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Runners at a track meet in India wanted to avoid drug tests — so they ran away

Sprinter Lalit Kumar ran next to empty lanes in the men's final 100-meter race at the Delhi State Annual Athletics Championships. The no-shows cited cramps and other issues, but their withdrawals also came after anti-doping officials showed up.
Andrew Amsan
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Andrew Amsan via Twitter / Screengrab by NPR
Sprinter Lalit Kumar ran next to empty lanes in the men's final 100-meter race at the Delhi State Annual Athletics Championships. The no-shows cited cramps and other issues, but their withdrawals also came after anti-doping officials showed up.

If you don't like long sports stories, you're in luck: Most of this story's subjects didn't stick around to talk about what happened.

In their defense, they are, after all, runners. And some are teenagers. The athletes apparently fled from anti-doping officials to escape being caught cheating at the Delhi State Athletics Championship, held last week in India.

"In the junior steeplechase event, a girl continued to run even after crossing the finish line. A doping control officer had to chase her to get her sample," a senior coach told The Indian Express.

Only one sprinter, Lalit Kumar, turned up at the starting line for the men's 100 meters. Video from the event shows that he blazed down the track at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium all alone, with empty lanes on either side. His no-show rivals cited muscle cramps and similar issues.

Reporter Andrew Amsan also shared a video that is purported to show a bathroom at the stadium cluttered with syringes — more signs of alleged doping.

Sports officials noticed suspicious withdrawals and behavior

"An odd withdrawal is understandable, but when seven runners withdraw, you know something is fishy," Delhi Athletics Association Secretary Sandeep Mehta told Reuters.

Some officials were at the stadium to collect anti-doping samples; others were there to verify athletes were competing in the proper age group. The state competition has six age groups, from 12-and-under up to adult athletes.

While athletes might have avoided immediate scrutiny, the incident rose to the notice of Athletics Federation of India President Adille J. Sumariwalla, who commented on the matter despite being in China to watch India compete in the 2023 Asian Games.

"There will be an inquiry," Sumariwalla told sports news outlet insidethegames. "I'm going to figure out what happened because I don't have the people who were on the ground, and I have not spoken to the technical officials because I was just focusing on the Asian Games."

The state competition's rules require at least three entrants in each event, throwing into question whether Kumar's win, after running alone in the 100 meters, would be recognized. But Mehta told Reuters that given the circumstances, Kumar will get his medal.

For young athletes, the stakes are high

News that young athletes might be doping at wholesale levels brings a range of reactions, from outrage to concern. But the reasons competitors might choose to cheat go beyond a medal — athletes at the Delhi State Championship can win cash incentives and other benefits from Delhi's government.

If athletes excel, they also receive a boost to get into college — even possibly landing a government job — especially if they also do well at the national level, as The Indian Express reports.

But, the newspaper adds, any athlete who is found to have cheated through using banned substances or lying about their age must give the money back.

Mehta, of the Delhi Athletics Association, is asking India's National Anti-Doping Agency to test the track and field athletes who abruptly dropped out. Sumariwalla also says his agency will look at possible rules changes to handle such cases.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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