Did the WFI get it all wrong with Narsingh Yadav?
If it were a movie it would have made for gripping entertainment, and it wouldn’t have had quite such an anti-climax as the real world events of Narsingh Yadav’s case, that saw CAS ban him from all forms of active participation for four years.
An Asian Games and World Championship Bronze medalist, Yadav was projected as one of India’s strongest medal contenders in Rio alongside London Olympics Bronze medalist Yogeshwar Dutt. But now all of those hopes lie in tatters.
A month is a long time in modern sports and for Yadav, it has been a long and nightmarish month that has seen him go from being a medal hopeful to being infamous for a failed dope test, only for news to filter through of a possible sabotage in his food supplements.
The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) believed their man’s story of food sabotage leading to the positive dope tests (on June 25 and July 5), and backed him to the hilt in Yadav’s hearing with NADA (India’s anti-doping agency). After days of hearing and going through several pieces of evidence, most of which were just circumstantial, NADA did clear the athlete, believing him to be a victim of doping sabotage in the lead-up to the Rio Games.
Praveen Rana, who had been readied as Yadav’s replacement, was held back and Yadav was sent to the Rio Olympics to take the place he had rightfully earned at the world championships a year prior.
Run-up to the Olympics
The doping episode had not been the first tumultuous encounter for Yadav in the run-up to Rio. His battle with double Olympic medalist Sushil Kumar had captured the attention of the country too, and it was a tussle that was finally taken to the Delhi High Court, who ruled in his favour.
Kumar, who historically competed in 66kg, a category that was removed from the Olympics (and the Commonwealth Games) to accommodate more women’s wrestling events. So he moved up to 74kg, getting in direct conflict with Yadav, who had already booked a quota place for India by the time the 2012 silver medalist returned from injury.
Yadav’s camp refused Kumar’s challenge for a face-off. The WFI doesn’t hold Olympic trials unlike several other nations for a quota place in different sports; it just sends the athlete who earned the spot. That made things even more convoluted.
One camp believed in sending the wrestler who had earned the quota spot, while the other looked for a face-off to essentially send the best wrestler in the 74kg freestyle event to Rio. The entanglement of the two camps was far from ideal preparation in the lead-up to Rio, but all of that pales in comparison to the news of Yadav’s two failed dope tests. For an athlete who had never failed a test in over 50 dope tests, it was a stunning revelation.
The WFI and Yadav’s sponsors at JSW took the battle on and helped him to fight the case at NADA’s hearing. NADA believed the sabotage theory and cleared the athlete, but the question that needs to be asked of everyone involved is whether it was all too hasty.
World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)’s stand and WFI’s questionable decision-making
Several people had predicted that the WADA would take an anti-Narsingh stand in the fiasco before the Olympics began, and that is exactly what happened. Given the allegations of systematic doping and a subsequent blanket ban on the Russian Athletics federation, there was little chance that WADA would accede to Yadav’s plea of sabotage that led to a positive dope test.
WADA’s general policy for all athletes with positive dope tests is one of guilty unless decisively proven innocent, and burden of proof for innocence lies squarely on the athlete. In Yadav’s case, there was little admissible evidence to ratify his claims of sabotage.
To make matters worse, Indian sporting federations have a far from clean image in matters of doping. The Indian Weightlifting Federation has received blanket bans from all international competitions on more than one occasion in the recent past due to incessant doping.
A total of nearly 700 Indian athletes have been banned for doping since 2009, an average of about 100 a year. On the back of such damning statistics relating to Indian athletes, even with a strong case, Yadav was less than likely to receive a reprieve from the WADA-CAS combo who have strongly struck down cases of doping in the lead-up to the Rio Olympics.
Smarter voices within the WFI hierarchy ought to have sent a clean athlete, in this case the standby Praveen Rana, to the Olympics, while backing Yadav through a proper hearing with NADA – instead of what now seems like a hasty appeal with the anti-doping body. Chances are that even if Yadav had indeed competed and medalled in Rio, WADA would still have struck down on it.
It is a matter of irony that the 74kg freestyle wrestling event that had two of India’s strongest wrestlers – Narsingh Yadav and Sushil Kumar – would go unrepresented for India in Rio. With a more cautious approach, and in not going head-on against WADA, India could have had representation in the event with Praveen Rana. While it may be commendable that WFI has backed its athlete as much as it has in this case, it also has to take the blame for India being unrepresented in the 74kg event in Rio.
It is not uncommon for sporting federations to not send potentially tainted athletes to World Championships or Olympics, and WFI should likely have chosen this route rather than blaming WADA and CAS for what was always the likely conclusion.
What does the future hold for Narsingh?
For Narsingh, with his Olympic dreams lost, it is now all about the road to salvation. His name has carried a negative weight on several American and European news websites in the past couple of days, adding insult to injury if he truly is a victim of sabotage.
The WFI could have saved him from the negative international media coverage and the ignominy of being removed from the Olympic games village if it had played its cards safely and smartly. It could have withdrawn Yadav from Rio and helped him in a more exhaustive trial with NADA with stronger proof after a thorough police/CBI investigation, which could have been more acceptable to WADA, and a path that could have brought a more lenient penalty – possibly no ban at all.
With a series of misjudgements from WFI along the way, all that remains for Yadav is to supply the burden of proof to WADA in a new hearing about his innocence, and get a reduced sentence. It is very unlikely that WADA would rescind the ban in totality even if proof of innocence is found in the near future.