August 10, 2009

Haunted by virtue

A drug-testing regime as invasive as WADA's needs to be vigorously debated, and thanks to the opposition from India's cricketers maybe it will now be

The BCCI's quarrel with the World Anti Doping Agency sums up the way cricket has been disciplined by time. From timeless matches to the five-day Test, to the one-day international, to the compressed frenzy of the Twenty20 game, and now an anti-doping regime that makes cricketers account for their near future by the hour.

WADA requires athletes and sportsmen to submit a schedule for three months that specifies an hour each day when they can be randomly tested for drugs. The Indian players have objected, arguing that they play cricket nine months of the year and don't want their leisure time to be invaded by WADA. The other objection that's been tabled is that Indian cricketers in general, and men like MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar in particular, have security needs that could be infringed by rigid, shared schedules.

WADA has made it clear that there will be no exceptions made for cricket. Every other cricket team, despite reservations, has signed up to the anti-doping regime, but the BCCI has asked the ICC to reject WADA's demands and create a drug-testing regime custom-made for cricket. Randhir Singh, secretary general of the Olympic Council of Asia, has made a statement saying that he thinks the BCCI should fall in line, and his reasons are unexceptionable: why should cricketers expect special treatment when hugely paid athletes in most other sports abide by the same rules? Similarly India's sports minister, MS Gill, has urged the BCCI not to hold out for special treatment.

Gill and Singh and WADA have decent arguments to make, and what's more, some great names to back them up with. Tiger Woods is possibly the best-paid, most famous, sportsman in the world and he's strongly in favour of testing. "I think we should be proactive instead of reactive. I just think we should be ahead of it and keep our sport as pure as can be." Woods specifically said that he was happy to be tested anywhere, at any time, without notice. On the face of it, then, WADA's regime is a good thing and the BCCI and the Indian players are doing what they do best: being spoilt prima donnas, moaning and asking for special favours.

But it isn't quite as simple as that. Cricket isn't the only sport that has resisted WADA's increasingly stringent testing regimes. In March this year, football's two most powerful bodies, UEFA and FIFA, rejected WADA's new code and asked the organisation to reconsider its rules given the special nature of team sport. Football's administrators argued that there was a basic difference between the individual athlete who trained privately, on his own, and footballers who trained collectively six days a week and were easy to locate. Like the BCCI, they asked for an exemption for players for the off-season "…in order to respect their private lives".

Towards the end of April, WADA and FIFA were reported to have resolved their differences, with FIFA's president offering full compliance with WADA's regulations. FIFA's English affiliate couldn't have got the message because in early August the Guardian reported that the FA was successfully resisting WADA's plan to test its elite international players. UK Sport, acting on behalf of WADA, had settled for elite women players and junior players. FIFA's president, Sepp Blatter, was pressing for "high-risk categories", namely injured players, to be target-tested, not leading international players. This sounds remarkably as if FIFA and the English FA are asking for exemptions for their male internationals and offering their women, children and wounded as substitutes.

And it isn't only football: the administrators of team sports like basketball, ice hockey and volleyball have all asked for clarifications. The BCCI is a soft target: a recent opinion piece on Cricinfo mocked as nonsensical the BCCI's invocation of the Indian constitution's guarantee of privacy. It's useful to note that the BBC news site reported earlier this year that "[…] sixty-five Belgian sportspeople have launched a legal challenge claiming that the intrusive nature of the WADA code breaks European Union privacy laws". If Yuvraj Singh's objections to the WADA code seem ludicrous because he's widely seen as one of a bunch of indulged Indian cricketers, we might attend to Rafael Nadal's objection to the new code, or that of Andy Murray, who said : "[…] these new rules are so draconian that it makes it almost impossible to live a normal life". According to the BBC, "[…] the British Athletics Commission (BAC) chief executive warned that the tougher regulations meant a number of British athletes would retire if they missed two tests rather than risk the possibility of a ban and the subsequent suspicion if they were absent on a third occasion".

It's also important to understand that the sports administrators and players who object to the current testing regime aren't rejecting drug testing per se. In football 25,000 tests are carried out every year and 10 players, on an average, test positive annually. Blatter is asking for modifications to the new code that came into effect from the beginning of 2009. The problem is that the code was agreed in 2007 at a conference FIFA attended, which puts FIFA in roughly the same position as the BCCI: they're trying to renege on a code that they signed up for without reading the fine print.

