The tragic tale of Narsingh Yadav’s doping saga

This story first appeared on DNA Online on 29 July 2016.

A few days back, Vinod Yadav’s phone rang at around midnight. He has not been able to sleep peacefully since then. The call was about his younger brother, Narsingh. “I did not understand what was going on,” said Vinod. “I called Narsingh’s roommate to check, but Narsingh picked up the phone. He was petrified.”

When Narsingh Yadav broke the news of his failed dope test, Vinod didn’t know how to react. As kids, both of them were fascinated with the sport of wrestling. Those who saw them in Mumbai say the brothers had the talent to make it big in the sport. But it was not easy for them to pursue it full-fledged, given the financial condition in their house. Their father, a milkman, had limited means.

As the elder brother, Vinod took it upon himself and prioritised his kid brother’s dream. “When I took a job in the railways, we had some financial stability,” said Vinod. “It allowed Narsingh to focus on his training without any distractions or concerns.”

The sacrifice paid off. Six years back, 20-year old Narsingh bagged a gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. In 2011, he won a silver at the Commonwealth Championships in Melbourne. Then came home bronze medals from the Asian Games and Asian Championships in Incheon and Doha respectively. And last year, he secured the Olympic berth at Rio 2016 with a bronze medal at Las Vegas. The American wrestler who won the gold medal there said he perceives Narsingh as his biggest threat at Rio. Naturally, he was seen as a potential medal-winner for India at the Olympics.

But the script had a tragic twist.

While he was at the Sports Authority of India’s Sonepat centre, Narsingh tested positive for the anabolic steroid methandienone after samples were collected on June 25. He was provisionally suspended on July 16. Subsequently, he failed a second dope test as well.

The news could not have come at a worse time for Narsingh. He is 26. He had been peaking at the right time with preparations and training. By the time the next Olympics arrive, he will be 30, well past his prime. “Everything was going well for him,” said Vinod. “He would train seven days a week. This was supposed to be his best shot at a medal.”

In fact, Narsingh had been preparing for the 2016 Olympics the moment he was knocked out of the 2012 London Olympics. “It was a learning experience for him,” said Vinod. “He had an idea of the kind of level he would have to reach to compete at the highest stage. Since 2012, he has been doing everything with an eye on the 2016 Olympics.”

The potentially career-wrecking news has come as a diabolical shock for the family, they say anyone who knows Narsingh would vouch for his integrity and sincerity. Vinod says his parents have not been eating properly and the atmosphere in the house is like that of a funeral. “I am trying to cheer Narsingh up constantly,” said Vinod. “His close ones are with him in Delhi. But he is distraught at the moment.”

The whole federation has stood by Narsingh, while his camp has alleged foulplay. The conspiracy theory of a rival camp trying to rupture his career gained a bit of authenticity when Narsingh’s roommate, too, was detected with the same steroid. Interestingly, his roommate has no matches or tournaments coming up, which makes it bewildering as to why he would even bother with a performance-enhancing drug. Narsingh has also alleged that the head of the Sonepat centre, Radhica Sreeman, was complicit in the sabotage attempt. “It is quite clear that someone mixed it in the food, which was consumed by both the roommates,” said Vinod.

Narsingh claims that on June 5, a teenaged wrestler had been sauntering around his room and then spiked his food with banned substance. The complaint is filed at the Sonepat police station in Haryana. On asked why they did not complain earlier, Vinod said Narsingh did not think people would stoop so low to actually want an end to a fellow wrestler’s career. “He did not want any distractions either,” said Vinod.

Incidentally, Narsingh’s competitor in the 74-kg category was Olympic medal holder Sushil Kumar, who missed out on being on the flight to Rio. Narsingh had been chosen under controversial circumstances with Sushil demanding for trials to decide who should go to the games. The teenaged wrestler identified by Narsingh reportedly trains at the same Chatrasal stadium where Sushil Kumar trains, leading to conspiracy theories. It is also said the wrestlers from the North, especially Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, have been dominating the discourse and make it typically hard for an outsider to survive. The federation had also warned Narsingh to be careful because a CBI report suggested there are people trying to shunt his career.

However, the onus is on Narsingh to convince the National Anti Doping Agency​ (NADA) that he is a victim of sabotage. The hearing at NADA will determine his future. The NADA lawyer is seeking a four-year ban for Narsingh. But even if he is not banned, Narsingh’s chances of making it to Rio seem grim with each passing day. Assuming NADA gives a favourable verdict, it would have to be accepted by WADA, which has been extremely strict with cases like these. Some of the Russian players would know. The NADA verdict is expected to be out Saturday or Monday, but with the Olympics just around the corner, Narsingh is running a race against time.

Nonetheless, there is no shortage of people who think Narsingh has been a victim of sabotage. At the previous hearing, 100-odd supporters gathered cheering for him. Even Yogeshwar Dutt has come out in support of Narsingh.

Prior to June 25, Narsingh had never failed a dope test, nor has there been a problem about his whereabouts. Indrajeet, the athlete who was found guilty in the dope test, for example, had been missing for a week before the test. Narsingh, on the contrary, was willing to provide blood samples as well, during his urine test.

Dhirendra Singh, a medical official who has often collected urine samples for dope tests, reportedly recollected the instance when Narsingh provided his sample on June 25. The athletes are usually nervous before a urine test, thereby struggling to provide enough sample, he said. But after Narsingh’s urine test transpired, Dhirendra joked, “Pehelwan ji apne to pura bhar diya”, indicating the confidence Narsingh had about coming out clean.

