NEW DELHI (AP) — India's Ukrainian track and field coach has been fired after eight prominent athletes were suspended within a week for failing doping tests.
With eight athletes suspended within a week, including members of the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games women’s 4×400-meter gold-medal winning teams, former Olympians and the public have been escalating demands for the government to intervene.
Sports Minister Ajay Maken responded Tuesday by firing Ukrainian Yuri Ogorodnik, coach of six of the athletes named in recent doping cases, and demanding an overhaul of the way anti-doping authorities operate in the country of 1.1 billion.
Other coaches have been warned.
"I have asked for his (Ogorodnik’s) removal," Maken told a press conference. "All foreign coaches training athletes who test positive will be removed."
Maken has ordered a full inquiry, led by a retired High Court judge or an official of similar rank.
"The positive dope tests of eight athletes brought disgrace to the sporting fraternity and the entire country. So we have decided to take some strong measures against the coaches and officials so that such things doesn’t occur again," Maken said.
Among the disgraced athletes are Ashwini Akkunji, dubbed India’s "Golden Girl," Mandeep Kaur and Sini Jose, who were all part of the women’s relay squads that won 4×400 meters gold medals at the New Delhi Commonwealth Games and Guangzhou Asian Games last October and November.
Akkunji had also won the 400-meters hurdles at Guangzhou.
The relay team was considered India’s best hope for a medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
Jauna Murmu, Tiana Mary and Priyanka Panwar were other 400 meters competitors caught for doping, while men’s long jumper Hari Krishnan and women’s shot putter Sonia Kumari have also been banned.
Ogorodnik had been with the Indian track and field squad for two years, and had only had his contract recently renewed after the successes of 2010.
The relay gold in New Delhi last October was India’s first on the Commonwealth Games track in 52 years and came in the penultimate event of the meet.
Tens of thousands of fans stayed in their seats long after competition to watch the women presented with their medals, and the country was abuzz with the unexpected achievement.
Even Sebastian Coe, the famous British Olympic gold medalist and London Olympics official, was praising the women’s team for their contribution to the sport.
"That may just have changed the direction of track and field," Coe, who is part Indian on his mother’s side, said as he sat in the stadium. "Not only track and field in India, but in Asia."
Now, three-quarters of the relay quartet are under suspension, and Maken is holding officials at least partly responsible — even if no firm evidence of systemic doping has been presented publicly.
"Officials and coaches left to go scot-free earlier will be removed immediately," Maken said, referring to coaches associated with athletes caught for doping in the past. "I want Indian officials to explain how the drugs reached national camps. I have asked for a detailed report."
Maken wants the national anti-doping agency to track the movement of performance-enhancing drugs and is asking for more sophisticated border controls.
"Proper searches will be made, so that such substances do not enter the country," he said.
P.T. Usha, who missed the 400-meters hurdles bronze by a fraction of a second at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and is now a coach, called for a government inquiry before departing late Monday for the Asian championships in Kobe, Japan.
"It is a big slap for all of us," she told reporters in Bangalore. "When we celebrated the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games triumphs, we never thought this would happen."
Milkha Singh, who narrowly missed out on a bronze in the 400 meters at the 1960 Olympics, said coaches and officials were responsible for the mess.
"The coaches and federation officials are fully responsible, they know about it," Singh said in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh.
Though doping is not a new problem in India — the national weightlifting federation has twice been banned from international competition due to a high number of doping violations — the recent spurt in cases in athletics is unprecedented and concerning.
There have been positive cases, including Sunita Rani (2002 Busan Asian Games), Neelam Jaswant Singh (2005 Helsinki World Championships) and Rani Yadav (2010 Commonwealth Games) in the past, but never so many simultaneously.
Some high-ranking past and present federation officials are already in trouble of a different kind.
Commonwealth Games chief organizer Suresh Kalmadi is a former president of the Athletics Federation of India. His close aide, Lalit Bhanot, remains secretary of the AFI.
They’re both in jail awaiting trial on charges of corruption relating to the organization of the Commonwealth Games.