Saturday 22 October 2016

Paul Kimmage: Connolly not the first GAA player to use steroids and he won't be the last

Arguments against testing GAA players are no longer valid

Published 21/06/2015 | 17:00

'An amateur sprinter, or cyclist, or rower, caught using Ben Johnson’s steroid of choice would have been slaughtered’
'An amateur sprinter, or cyclist, or rower, caught using Ben Johnson’s steroid of choice would have been slaughtered’

The date was Sunday, October 10, 2013 and it was business as usual on The Marian Finucane Show: the newspaper headlines were dominated by the budget, and the panel - Tadhg Crowley, Daithí de Buitléar, Niamh Lyons, Roddy Collins and Suzanne Kelly - spent the first 40 minutes discussing the repercussions before Marian cut to an ad break.

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Then something unusual happened. "Welcome back to the programme," she announced. "Now a couple of things . . . Tadhg, you want to talk about drug testing in sport."

"Yeah, I suppose it's something different to what we've spoken about already," Crowley replied, "but one of my privileges in life is that I'm involved with the Kilkenny hurling team as a doctor and there seems to be a huge focus now on drug testing in sport.

"I think there's an inordinate amount of money being wasted on it," he added. "I think amateur athletes are being tested on a regular basis to show that there is no drug (taking) in sport."

Marian wasn't having it and reminded him of the prevalence of drugs in international sport but Tadhg had barely cleared his throat. "In the countries that are winning all of the Olympic medals the testing isn't actually going on," he said. "If you take the Russian federation a couple of years ago, I think most of the testing occurred in the 16-year-old girls with the ribbons running across the floor, whereas the real gold medal won't be tested."

This wasn't happening in Ireland. "We're spending about five million every three years on a drug testing programme that isn't being done across the world."

But the aspect he objected most to was testing in the GAA.

"Why are we doing it at all?" he wondered. "These are amateur games; there have been no positive tests. It's been peddled that by testing for drugs we are going to stop drugs coming into our game but . . . we're putting amateur athletes under huge pressure."

Crowley wasn't the first to express this opinion. Since July 2001, when the GAA agreed to begin testing senior inter-county players as part of an agreement with the Irish Sports Council, there has been a constant whine from players, officials, journalists and fans: 'Why are we being subjected to this?'

Take this letter to the Irish Independent in August 2001:

"Does anyone really believe that there are hurlers out there who think that taking something like EPO will turn them into DJ Carey, or footballers who believe that steroids will enable them to be as skilful as Maurice Fitzgerald? It is an insult to suggest that these amateurs, the purest form of sportspeople, who play for the love of the game, should be lumped in with the drug-fuelled professionals who taint the very idea of sport."

Warning: Prepare to be insulted!

On Wednesday, Thomas Connolly, a 23-year-old Gaelic footballer from Monaghan, was handed a two-year ban by the GAA Anti-Doping Hearing Committee, four months after testing positive in an out-of-competition control for the anabolic steroid, Stanozolol.

A young amateur sprinter, or cyclist, or rower, caught using Ben Johnson's steroid of choice would have been slaughtered. Connolly was cosseted: he's only a kid. He didn't mean it. Sure how was he to know?

The facts of the case make interesting reading: Connolly has played football since boyhood and was involved with the Monaghan minor panel for a year and the under 21s for two years. In November 2014, he was invited to join the Monaghan senior panel. He trained with them for four months and played in three McKenna Cup games. On February 13, during a training session in Cloughran, he was one of three players subjected to an out-of-competition urine test by the Irish Sports Council. The samples were analysed in Cologne and one registered the presence of Stanozolol. A month later, on March 18, Connolly was notified of the adverse finding and charged with an anti-doping violation.

On April 3, he admitted the violation but requested a meeting to dispute the consequences with the GAA Anti-doping Hearings Committee. The hearing convened on April 27, when Connolly explained, in oral and written testimony, how the steroid had entered his system.

He had been feeling stiff and sore from training with the county panel and was given a container with tablets from a colleague at work. He took four tablets a day for five days - two in the morning and two with his dinner - but stopped a day or two before he was tested because he was still feeling pain.

He produced the tablets at the hearing. They were stored in a container that indicated the tablets were Anavar 10. Key Anavar 10 into Google and the words 'steroids', 'side-effects,' 'anabolics' and 'illicit drug use' jump off the page.

Connolly did not key Anavar 10 into Google. He told the hearing he thought they were painkillers and never considered for a moment he was taking a prohibited substance. He had no inclination that he might test positive and had made no effort to avoid the test.

(Note: Anavar is a trade name for Oxandrolone - a different anabolic steroid to the one found in Connolly's sample. Connolly insisted the tablets (labelled Anavar) were the only ones he had consumed prior to the test. The tablets were sent to the laboratory in Cologne for analysis and it was confirmed that they were in fact Stanozolol.)

The full decision of the hearing states that Connolly asserted in his evidence "that throughout the time he was training with the Monaghan senior team he was never told about the existence of the Anti-Doping Rules; about their applicability to him or of the sanctions which flowed from a breach of the rules.

"He alleged that he was never advised of sources of information about anti-doping or given any instruction or education as to his obligations under the rules."

He was assisted in his defence by the barrister, Aaron Shearer, who highlighted a passage from the Irish Sports Council website: 'National governing bodies of sport play a pivotal role in ensuring their membership are informed and educated about the anti-doping rules and ensuring that all athletes and all athlete support personnel participate in an environment that is drugs free and promotes the spirit of sport.'

This was rejected by David Casserly BL, on behalf of the GAA, who argued that the testing of senior inter-county players has been ongoing since 2001 and is now an established part of life. And he was not buying the notion that Connolly hadn't known he was taking steroids.

As detailed in the findings, Casserly claimed that he [Connolly]knew he would be playing at a higher level in 2015, ie, senior inter-county, which would also explain why he was having to adjust to the rigours of increased and/or more training in preparation for competing at this level. Any potential pain about which the athlete complained to his work colleague was clearly linked to his goal to be able to endure and/or excel at the rigour of the training to which he was being subjected.

Casserly further maintained that Connolly chose to accept tablets from a non-medically qualified person. He did not seek the advice or help of the Monaghan team doctor or nutritionist. He did not seek the assistance of a pharmacist. He took the tablets in a regimented fashion consistent with anabolic steroid use rather than pain relief.

Mr Casserly drew attention to the fact that the athlete did not disclose his use of these tablets when asked about any other products he was taking at the time of the testing. At the very least he must have been reckless to the fact that he was using a prohibited substance.

When the committee - Adrian Colton QC, Dr Pat O'Neill and former GAA president Nickey Brennan - met to consider a verdict, they rejected the notion that Connolly had acted recklessly but considered him naïve and "guilty of a high degree of negligence in consuming the tablets in question." They also determined he had not acted with intent and reduced his ban from four to two years.

On Wednesday, Connolly made headlines as the first GAA player - "the purest form of sportspeople" - to be sanctioned for a doping offence. It would be naïve to think he's the first to have used steroids. And he most certainly won't be the last.

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