WADA suspends accreditation of NDTL, Again! – Ineffectiveness or lack of discipline?

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was established in 1999 under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which recognizes the urgent need of action, for the international fight against doping. Though having its roots at IOC, WADA is an independent organization which aims at a doping-free world of sport by harmonizing anti-doping regulations, through the WADA anti-doping code. One of the vital functions of WADA is collecting athletes’ urine and blood samples for accurate testing, which is conducted in WADA accredited laboratories, set up throughout the globe, that follow strict international standards and are specifically designed to ensure the testing process is undertaken with utmost care and caution.

National Dope Testing Laboratory (NDTL) is an independent body responsible for collecting and analyzing athletes’ samples and also conducts research in the field of dope investigation. NDTL was accredited with WADA in 2008 and since then has been actively working with the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) in bringing a doping-free environment to the Indian Sporting Ecosystem. However, in August 2019, NDTL was dealt with a major blow when it was suspended by WADA for a period of six months, due to non-conformities with the regulations of International Standard for Laboratories (ISL), as found during a regular WADA site inspection. The World Anti-Doping Code (WADA Code) works in consonance with the International Standard for Laboratories (ISL) to ensure the production of valid test results and evidentiary data and discovered that there were certain irregularities with the functioning of NDTL. The suspension on NDTL by no means was surprising since WADA had issued repeated warnings in the past, to bring its testing methods in conjunction with ISL, but owing to negligence on behalf of the testing body, it has resulted in a catastrophe not only for NDTL but also for the entire Indian Sports Regime. The seeds of this were laid down in September 2018, when WADA through a site-inspection observed and made 4 major objections against NDTL’s functioning in :

  1. Isotope Radio Mass Spectrometry (IRMS) sampling procedure;
  2. Validation of IRMS data for samples collected over the last 10 years;
  3. Faulty SOP on behalf of the laboratory with regards to testing;
  4. Inefficient quality management team.

After monitoring progress over the months, WADA found no efforts taken by NDTL in rectifying these irregularities and hence had no choice but to serve NDTL with a suspension notice. In May 2019, disciplinary proceedings were initiated by WADA’s Laboratory Expert Group (LabEG), who had to make recommendations to the WADA executive committee regarding the suspension of NDTL’s accreditation. As a result, in August 2019, NDTL’s accreditation was suspended for a period of up to 6 months. WADA, through its press release, stated that the suspension on the NDTL is due to “non-conformities with the ISL as identified during the earlier WADA site visit, including in relation to the laboratory’s isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) analytical method, as regulated by the relevant Technical Document under TD 2016 IRMS”.

Fast-forward to February 2020 when the suspension was supposed to be lifted but rather India’s misery seems to have compounded with WADA’s LabEG recommending further initiation of disciplinary proceedings as it had reasons to believe that the earlier non-conformities were not addressed and resolved. After completion of the disciplinary process, WADA handed another second six-month suspension to NDTL, beginning from July 2020 which has put a huge question mark on NDTL’s credibility that has been in contention ever since the September 2018 site inspection by WADA. NDTL had the option to file an appeal with the Court of Arbitration of Sport, within 21 days of the receipt of the suspension notice, but rather chose to see out the suspension period.

Consequence of the suspension

The National Dope Testing laboratory, as a consequence of the suspension, is prohibited from carrying out any doping activities, including the analysis of urine and blood samples, until they comply with WADA standards. With the Tokyo Olympics around the corner, if the NDTL fails to comply and get rid of the suspension, it is going to be a daunting task for India to efficiently test all its athletes (around 5000) which were proposed in 2019 by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. This is a huge roadblock to the country’s hopes of doing well in the Olympics as the testing, sampling, and anti-doping activities by NDTL look uncertain. During the suspension period, however, the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) can still carry on sample collection of athletes that have not been pending an analysis by NDTL or samples that are undergoing a confirmation procedure, but to pursue the testing and analyzing of such samples it is to be transported to a different WADA accredited laboratory outside India. This process is going to make a big hole in the purse of the Indian Sports Ministry which might limit the number of tests conducted.

There is no denying the fact that the financial state of affairs of Indian Sports is incomplete muddle with the pandemic adding more misery to it. Hence, it is feared that with the rise in testing costs, the sample collection of athletes will come down drastically, casting a shadow of doubt on the effectiveness of the anti-doping program in Indian Sports. There is a hope that the accreditation of NDTL can be reinstated if they comply with ISL and meet the requirements during their suspension period, but the manner in which it is handled is of prime importance. Given the way things are progressing; India’s chance for testing its athletes looks very slim. Moreover, there is a chance of the suspension being extended for another 6 months, which would be the final nail in the coffin for NDTL’s hopes of conducting any tests before the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021.

Conclusion

India, being an aspiring sports power, should be diligent enough to follow and comply with the international regulations of WADA, ISL, and other like organizations, in order to maintain a global standard of its sporting image. Due to the prohibition of testing by NDTL, the sporting regime has to face a lot of difficulties in conducting tests, obtaining samples, and other anti-doping activities. It should be kept in mind that, continuing this trend of non-conformity may result in revocation of accreditation altogether. Moreover, the Indian Sports structure doesn’t have enough money to continue with transporting and testing abroad. This would cause the level of testing fall well below what was intended and could also mean an increase in dope cheats that would be caught during international competitions and further lead to the complete mortification of the country in international games and eventually suspension from participating altogether. Hence, this latest suspension should serve as a wakeup call for NDTL and sports governing institutions to modify or overhaul its existing practices and methods; if at all the first suspension did not ring any bells. The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (MYAS) should give utmost priority to this issue since otherwise it could lead to a global embarrassment of our country’s sports structure and leave the entire Indian Sports in tatters.

Author: Siddhant Swain an intern, and Sudhansu Sahoo, Legal Associate, at Khurana & Khurana, Advocates and IP Attorneys.  In case of any queries please contact/write back to us at sudhanshu@khuranaandkhurana.com.

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