It’s a drug that is common among racehorses and gym junkies. Now, it has illegally found its way in Indian sport. And the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) is concerned.
On Monday, the anti-doping watchdog announced that boxer Neeraj failed a dope test. A strong contender to qualify for next year’s Tokyo Olympics, Neeraj – who has won multiple international medals and has spent a majority of the year at national camps and competing at tournaments – tested positive for banned performance-enhancing substance ligandrol, also known as LGD 4033.
The drug, experts say, is available in India only through the black market and until last year, no Indian athlete had tested positive for it. This year, however, five sportspersons, including Neeraj, have tested positive for ligandrol. Neeraj was provisionally suspended and her hearing will begin shortly, while the other four have been banned for between four and eight years.
Four others are all weightlifters: NADA has handed four-year bans to Neetu Khara, Siyaram Gujjar and Nikhil Tugnait while repeat offender Dipika Shripal was suspended for eight years.
Ligandrol is being studied as a treatment for cancer and other chronic diseases where patients experience muscle weakness and wastage. However, it is banned for use by professional athletes. “We are concerned with the increasing use of LGD 4033 by weightlifters and boxers. Till last year, there were no violations with respect to this drug. This year, there are quite a few,” NADA director general Navin Agarwal said.
NADA’s concerns stem from the fact that ligandrol is still classified as an investigational drug, meaning it is still being studied for safety by using it in clinical trials. In several countries, including the USA and Australia, these drugs are not approved for human consumption.
In fact, as per several research papers and equestrian magazines, this is a common drug found among racehorses. “They (LGD 4033) have no therapeutic use in the racing horse. They are generally administered to improve performance and affect the outcome of a race,” website Horse Talk noted earlier this year.
The drug is popular among bodybuilders, too, who hail it as a “muscle-builder… to improve appearance without any of the nasty side effects experienced with steroid use,” according to Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
In recent years, there has been a growing consumption of ligandrol among sportspersons as it can help repair and build muscles. So much so that in the last one year, the anti-doping agencies in USA and Australia warned athletes over the use of this drug, which has been on the World Anti Doping Agency’s banned substance list for a couple of years.
Australian swimmer Shayna Jack, who tested positive days before this year’s world championship, is one of the high-profile athletes suspended for ligandrol’s consumption. According to the US Anti Doping Agency (USADA), the drug is banned among athletes as it can be used for “muscle-building effects.”
“Even though it’s not legally available in medication anywhere in the world, there are laboratories that manufacture LGD-4033 and sell it as a ‘research chemical.’ This is a red flag, and any product marketed for sport performance or muscle building that also claims to be for ‘research use only’ or ‘not for human consumption’ is especially risky and should be avoided by athletes,” USADA said in a statement on its website.
The drug, marketed as a ‘health supplement’, is openly sold on various Indian websites and is priced between Rs 1,000 to Rs 5,000.
Neeraj, whose sample was collected on September 24 and was tested at Qatar’s Anti-Doping lab, has accepted the findings of her sample. With the Olympics seven months away, NADA has accepted her request for an expedited hearing. The boxer, who was provisionally suspended starting November 13 is now staring at a four-year ban.
Dope offenders double compared to last year
* More than 150 athletes in 19 sports have tested positive for doping this year, more than double compared to 2018, National Anti Doping Agency (NADA) data has revealed.
* According to NADA, 156 Indian athletes have tested positive for consuming performance-enhancing drugs up to November 30. The anti-doping watchdog has conducted 3,814 tests on athletes from 44 sports till the end of last month. Both figures are likely to increase by year-end.
* The number so far this year is much higher compared to 2018, when 70 athletes were caught for doping last year. The figure for 2017 was 73 while in 2016, it was 77. NADA director general Navin Agarwal said they will tighten the screw on the athletes in the run-up to the Olympics next year. “We have increased detection rate this year and in the coming months, all Olympic-bound athletes will be continuously tested,” Agarwal said.
* Out of the 156 positive cases, 60 are in bodybuilding alone. Curiously, there are two positive cases in shooting, a sport where incidents of doping have been rare in the past. In July, NADA banned national-level pistol shooter Pawan Yadav for two years for propranolol, a blocking agent that reduces blood pressure in times of extreme stress. The identity of the second shooter has not yet been revealed.