Why Narsingh Yadav is not the real villain of India's doping tragedy at Rio 2016
In the first eight days of the Rio Olympics, when India’s hoped for medals in shooting, archery and tennis were fading, there was always the refrain that Narsingh Yadav held the promise of a podium finish. But with the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) ruling in favour of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)’s appeal that Yadav should not be allowed to participate in the Olympics in spite of the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA)’s clearance, the dream has come to an end.
Yadav had been weighed and the draw list featuring his name had been published. A long-drawn battle where his place at Rio was never assured seemed to have been coming to a close, with Yadav saying that he was hopeful the CAS would look favourably at him and overturn WADA’s doubts on his cleanness. Today, Narsingh would have been fighting against France’s Zelimkhan Khadjiev in the qualifiers preceding the Round of 16. Instead, he is left wondering how he can plea to reduce the sentence of a four-year ban.
Amidst the initial anger with Narsingh Yadav and the apparent shame he has brought to India with his ‘doping’, the case presents itself as a truly unique one. Not only has the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) stood by Yadav, his sponsors JSW have also upheld his innocence and in a statement, promised to stand by the wrestler. On social media, messages of weeding out the true source of the problem and bringing alleged saboteurs to justice have rung out in an unforeseen show of support for a man who was denied an Olympic experience 12 hours before he was to have taken to the mat.
It is tempting to believe that Narsingh had indeed been sabotaged on his journey to Rio. Several news outlets point to surprising coincidences, and the WFI chief has indicated that this is a case that needs to be taken to the CBI.
Khadjiev, who will get a bye because of Narsingh’s empty slot, had been beaten before
In the World Championships of 2015, Narsingh Yadav beat France’s Khadjiev – the same opponent he would have encountered today – to win bronze in the 74 kg category. In doing so, he ensured a place in the Rio Olympics – not for himself, but for his country. The decision to pick a wrestler to take the place would belong to the WFI, which chose Narsingh.
This is where Sushil Kumar – the single most decorated male wrestler in the country – entered into the fray. Sushil had been injured during the Las Vegas Championships, but in his own words, he had been trained with a medal in mind, so he demanded a fair trial and in its absence took the case to the Delhi High Court. Days after the court ruled against a trial, a drug test revealed that both Narsingh and his roommate at the SAI camp in Sonepat had the banned substance methandienone in their blood.
While bans implicate athletes, it is a truth hidden from no one that no athlete is singularly responsible for his or her intake. In India especially, the wisdom of coaches is seldom passed on to athletes who function through a dialectic of trust and fear of being alienated by already politicised sports bodies. This, and the overwhelming belief that Narsingh had been brought down by his own fraternity in the dope test, led the WFI to throw its entire weight behind him as the NADA decided on whether to give him a clean chit or not.
When the Federation had to name a replacement for Yadav in Rio, they named Parveen Rana and not Sushil Kumar, whose training in the newly-defined 74 kg category was comparatively recent.
An Olympic bout turned into a long battle to prove innocence
However, Rana was not sent, and armed with an NADA clearance and the fact that in over 50 dope tests in his career, he had never been implicated before this, Yadav reached Rio. What should have been foreseen here was the immediate appeal that WADA would make to ensure that national bias did not play a role in Yadav’s participation at Rio in spite of a positive drug test.
In light of Russia’s state-sponsored doping scandal leading to WADA’s singular crusade agaisnt identifying and banning athletes who had taken performance-enhancing drugs, it was a remarkable act of naivette from the WFI and NADA to send an athlete with the belief that the world’s anti-doping officials would sit and watch Yadav participate on the basis of his own country’s decision that he is clean. No matter how independent, national anti-doping agencies have lost their credibility in the eyes of WADA thanks to Russia, and no matter how deep the waters of sabotage run beneath, the truth of Yadav testing positive is indellible.
As one of the few countries in the world armed with individual sports bodies, an Olympic committee and an entire sports ministry, India should have had the foresight to send a replacement and prevent the unjust eventuality of asking a sportsman to return home hours before a match.
Few athletes have spent the months leading up to their Olympic appearance in courthouses of varying nature, waiting for dictums and pronouncements, the way Narsingh has. It is a tragedy that his Olympic journey came to an end not on the mat but in yet another courthouse over a four-hour long hearing, where he learnt of what could be the end to his career over an offence that he may not even have been responsible for.