Sanjita Chanu was the toast of the nation in April when she hoisted a total of 195 kgs in the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, to clinch the yellow metal. It was the second Commonwealth Games gold medal in her kitty as four years earlier she had also won at the Glasgow Games. She had received congratulatory notes from both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Ram Nath Kovind. The Manipur Olympic Association wrote to Modi recommending her name for the prestigious Arjuna Award.
Then, however, shattering news arrived from the International Weightlifting Federation that she had tested positive for using a banned performance-enhancing substance. “Dope shame returns to haunt Indian weightlifting as two-time Commonwealth Games champion Sanjita Chanu tests positive for a banned anabolic steroid and has been provisionally suspended by the international federation,” screamed headlines in national dailies.
The International Weightlifting Federation said on its website that Chanu has tested positive for testosterone. “IWF reports that the sample of Sanjita Chanu Khumukcham (IND) has returned an Adverse Analytical Finding for Testosterone (S1.1 Anabolic Agents). As a consequence, the athlete is provisionally suspended in view of a potential anti-doping rule violation (sic),” IWF stated, “In any case where it is determined that the athlete did not commit an anti-doping rule violation, the relevant decision will also be published.” The IWF did not give details, such as the dates of the dope test sample collection, saying “it will not make any further comments on the case until it is closed”.
Chanu was asked to leave the national camp by the Indian Weightlifting Federation after the dope result reached them on 15 May. She left for her home in Manipur, even as other weightlifters are currently training at the SAI Centre at Shilaroo in Himachal Pradesh.
IWLF secretary general, Sahdev Yadav had confirmed that the dope sample was taken prior to the World Championship in Anaheim, US, in November last year. The Indian weightlifters had arrived in the US a few days before the championship to acclimatise with the conditions there. “The sample was taken out-of-competition in the US prior to the World Championship and the international federation has intimated us on 15 May that Sanjita’s ‘A’ sample has returned positive for a banned substance,” Yadav had told PTI then.
Chanu got the backing of the IWLF with Yadav saying that he was confident she has not done anything wrong. “We don’t understand why the dope result took so long. After the sample was taken, she competed in the World Championship in November last and then she won gold in the Gold Coast CWG in April. We will find out why this is happening,” he said, “In any case, we have written that we would go for the ‘B’ sample test. After we get the results, we will hire a top lawyer to present our case at the hearing (at the international federation). I am sure Sanjita has not taken any banned drugs. I am confident we will prove her innocence.” Yadav also said that there was no danger of India losing the gold medal won by Chanu in the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. If her ‘B’ sample also tests positive, she is expected to be handed a four-year ban at the maximum.
24-year-old Chanu was included in the sports ministry’s “Target Olympic Podium Scheme” for Asian Games preparation funding on 9 May. But her name is expected to be struck off from the list if she is finally ruled to have committed a dope offence.
A shattered Chanu returned home to a welcome far removed from the one she was accorded after Gold Coast victory. Speaking to The Statesman, she said that her urine sample was taken while she was on a preparatory trip to the US. She added that she was not competing then as she was undergoing physiotherapy treatment. Desperate to clear her name she wrote to the IWF for details of her suspension and they replied stating that “according to laboratory report Testosterone (S1.1 Anabolic Agents was detected in the athlete’s urine sample”. The sample quoted was numbered 1599000.
The confusion set in for, in the same letter, it was clearly mentioned that “as indicated in United States Anti-Doping Agency’s notification dated 9 January 2018, IWF shall be responsible for the Results Management related to potential Anti-Doping Rule Violations arising from the results returned by Sample No159176.” Chanu again wrote to the IWF asking them to clarify as to which athlete the second sample belongs to. Eva Nyirea, legal counsel of the IWF, replied that both the Doping Control Form and the Analysis report enclosed in their letter indicate sample No1599000. No mention was made of the appearance of the other number, 159176.
Chanu then wrote to the IWF stating her readiness for having the sample ‘B’ of her urine tested and that she would bear all the necessary costs but added that a rider stating that the sample be opened in front of an independent witness.
Speaking to The Statesman, Sunil Elangbam, secretary of both the Manipur Weightlifting Association as well as the Manipur Olympic Association, said that they are not keeping quiet over the matter at all. The MOA has written to the Prime Minister, President of the Indian Olympic Association and the Indian Weight Lifting Federation for investigation into the controversy relating to the two urine samples stated earlier in the IWF communication by an appropriate investigating agency and clear the doubts for all concerned.
But all said and done, this 24 year old athlete, born to farmer parents in remote Umathel village in Manipur’s Thoubal district and currently employed by the Indian Railways, is on tenterhooks. She claimed that the IWLF has gone back on its promise of backing her and is today threatening her with the termination of her job with the Railways. She is also being asked to return the funds, which the Railways had spent on her.
Chanu suspects a deep-rooted conspiracy to keep her out of the forthcoming Asian Games as well as the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. She said that her performance in the US in 2017, when the sample was collected, was the lowest in her career, which could not be possible had she taken the banned substance. She added that she is willing to go for a DNA test to match the urine sample if required.
Manipur is considered the power house of sports in India and has produced top boxers and weightlifters down the years. It is hoped that the IWLF will not allow itself to be found wanting in clearing the name of one of India’s star lifters and a potential medalist in the forthcoming Olympics.
The writer is the Imphal-based special representative of The Statesman