Athletes’ right to health must over-ride lust for glory and jobs

World Health Day is celebrated on April 7. (PC: G. Rajaraman)

Sport is but a microcosm of the society in which it is played. And while each has its own set of rules and regulations, it has to embrace the values and beliefs of the society at large. And if the world speaks of health as a matter of an individual’s right, it goes without argument that it does not exclude athlete health from its ambit.

The theme for World Health Day 2024, My Health, My Right, has been chosen to champion the right of everyone, everywhere to have access to quality health services, education, and information, as well as safe drinking water, clean air, good nutrition, quality housing, decent working and environmental conditions, and freedom from discrimination.

Since you are reading this piece on a sports website, it is only fair that we champion the athletes’ right to health with the World Health Day 2024 theme, My Health, My Right, as the backdrop. Even if they have to resist coaches and others and fight the temptation of chasing fame and money, they should be taught to exercise their own right to health.

Should societies put health of athletes at risk in the quest for global glory and the pursuit of higher education and employment? The question must be answered in the negative. It must never be forgotten, like everyone else, athletes have a right to health. Just because they are aiming to be the best in the field does not mean that they must train and compete at the cost of their health.

Purely from a sports perspective, it is time for India to resolve that it would not encourage an athlete to compete in events, not just the Olympic Games and Asian Games when not in the best of health. It is critical that athletes are educated and empowered to make the right decisions about training and competition but after giving their overall health the importance it deserves.

It is true that top athletes are provided quality support, especially when it comes to treatment of illness or injury and rehabilitation. However, the second and third rung of sportspersons may not be getting similar support. In some cases, they fade away, left to fend for themselves. India must find a viable solution to this conundrum, taking pride in all athletes across the assembly line.

Let us train our attention to the scourge of doping.

It is essential that we take a moment’s diversion to know that steroids like Stanozolol, Metandienone, Drostanolone, Nandrolone (or 19-Notestosterone), peptide hormones like EOP (erythropoietin), diuretics like Furosemide, stimulants like Mephentermine have shown up in the 1000-plus positives in the past decade is a telling reflection of how deep the rot has set in India.

More importantly, as many as 13 minors have signed case resolution agreements with the National Anti-Doping Agency, admitting their guilt. Three others have copped sanctions by National Anti-Doping Disciplinary Panels after hearings. And at least two more are serving provisional suspensions pending hearings.

It is a crying shame that in a World Anti-Doping Agency report titled Operation Refuge, India was named along with Russia and China as the three countries that reported the most positive tests against minors in a decade. Nandrolone emerged as the prohibited substance most detected among minors in India.

The WADA report, published earlier this year, identified Trauma, Isolation, Impact, Pressure (to win and from coaches), Ignorance and Abandonment as six key themes during the conversations investigators had with the Minors, their families and support systems. Should the minors be subject to any of these?

It does not matter if some believe that cheating in sport is as inevitable as death and taxes are in life. It is critical that India works as one and sincerely towards eliminating doping from sport, demonstrating a collective will that it does not want glory at any cost. Surely not at the cost of the athletes’ overall health.

Since doping is one termite that is eating the insides of the sports ecosystem, working totally against the grain of the values that sport stands for, it is very important that we resolve to sharpen our focus on athlete health vis-a-vis doping. We cannot even begin to imagine the adverse effects doping can have on an athlete’s body.

India can do with some research studies on the abuse of steroids and stimulants, not just by competitive athletes but also by other at-risk population like recreational athletes and fitness enthusiasts around the country. It will lead to better laws being passed and enforced with diligence that shows we care for the health of athletes (and everyone else) at all levels.

One of the likely findings could relate to the supply of drugs with banned substances. Even cursory reading of some of the orders of the National Anti-Doping Disciplinary Panels indicate that athletes usually cite a coach, a trainer, a friend, a mentor or a senior athlete as the one who has nudged young athletes towards the use of performance enhancing substances.

Another fact that can emerge from such studies is that most athletes may not understand the names of ingredients (‘salts’) when they consume a drug, orally or intravenously. That finding can perhaps lead to the authorities telling drug manufacturers to print a warning on prescription medication that they are not meant for athletes.

The time for pharmacists to sell medicines only against prescription was upon us a long time ago. However, it should be enforced at least from now, given that many youngsters access, buy and get addicted to such over-the-counter and online drugs. If the society is serious about health as a right, it must also fulfill its responsibilities towards them.

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