Moreover, methandienone, the drug for which he was tested positive, is a popular drug, with everyone knowing its consequences. It was banned in 2001, and is used by bodybuilders across the globe. It can either be consumed or injected, with its detection span being 19 days and 5 months respectively. Narsingh’s colleagues say he is not so naïve to not be aware of it. Nutritionists have pointed out a technical rationale, further indicating at the sabotage. Methandienone increases water retention in the body, increasing the bodyweight of the person consuming it. Narsingh is contesting in the 74-kg category, which is not his usual category when he contests elsewhere. He has reduced his weight to be able to fit in the 74-kg category, which makes it harder to comprehend why he would consume a drug which could increase bodyweight and disqualify him from the category in which he aspires to contest at the Olympics. Observers say Narsingh, who has had enough international exposure, who has replaced those who have failed dope tests in the past, would not be so callous or oblivious ahead of an event as big as the Olympics.

However, for any sportsman, physical fitness matters as much as mental preparations ahead of a big tournament. A player needs to be in the right frame of mind to be able to deliver his best. Sampat Salunkhe, 60, himself a wrestler of repute in Maharashtra, and someone who has mentored Narsingh since he was 10, said irrespective of the verdict, Narsingh’s mindset must have been ruptured with a distraction as grave as this one. Sampat has supported Narsingh financially, and said he is like his son. “I cannot control my anger. Those who did this to him will go to hell,” said Sampat, who has named his grandson after Narsingh. “Narsingh has always been an honest, hardworking and sincere boy. I do not understand why something like this would happen to him when he has never wished ill for anyone.”

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World Cup 2015 Semifinal New Zealand v/s South Africa: Debunking the myth of South Africa’s ‘choke’

This piece first appeared on DNA Online on 25 March 2015

When an epic knock out match of the world’s biggest cricketing prize concludes, it throws up compelling photo-ops. None more compelling or heartbreaking than a fierce fast bowler hunched over and weeping like a kid. 16 years ago, Allan Donald sank to his knees in agony after he found himself in the middle of nowhere responding to Lance Klusener’s call in the legendary semifinal against Australia. On Tuesday, Dale Steyn was forced to relive that misery by the cricketing gods.

No sooner did Grant Elliot launch the penultimate ball of the match over the ropes, the word ‘chokers’ started doing rounds. First of all, those who called this a choke have not understood the meaning of it. When the team appears home and dry, then commits harakiri and squanders ascendency towards the business end of the match is, in cricketing terms, choking. Did South Africa do that? They just ran into a team that was better on the night and, perhaps, enjoyed a bit of luck as well.

But that can hardly be a consolation for the team that had all the boxes ticked as far as the preparation and potential was concerned. The desolation at the end of the match was as hard hitting as the euphoria. South Africa did not even try to conceal the emotion. All those eleven players, in the middle of 40,000 people, would have felt lonelier than they have ever been. “Bheed ke beech akela”, as the Kishore Kumar song from Prem Pujari goes, summed up the South African mindset. Even Elliott later said that in his moment of glory he felt compassion for the opposition.

From New Zealand’s perspective, the timing of rain was as good as Elliot’s winning shot that illuminated the whole of New Zealand. Rain has been South Africa’s old adversary having contributed to their ousters in 1992 and 2003 World Cups. In 2015 too, the heavens opened to haunt them. 299 in 43 overs, though an uphill task, is relatively comfortable than 350 plus in 50. South Africa not only lost the momentum but also missed out on an opportunity to cash in, especially with de Villiers batting on 65 off 45 and famous for his destructive abilities in the death overs. Not to forget the short boundaries, the situation was tailor-made for the well-set man.

Nonetheless, it is one thing to see an opening with a slice of luck and another to pounce on it like a lion after its prey. The moment New Zealand saw the possible momentum shift, Brendon McCullum strode out to the middle and took the attack apart. From then on, it was a slugfest. Two top class teams, toe to toe for three hours, until Elliot sealed it for the hosts.

There were chances South Africa could have or rather should have held on to. Elliot’s catch in the deep and de Villiers’ missed run out would rankle the most. But both teams committed errors in the field. It is just that South Africa’s would be remembered for a longer time. The match will, no doubt, be looked at as a missed opportunity. Never will Steyn and de Villiers be so young again.

However, it has become a ritual to associate the word ‘choke’ with any South African loss. More so in ICC tournaments. The burden of winning an ICC tournament palpably hangs around their neck. And not without reason. They have earned the reputation for panicking under pressure on the big stage. But last night at Eden Park was different.

After New Zealand had South Africa on the mat early in the match, we saw a rearguard action from Faf du Plessis. He soaked in the pressure, dug in and laid a platform for the de Villiers onslaught. Responsibility can weigh down the strongest but De Villiers did not seem in the mood to be weighed down. He carried on from where du Plessis had left of and threatened to bat New Zealand out of the game, until the untimely rain interrupted play. In the second innings, New Zealand looked like chasing the score in a canter with McCullum going berserk. But Imran Tahir and Morne Morkel, again under pressure, brought the guests back in the game. In the middle overs, when Ross Taylor and Martin Guptill looked to be stitching a match-winning stand, Amla’s run out brought the match on to level terms.

Dale Steyn, despite the injury, fought like a warrior until his last breath. Eleven men gave everything they had and presented a memorable spectacle. The match was designed by the gods of the game and the agony had to be gone through. But the character they disclosed in front of an unforgiving crowd of 40,000 proved the resilience of a mentally tough team that knew how to handle pressure. It was not a choke. The shoe could have easily been on the other foot.

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