The lone runner in a farcical state 100m sprint final in India has laid bare a doping culture that has seen him be encouraged to cheat and witness other athletes being injected in changing rooms.
Lalit Kumar was ultimately the only runner on the start line for Tuesday’s final after the seven other qualified sprinters all backed out, reportedly citing cramp or muscle injuries, after the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) was asked to conduct tests at the event.
Several winners also skipped medal ceremonies at the Delhi State Athletics Championship and, according to a report in the Indian Express newspaper, a steeplechase runner even continued running beyond the finishing line while being chased by anti-doping officials.
An official said that the number of participants for the championships, which had attracted some 1,400 entries, fell by 50 per cent on what was the third and final day of competition.
The visit by anti-doping officials had followed a video that was shared on social media which appeared to show a washroom in the capital’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium littered with syringes and packets of the performance-enhancing drug Erythropoietin (EPO).
'Preparations' for the Delhi State Athletics meet in full swing. Video from JLN stadium that also houses the National Anti-Doping office.
🎥 Clip sent by a coach. pic.twitter.com/W7RivSDJ7r
— Andrew (@AndrewAmsan) September 23, 2023
The World Anti-Doping Agency is now investigating the allegations, with the 20-year-old Kumar distraught that he was denied the opportunity to race other sprinters while winning in 11.6secs.
“It was my first senior competition - I feel let down and disappointed,” Kumar told The Daily Telegraph. “Incidents like these obviously discourage you in pursuing the career. The stadium looked deserted after the news spread that NADA will take doping samples.
“[But] I wanted my juniors who look up to me to take a lesson home that we should always play a fair game. I am proud of it and can hold my head high for what I did.”
Of his own personal experiences of Indian athletics and how he had always rejected doping, Kumar said that he had been taught the importance of sporting integrity by mentors which include his father, his coach and a former schoolteacher. “I have seen players taking injections in the washrooms,” he said. “I think the players themselves take it and also private persons who are in the stadium suggest this to young players.”
Kumar moved from Jewar village to Delhi in 2021 to follow his athletics dream but his progress was disrupted last year by a bout of dengue fever that required several periods in an intensive care unit.
“As my weight increased, I noticed a decline in my performance on the field,” he said. “In the midst of this struggle, I encountered individuals at the stadium who encouraged me to consider using performance-enhancing drugs, citing the prospect of winning medals in senior competitions.”
Sandeep Mehta, the secretary of the Delhi Athletics Association (DAA), said that he had written to NADA and asked them to attend following the second day of what was a three-day competition. “An odd withdrawal is understandable, but when seven runners withdraw, you know something is fishy,” Mehta told the news agency Reuters. “There are some throwers as well who disappeared before competition and all of them should be tested by NADA. We are sharing with them details of the athletes who fled.
“If any of them return adverse results, we will ban them in Delhi and will recommend the Athletics Federation of India does the same. They [NADA] have the full right to test those who disappeared. The NADA officials took around 30 samples and their results are awaited. They are at liberty to take samples of the disappeared players.”
In the junior steeplechase event, it was reported that a girl continued to run even after crossing the finish line and a doping control officer had to chase her in order to retrieve a sample.
The Under-16 boys hammer throw also had only one participant. “Some of the athletes did not even turn up to collect their medals,” Delhi State Athletics Association president Sunny Joshua told the Indian Express.
Indian sports has been rocked by several doping scandals in recent times and, according to a report released this year by the World Anti-Doping Agency this year, which relates to its findings for 2020, it ranked second in the number of doping violations behind Russia. Positive tests have been returned at the Olympics, the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games, and a total of 45 athletes have been suspended this year.
Of this week’s events in Delhi, a WADA spokesperson said: “WADA is aware of the reports and we do have concerns about what is being alleged. We are looking into it further, including by contacting the relevant authorities in India.”
It has been confirmed Kumar will be awarded a medal and a certificate even though he ran alone in the final. “He competed with others in the heats; it’s not his fault that the others did not turn up for the final,” Mehta said.