In light of the World Anti-Doping Agency report on Russian athletes and doping, we look again at Iran's initiatives to tackle doping within the country's own sporting community — and the need for greater education about banned substances and the rules that guide international sporting competitions. 

 

This article was originally published in March 2016.

 

The news that the Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova had tested positive for doping shook the world of tennis this week. Sharapova told a press conference in Los Angeles that she was not aware that the drug meldonium had been included on the banned list as of January 1, and that she had taken the drug for 10 years due to a health condition. "I did fail the test and take full responsibility for it," she said.

The news followed the November 2015 revelations about the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs among Russia’s track and field athletes, a practice that was apparently encouraged — and covered up — by coaches, doctors, and both state and sports officials. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) confirmed that over 1,400 lab samples had been intentionally destroyed over a three year-period.

 

The Picture from Iran

In Iran, doping among athletes has mainly stemmed from a general lack of awareness about what substances are banned. In the majority of cases where Iranian athletes have failed doping tests, it has been because they have taken medication or even ordinary food or drink that they did not know were on the banned list.  

Because of this, many athletes have expressed fears about what medications and even foods they are allowed.  

“For years I have been craving chocolate but I have not eaten it because some products might contain performance-enhancing substances,” Ehsan Haddadi, the Iranian discus thrower who won a silver medal in the 2012 London Olympics, told an Iranian sports newspaper last year.

Iran’s first National Anti-Doping Organization (NADO) lab was set up in 2007, at the same time as Iran joined UNESCO’s  International Convention against Doping in Sport and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). After a thorough and costly process, Iran’s lab received accreditation as one of the 34 WADA-approved laboratories around the world.

In addition to conducting doping tests and sending results to WADA, the lab, which falls under the supervision of the Iranian National Olympics Committee and the Medical Sports Committee, educates sports coaches, bodybuilders, doctors and athletes.

According to Dr. Ramin Tabatabaei, spokesman for the Iranian Anti-Doping Committee, as the 2016 summer Olympics and Para-Olympics approach, more than 300 hours of classes will be held for Iranian athletes and coaches, and information packs about banned substances will also be circulated.

“In 2015, the National Anti-Doping Headquarters took 1,217 samples from athletes in all fields,” Tabatabaei said. “This number will increase by three percent. A greater number of samples will be taken from athletes who are going to international games to compete in wrestling, Taekwondo and weightlifting — sports that we have a good chance of winning medals in at the Rio Olympics.”

But how effective have these measures been? According to the spokesman for the Iranian Anti-Doping Committee, in 2015 and 2016, the rate of doping in football fell to half of one percent. He attributes this drop in using performance-enhancing substances to the efforts of his committee.

Over the last three years, the Anti-Doping Committee has taken on the role of drug testing, taking it out of the hands of individual sports federations. Prior to this, Iranian Football, Basketball, Weightlifting and Wresting federations supervised the doping tests independently.

Iran’s Doping Cases

A number of Iranian footballers have tested positively for banned substances in recent years. Mehdi Vaezi, the goalkeeper for Paykan Tehran F.C. was the first footballer in Iran’s Football League to test positive; he lost his chance to play in the 2006 FIFA World Cup championship. Naeim Saadavi and Farshad Falahatzadeh both tested positive and were banned from playing for a year. Hamid Shafiei, Hamed Kavianpour, Ali Molaei and Abbas Ghasemi were also found guilty, and all received bans. 

But in Iran, the sport most routinely linked to doping is weightlifting. The biggest scandal took place on a night in in 2006, when NADO officials arrived at Iran’s National Weightlifting Team’s Olympics training camp, and informed Yordan Georgi Ivanov, the Bulgarian coach of the national team, that they were there to test for illegal performance-enhancing substances. 

Mehdi Attar Ashrafi, the Iranian Weightlifting National Team’s supervisor, described the behavior of the NADO officials as “suspicious,” But within an hour, officials tested 11 members of the Iranian team. When the results came back two weeks later, nine members of the team had tested positive and were barred from the Olympics. One of the two who tested negative was Hossein Rezazadeh, the two-time Olympics gold medalist in 2000 and 2004 and the winner of many international weightlifting competitions. “If there is only one person who [would test negative] it would be me!” he said before the test results were announced.

  

Did Rezazadeh receive “special treatment”?

Officials claimed that the Iranian weightlifters had tested positive because of testosterone in their food. If this is true, why did Rezazadeh’s results come back clear?  

Several years on from the scandal, Ali Moradi, the head of Iranian Weightlifting Federation then and now, claimed that the day after NADO agents tested the athletes he made a deal with a high official of the International Weightlifting Federation and NADO. He said he agreed to give up nine athletes, plus pay $400,000. In return, Hossein Rezazadeh was able to compete for the national team.

Rezazadeh never responded to this claim. But in June 2008, shortly before that year’s Olympics, he said farewell to the world of weightlifting, giving rise to the rumor that he was no longer able to hide the results of his doping tests. Just before his retirement, he refused to take a doping test.

But why the sudden farewell? According to International Olympics Committee bylaws, if the results of two doping tests are not conclusive and the athlete tests positive in the third test, then he or she will lose any medal awarded in the previous Olympics. 

It happened with Iranian freestyle wrestler champion Abbas Jadidi. At his first international competition in Toronto, he defeated Makharbek Khadartsev, the seven-time world champion, and then went on to defeat the US wrestler Melvin Douglas 2-1 in the finals. But after he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, his gold medal was taken from him. He was also barred from international competitions for two years.

So Rezazadeh must have been so afraid of losing his 2004 Olympics gold medal that he decided to retire. 

 

The Victims

Sometimes doping does happen involuntarily, as Sharapova has recently claimed happened with her. Iranian footballer Mohsen Bayatinia had played for many distinguished Iranian teams and could have played at the top level of Iranian football if he had not been injured in a serious traffic accident. After recovering, he returned to the game, and was asked to take a test a week after he resumed practice. The results came back positive, but he was able to prove that it was due to medication he was taking for his injuries and so he was eventually cleared.

Weightlifter Saeed Ali-Hosseini claims his positive test was a case of “sabotage,” though it is likely it was just down to ignorance. Widely expected to break all records set by Hossein Rezazadeh, Ali-Hosseini failed two tests, in 2009 and 2010. He was only 23 when he was barred from weightlifting competitions for life in accordance with NADO bylaws, which stipulate that any athlete who tests positive for using performance-enhancing drugs twice will be barred for life.

Ali-Hosseini blamed the former champion Rezazadeh — who was head of the Weightlifting Federation at time — saying he wanted to ruin his career. Ali Moradi, the federation’s current president, has launched attempts to have the ban lifted so Ali-Hosseini can return to the sport within the next two years.

Worries about Rio Olympics

Nasrollah Sajjadi, the First Deputy Sports Minister, also heads up Iranian division NADO. “As a result of our efforts we hope that not even one Iranian athlete will be disgraced by doping in Rio,” he told the Islamic Republic News Agency.

Having said this, though, the biggest worry for Iranian sports and athletes at the moment is WADA’s newly published list of banned substances, the one that apparently caught Sharapova out. Iranian NADO, and Iran’s athletes and coaches, will have to put in a lot of work to ensure Iran’s sporting stars don’t find themselves in a similar situation.  

 

This article was originally published in March 2016.

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