal was more or less a foregone conclusion given the huge impact a complete reprieve on a ‘sabotage’ plea could have had on the world-wide anti-doping campaign.

Again, given the precedents, an exoneration by the CAS in a case like this looked highly unlikely – even on the day the Indian panel dramatically announced the reprieve and triggered boisterous celebrations among Yadav’s supporters who were waiting for the decision outside the Pragati Hostel premises of the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) in New Delhi.

The news broke just as India’s Olympic wrestling team was preparing to leave for Georgia for a training stint in the third week of July. And one could only think of contaminated supplements as a possible reason for such a high-profile wrestler getting caught for doping.

That theory came apart following a laboratory report that confirmed the supplements were negative for doping agents. Soon after this, Yadav and his supporters started theorising about ‘contaminated food’, finally arguing that Yadav’s amino drink could have been spiked as he left it unattended while training at Sonepat.

Unfortunately, the ‘conspiracy’ and ‘sabotage’ related theories clearly implied that Sushil Kumar,India’s most celebrated wrestler was behind this. Kumar lost a court case in which he sought a trial with Yadav to pick the country’s representative for Rio for the freestyle 74 kg category.

The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) has fully backed Yadav, not only in his bid to establish that he was sabotaged, but also in his demand for a CBI enquiry into the whole episode.

As is typical of many federations, the WFI is playing a strange role here. On the one hand NADA is acting on behalf of every federation, including the WFI, as it executes its functions as the national agency in charge of  enforcing anti-doping measure. On the other hand, NADA finds federations, in this case the WFI, on the ‘opposite’ side of things when it brings a doping charge against an athlete.

“We will fully back our athlete; we will not spare any effort to defend him” is an oft-heard argument. Is there not a contradiction here? NADA is expected to spend its resources tracking offenders on behalf of the national federations; however, it spends more resources presenting such cases before hearing panels and being opposed by the combined resources of the  accused athlete and the federation.

In the Yadav case – the issue featured in a parliamentary discussion, politicians demanded a probe into the matter, the Sports Minister Vijay Goel made a suo motu statement in parliament and Yadav, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the WFI Chief and a BJP MP thanked the Prime Minister for ensuring a speedy resolution. It was widely felt that all of this contributed to political pressure on NADA and the organisation eventually succumbed despite its initial statements.

Till July 28, when the disciplinary panel apparently concluded its hearings, Mr. Gaurang Kanth, the NADA counsel, appeared to be in the picture. The next day when the panel, rather unexpectedly, called to examine witnesses, Kanth was kept out of the loop. He did not have the chance to cross-examine the witnesses.

Two cooks from the SAI Sonepat Centre were deposed at the last minute during proceeding, but it is difficult to asses the impact of their deposition without knowing what transpired in the extended hearing since NADA refused to provide the media with a copy of the panel’s order.

When the hearings concluded, Mr. Kanth told reporters that NADA was confident of the panel rejecting the defence lawyers’ contention about ‘sabotage’. He said Yadav’s lawyers had failed to show proof that there was “no fault or negligence” on the athlete’s part in allowing the drug or a contaminated substance to get into his body nor had they succeeded in proving how the banned drug entered his body.

The ‘no fault or negligence’ rule (Article 10.4 of the WADA Code) that provides for an exoneration, can only be established if the athlete is able to prove conclusively how the substance entered his or her system.

While announcing the decision of the panel, NADA’s director-general, Mr. Navin Agarwal, did not elaborate how the panel had come to the conclusion about “sabotage”.  Instead he was quoted as saying: “We kept in mind that in the past, till June 2, none of his samples were positive. It was inconceivable that one-time ingestion would be of benefit. Therefore the panel is of the view that the one-time ingestion was not intentional.”

Now, the “unintentional” ingestion of a steroid, that was detected in Yadav’s urine sample collected at Sonepat on June 25, cannot provide him with a complete reprieve under the rules. It could have only given him a reduced sanction of two years.

WADA apparently was satisfied that there was a strong case to appeal in the CAS. It swung into quick action following the Indian panel’s verdict and sought the order and relevant documents from NADA.

The CAS statement on Aug 18 said, “The CAS Panel did not accept the argument of the athlete that he was the victim of sabotage and noted that there was no evidence that he bore no fault, nor that the anti-doping rule violation was not intentional. Therefore the standard four-year period of ineligibility was imposed by the panel.”

NADA, WFI and the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) knew a WADA appeal on the Indian Anti-Doping Disciplinary Panel (ADDP) would be imminent. WADA took less than a fortnight to lodge its appeal. It apparently knew of the tremendous public interest the case had generated back in India and pressed for a quick hearing, rather than wait for the Olympics to be over and tackle the matter  afterwards with the possibility of disqualifying any Olympic results in case WADA won the appeal.

In the past WADA has been uncomfortable with the government-dominated NADA and the National Dope Testing Laboratory (NDTL), which has its accreditation. National Anti-Doping Organisations (NADOs) are supposed to be independent. In several countries, not just in India, they are, however, fully controlled by the state’s government, as the recent Russian doping scandal revealed.

Yet, the recent Kenyan example – where WADA intervened to force the government to speed-track a ruling on anti-doping, following allegations of apathy and connivance in abetting dope offenders in Kenya – should serve as a reminder to India that interference from the government can only bring harm to the country’s sports interests in the global arena in the longer run.

By keeping the media out of the hearings and by denying it the order of the panel, much against the practice followed since 2009, NADA has only damaged its own credibility.

When Narsingh says “Meri toh naam badnam hui, isse pura desh pe kala dhabba lag gaya hai” (Mine and the country’s reputation have been ruined),  one can only sympathise with him. But who should be held responsible for not just the plight of the wrestler but also the embarrassment caused to the country? Surely NADA and WFI should take a major share of the blame.

WFI’s move to replace Yadav with Praveen Rana and then seek reinstatement of the former, even as a WADA appeal looked possible, was endorsed in a hurry by the United World Wrestling (UWW), the international body governing the sport. The significance of the UWW move would not have been lost on WADA.

Yadav only has a limited window to pursue his case. A CBI enquiry, even if it comes through and establishes that Yadav’s food or drink was spiked by ‘an intruder’, may not help him with CAS if it allows a review petition. For the rules require a ‘competitor’ to be involved in such sabotage if an athlete hopes to gain concession.

It is still a long road ahead for Narsingh Pancham Yadav.