Cricket does drug testing too. Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug, nandrolone, and were suspended from cricket by the Pakistan Cricket Board. The problem is that the drug testing is done by national boards that are vulnerable to pressure. The treatment of Akhtar and Asif is a case in point: the first tribunal's suspension was set aside by a second tribunal, and the pair got away without serving a suspension. WADA was deeply unhappy and took its objection to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland with, interestingly, the blessing of the ICC, which said it wanted cricket cleansed of drug-taking, but the action came to nothing because the court declared that it didn't have jurisdiction over the PCB. But WADA was vindicated by the fact that the PCB's leniency encouraged Asif to err again: he tested positive in 2008 and is currently serving a year's ban.

What if someone invents a performance-enhancing drug that vanishes from scientific view in, say, 12 hours? A player could avoid detection by taking it 12 hours before the snoops are due. Going by the logic of WADA's testing regimen, players will then be required to set aside testing slots at eight-hourly intervals to forestall cheating. That way lies madness

Abhinav Bindra, India's only Olympic gold medalist, said in an interview last week that WADA's regime was easy to follow. He had declared himself available at home between seven and eight every morning because he was generally at home during then and, he added disarmingly, it was the time of day when it was easy produce a urine sample. When there was a change in his daily schedule, he logged in to the WADA site and entered the details of the change and specified an hour when he'd be available.

I'm not sure Bindra's testimony will change many minds in the Indian cricket team. This is partly because the rhythms of his stock-still sport have about as much to do with a cricketer's routines as a tree's habits have to do with a cheetah's daily round. Also, someone like Virender Sehwag or Ishant Sharma probably thinks of Bindra as a bespectacled nerd who likes fiddling with computers and tinkering with schedules.

It's wrong to generalise, but I think the reason Indian players are holding out when every other cricket-playing country has fallen in line has nothing to do with being perverse or arrogant: they're genuinely appalled by the thought that they have to schedule their lives three months in advance. Indians don't do schedules well: they don't plan their holidays a year in advance, they don't write their appointments down in a diary, they don't think it's wrong to default on a deadline, and if the art of the last minute was an Olympic sport you'd only see Indians on the medals podium.

Mithali Raj, the Indian batswoman (I'd say "batsperson" if it didn't suggest an ungendered vampire) had the most succinct take on this Indian view of the world. "During competitions, you are in one place and know your itinerary. When you are at home, you don't know about the next three hours, forget about three months… We plan things spontaneously, be it a movie or a dinner."

So while I'm convinced that cricket needs drug testing (specially in the IPL epoch, when the monetary pressure on cricketers to recover from injury is enormous), it isn't clear to me that WADA's new Big Brother regime is the only way to go. It's certainly wholly contrary to the Indian instinct to extemporise leisure. But this is bigger than the Indian players, the BCCI or the ICC or cricket. A code that makes your professional livelihood contingent on ambush testing the year round, seriously threatens a player's privacy.

The rationale for a player making himself available every day at a particular time is that there are sophisticated drugs that don't show up after a day. WADA can't give the athlete even a day's notice for fear that he might time his intake so that the drug's effects wear off before the appointed hour. But what if someone invents a performance-enhancing drug that vanishes from scientific view in, say, 12 hours? A player could avoid detection by taking it 12 hours before the snoops are due. Going by the logic of WADA's testing regimen, players will then be required to set aside testing slots at eight-hourly intervals to forestall cheating. That way lies madness: a sporting life organised around and haunted by inquisitorial ghosts.

The sporting world may well come to the conclusion that this imposition is worthwhile if it delivers credible, drug-free competition, but a code as invasive as this one needs to be publicly and vigorously debated. To those who ask with elaborate irony, how it comes to pass that only India's cricketers have made a stand, the short answer is that they have because they can. The BCCI's enormous financial clout, the fact that cricket has nearly nothing to do with international sporting bodies like the IOC (and can't therefore be stampeded into acquiescence by the threat of being banned from the Olympics) gives them the leeway, the breathing space, to argue this case. Instead of sneering at Tendulkar and Co we ought to thank them for initiating this conversation.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi

Comments