Vijender’s: Countdown To Knockout
For celebrities to preserve their position and glory at the top is a tough task. They not only get pipped by their competitors, but, and often enough, script their own disaster. Athlete Ben Johnson, footballer Diego Maradona, boxer Mike Tyson, golfer Tiger Woods, cricketer Hansie Cronje, cyclist Lance Armstrong and an unending string of such greats have been responsible for ruining their own career because of a brush with the law. Virender, apparently, may prove to be the latest subscriber to this self-destructive club.
The story for Vijender Singh, who shot into limelight, from humble beginnings at a boxing club in Bhiwani, by winning a bronze medal in 2008 Beijing Olympics and featuring in the list of International Boxing Association as a top-ranked boxer in 2009 seems no different from others who have left their admirers disappointed. Post his Olympic achievement the boxer was generously awarded and feted by the nation, woefully short of heroes, and was also the media’s darling.
There are reasons to believe that the boxer and his sparring partner Ram Singh took heroin on a number of occasions. While Ram Singh has been arrested by Punjab Police on charges of being involved in the drug trafficking, Vijender Singh has so far avoided giving samples of his blood and hair to the police. Why is he not giving his samples to prove his innocence?
Heroin (chemical name diacetylmorphine) is a derivative of opium. Its half-life period in the human body is just about six hours, which means that its traces in blood, plasma and urine would diminish to a millionth fraction in about five to six days. Process of metabolic breaking down of heroin in people, who are sportsmen and active, is even faster. Since, it is alleged that Vijender consumed heroin last time in February, it is less likely that his blood and urine samples will test positive for drug.
But the bad news for Vijender is that traces of heroin stay for long in the hair follicle and can be detected by using advanced chromatographic techniques. These testing facilities are rare in India but are available with National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) and some forensic laboratories. Though not clinically proven, it is widely believed by drug users that the traces of heroin vanish from hair follicle in about twelve to sixteen weeks.
The drugs angle came to light in the first week of March when Punjab Police seized a large quantity of heroin from a house in Zirakpur belonging to a Canada-based NRI Anoop Singh Kahlon. Cell phone call records established linkage between the boxer, his sparring partner and Kahlon. Vijender Singh appeared before Punjab Police for questioning on March 11 but refused to give his blood and hair samples flaunting his celebrity status. The boxer has been incommunicado since the reporting of the case. Is he biding time by avoiding tests to let his body detoxifies completely?
The Sports Ministry and NADA have maintained an intriguing silence over the case. It was only on April 3 that NADA took the boxer’s blood and urine samples. Sports Ministry had asked NADA to also test the boxer for heroin use. NADA refused to follow instructions citing its autonomous status and took samples to conduct only out-of-competition tests. NADA claims to be going by the book and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) protocol which specifies that an athlete during hiatus will only be tested for prescribed out-of-competition tests. Out-of-competition tests do not include testing for narcotics. World anti-doping code is rather advantageous to Vijender Singh. The WADA’s Prohibited List – 2013includes heroin under “Prohibited Substances and Methods Prohibited In-Competition” (S7-Narcotics), and therefore a test for narcotics cannot be carried out when an athlete in not participating in a competition.
Vijender Singh has not done too well after Beijing Olympics. He failed to get a medal in London Olympics. The decline is all too evident and this controversy has damaged his reputation and career prospects even further. He has been excluded from the squad for the boxing events in Cyprus and Cuba, as he failed to report for the trials. These are important boxing events in the sports calendar that are considered as run up events to the World Championships at Almaty, Kazakhstan scheduled in October. Did he purposely miss the trials? Had he joined the trial camp, NADA would have conducted “In-Competition” tests on him, which includes test for heroin.
Alleged involvement of Vijender Singh in procurement, possession and use of heroin and, God forbid, in trafficking is a criminal case, which Punjab Police has to investigate and progress to its logical conclusion. The boxer has no option but to cooperate with the police in the investigations. The use of banned substance proscribed under WADA and NADA protocol casts a shadow on the sports administration in the country. Rising drug abuse amongst the sportspersons in the country is a cause for concern. It has been acknowledged by Sports Ministry and sports associations. It has been reported that even lower and middle rung sportspersons participating in regional championships are using drugs to improve their performance.
Sports Ministry has very few sportspersons of international repute to boast of. The Ministry and Indian Amateur Boxing Federation’s initial response to under play, is understandable. No one wanted to see Vijender as a fall guy. Notwithstanding Vijender’s case, the organisation’s failure in instituting an efficient sports administration system to check the menace of drugs in sports is worrisome. This controversy has erupted at a time when India’s sporting prospects were looking up with the contingent returning from London Olympics with the largest ever medal haul.
Sports celebrities have an onerous responsibility. They are looked upon as inspirational role models by the youth. Their public and private life is scrutinised by media. Any misdemeanour on their part not only tarnishes their reputation but also disappoints thousands of fans. Success and adulation at a young age is heady. It often leads to digression. There is a need for professional counselling for the young achiever for handling success and limelight. Vijender is a poster boy of Indian sports. His achievements have popularised boxing in the country. His sports icon image is under threat. Can he survive the countdown to his knockout?
By Col U S Rathore