How India’s economic history makes it a hotbed for steroids

Indian sprinter Ashinwi Akkunji was suspended after a positive PED test.
Indian sprinter Ashinwi Akkunji was suspended after a positive PED test.
Image: Reuters/Michael Dalder
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India has the highest number of athletes suspended after testing positive for steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs since 2009, followed by Russia, the New York Times reports.

A big part of the reason why is the country’s approach to trade. It is a massive producer of generic pharmaceuticals, providing much-needed treatments at prices far below those of Western manufacturers as the drug-maker for the developing world. That has made finding steroids there easy and cheap, with a month’s supply of banned substances reportedly costing as little as $5 to $10 a month.

But India is also one of the more trade-protected countries in the world. While it has made great strides in lowering tariffs since it began doing so in the 1990s, there are high tariffs—ranging from 30% to 150% (pdf)—for protein supplements, energy drinks, and other legal tools that athletes use to improve recovery time and performance. This can put them out of reach of many Indian athletes who don’t get the same kind of funding as their peers in wealthier countries. A full regimen of allowed supplements could cost 10 times as much as the shadier (and quicker-acting) pharmaceutical path.

Oh, and then there’s the country’s relationship with Russia, dating back to its refusal to pick sides during the Cold War. Coaches hired from Russia and other eastern-bloc countries where doping is problematic have brought some of those practices to India.

There are always unintended consequences to economic decisions, but it’s fair to say that when India’s plans to nurture domestic industry were put into play, few foresaw that heavy sports doping would be one of the outcomes.