Even as the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) dithered over a decision to file a counter appeal in the case of four female athletes with the National Anti-Doping Appeal panel (NADAP), the latter on Tuesday fixed January 18 as the first date of hearing of the appeal filed by the athletes.

The four athletes, all 400m runners and aspirants for the longer relay team to the Olympics, Ashwini A.C., Sini Jose, Priyanka Panwar and Tiana Mary Thomas, had filed their appeal last week seeking exoneration or reduction of their one-year bans.

They were handed out a year's suspension on December 23 last, reducing the standard sanction of two years for steroid ‘positives', on the ground that they had committed “no significant fault or negligence” while consuming ginseng supplied by the coach that they claimed led to the ‘positive' test. Neither the NADA rules nor the WADA Code provide anything less than one year sanction for an argument based on supplement contamination.

The fact that the world over ‘negligence' on the part of the athlete is minutely assessed as much as the laboratory report about a supplement containing the banned substance in question in such cases is a point that the NADA may pursue in the event of an appeal.

The NADA will need to file a counter appeal seeking a two-year ban if it comes to the conclusion that there are strong grounds to appeal in a case involving steroids and supplements and the punishment given to the athletes was too lenient.

The 14-day deadline for a NADA appeal expired on Tuesday, but then this is considered only a technicality and may not affect its right of appeal within the next few days.

Condonation application

If NADA eventually makes up its mind it can file a late appeal and a condonation application can be submitted to explain the delay that could be attributed to the absence of the NADA Director-General, Rahul Bhatnagar, who is on leave.

Sources also indicated that there could have been a delay in the Union Sports Ministry conveying its opinion on a possible appeal, though the ministry does not have an official standing in this matter.

With the NADAP Chairman, Justice C. K. Mahajan (retd.) fixing the date of hearing as January 18, NADA will come under pressure in the next few days to act quickly on a matter where its credibility as an ‘independent' anti-doping agency can come into question.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has another three weeks' time to appeal should it contemplate an intervention at this stage. It can also wait for a decision by the appeal panel and then, if desired, take the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), Lausanne.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is expected to appeal to CAS against the one-year sanction imposed on two other athletes who had been part of the 4x400m relay team, Mandeep Kaur and Jauna Murmu.

It could be seeking a minimum two-year ban and might also look into the possibility of asking for a four-year suspension under the “aggravating circumstances” clause.

The IAAF appeal, if it comes through, would have the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) as first respondent. The athletes could also be roped in if required. The case could be heard by the CAS afresh, as per IAAF rules.