The president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was in town last week for the annual Irish Sports Council (ISC) doping report.
What has this to do with the GAA you might ask? Well, everything as it turns out, even if the majority of players and almost all officials would not know the first thing about the whole process. In the GAA world most people see drugs, whether they be performance-enhancing or the so-called social variety, as being a problem with cycling, weightlifting or athletics but not a factor in the GAA.
The annual report of the ISC would seem to bear this out. Of the 87 tests taken last year on players in both football and hurling all were clear but vigilance is needed and with more blood tests than urine tests coming down the tracks, the GAA, like all other organisations, must ensure that the education process is clear and if anyone gets caught then ignorance will not be a defence.
What happens at present is that testers can get a urine sample after a game – which in summer can take a long time, much to the annoyance of those waiting on the bus – or they can arrive at a training session and pick out a couple of players at random. County players are fairly well versed in both the procedure and the substances banned. In cases where they are medically prescribed something then there is documentary evidence from the team doctor.
When this started I felt that the idea of testing amateur players was a step too far and players should tell the testers to go jump in a lake as they had to go home to milk the cows, update their Facebook page or do some other work of great importance. Yet a clean sport is just as important to the GAA as any other organisation and while the temptations for winning may not be financial, walking up the steps in Croke Park in September is as big an attraction for many in this country as winning an Olympic medal or the Tour de France.
If a county squad were called together in January and told that if they took X, Y and Z they would have a far better chance of winning the All-Ireland, would there be any takers? It is as much a certainty as the Pope knowing the Our Father. And if someone went into a club dressing room and said the same thing about them winning that long-desired championship, would the outcome be any different? This moral dilemma must be discouraged at every level or the game will decay through sheer cynicism.
Events recently in Australia show that every sport has the same issues when it comes to doping and it is not all dopes who are using or getting caught. Top-class athletes make choices and the GAA is in the same boat as everyone else – winning is such an attraction that players will try to gain an edge, legal or otherwise.
Concern has often been expressed about rugby schools and the type of muscle-building which may be encouraged through the use of such things as Creatine and other supplements. A rapid increase in weight in a young frame has to be carried by the same immature bones so common sense would dictate that a player's long-term development would be best served by leaving all this stuff aside and trusting nature and training to get into good shape. What happens later in life – sometimes not much later – to the body when the training stops and this weight is not shed is another matter.
The GAA has to be vigilant with all schools and colleges. It would be a very irresponsible teacher who would either encourage or tolerate any type of supplement use but the world is not a
perfect place and many young people are very conscious of their body shape and they will take anything to improve their appearance. If that leads to a higher level of performance on the field then that is hitting the bullseye from their point of view.
The big problem here is that there is a grey area around the legality of testing minors. Consent is an issue – both by parents and students, even if in my innocence, it would seem to me that parents should be actively encouraging testing just to be sure they know what their sons and daughters are up to. There is anecdotal evidence of parents innocently buying various supplements for their children and paying up to €100 a week for them.
This could be for a variety of supplements which are available in all gyms but again international evidence would suggest that steroids and growth hormones are being taken by young players in various sports. That is not to suggest that the same is happening in Ireland but what it does show is that the GAA, like every sport, cannot bury its head in the sand and think that it could not happen on our watch.
What is needed in every club is an education programme around the whole area of performance-enhancing drugs and the GAA should encourage the testing of players at every level. WADA are actively considering increasing the minimum drugs ban from two to four years so the deterrents are out of an organisation's hands. There are those that argue loudly that smoking your head off with mind-altering substances like cannabis (there were four cases last year) should not be considered a sporting issue never mind carry a legal sanction. If that type of thinking ever took over sport then all administrators might as well throw their hat at it. Anyway, there is no fear of WADA going down that route and the Irish Sports Council are considered vigilant in their approach.
According to the ISC report, the GAA is low-risk. But nobody should ever take for granted that the same moral and ethical standards will always apply. The more testing in the GAA the better as there are far too many sports where ordinary fans have lost all confidence. It is of absolute importance when a player in Croke Park brings off a spectacular high catch, shows breathtaking pace or kicks a brilliant point from distance, that everyone knows the fuel he is using is entirely natural.