Monday 27 February 2017

Confusion reigns for athletes in war on drugs

It's no longer enough to have talent, you almost need to hold a degree in chemistry, writes Harry Leech

It's hard not to be cynical when it comes to the issue of drugs in sport. There are only so many times you can watch the tearful denial of an athlete who has tested positive, followed in short order by an admission that yes, they did take the drugs, before your heart hardens a little.

The most infamous example was Ben Johnson's denial after the Seoul Olympics, followed some years later by a clarification from Johnson's coach, the late Charlie Francis, that Johnson was caught for what was pretty much the only steroid he wasn't taking. Francis maintained Johnson had been set up until the day he died. "I would never have allowed my sprinters to use an injectable [drug] known to the IOC."

So when the news broke on Monday that the South African rugby players Bjorn Basson and Chiliboy Ralepelle had tested positive for the little known stimulant Methylhexaneamine, the question in most minds was 'how do I pronounce that?' and not 'could they be innocent?'

But there is far more to this case than meets the eye. Given the confusion among athletes, coaches and officials regarding what's allowed by the World Anti-Doping Agency, and in particular the bizarre situation of Methylhexaneamine's status on the banned list, there is reason to believe the two players in this instance are more unlucky than unscrupulous.

Methylhexaneamine was only added to the banned list this year, something that seems to have gone mostly unnoticed in the sporting community and certainly by the Springboks' backroom staff who are now desperately worried that the entire team may have been exposed. It is common in a number of popular pre-workout drinks, diet pills and also some over-the-counter nasal decongestants, the source being credited with the players' positive test.

But unfortunately it's not as simple as looking for the ingredient on the back of your cold and flu remedy or your energy drink. As the UK Anti-Doping Agency recently pointed out in a warning to athletes and coaches, Methylhexaneamine is also commonly listed as '1,3-dimethylamylamine', 'dimethylamylamine', 'dimethylpentylamine', 'DMAA', 'forthan', 'forthane', 'floradrene', 'geranamine' and the innocuous sounding 'geranium oil'.

Confused? You should be and you're not alone. Many high-level athletes have at best a vague idea of how careful they have to be when using over-the-counter medicine and sports supplements. One high-level competitor who has been tested "between 20 and 30 times, nationally and internationally" over the last four years and who takes a keen interest in the provenance of the supplements he takes, was shocked when I told him how many different names Methylhexaneamine is known by. "Jesus. That's very worrying." He's one of the more careful ones.

While many athletes and players are extremely confused about what they can and cannot take, few are willing to talk openly about how genuinely confusing the whole process can be for fear of unwarranted suspicion. As Dr Eamonn Flanagan, a respected strength and conditioning coach with Scottish Rugby points out, it's not the presence of drug testing that is resented, it's the constant moving of the goalposts;

"Drug testing is extremely important, but what most annoys people in sport is how often things change, how often things are upgraded or downgraded, taken off or added to the list. We're holding players to a completely different set of rules to everybody else. Caffeine was even on the list until a few years ago. Society is so hyper-medicated and to expect athletes to completely isolate themselves from that and become some sort of Spartan ideal . . . I just don't think it's fair."

Dozens of unsuspecting sportsmen and women have tested positive for Methylhexaneamine since it was banned this year, including 11 athletes from Australia prior to the Commonwealth Games. Most have already received bans and all have had their names publicly dragged through the mud.

But what is most galling for those who have been 'caught' is that while Methylhexaneamine is classified as a stimulant in 2010, which carries a mandatory two-year ban, it will be classified as a specified substance in 2011 with sanctions as low as a warning. Unbelievable as it may seem, if the two Springbok players had tested positive for the substance last year nothing would have happened and if it had happened next year they would have received a quiet warning. As it is, their reputations, and potentially their careers, lie in tatters.

"If they've decided that next year it's not going to be a big deal, then why is it a big deal now?" asks Flanagan. "By its very definition testing is supposed to be random and the sanctions set in stone. But if someone tests positive in November 2010 or February 2011, they will be punished in a very different way for the same result; it's almost as if the punishments are random now as well."

While the addition of Methylhexaneamine to the banned list is a particularly complicated affair it's far from the only example of confusing messages from WADA. Pseudoephedrine is a component of most effective cold and flu remedies but for many years was banned in competition. The ban was lifted in 2004, as authorities realised it had few performance-enhancing properties and had resulted in a large number of positives from athletes with a dose of the sniffles.

Now it's back on the banned list and as we go into cold and flu season, athletes will need to choose carefully when they have a blocked nose; if you go into the pharmacy and choose Lemsip Max Cold & Flu you'll be fine. But if you choose Lemsip Max Sinus & Flu, which has pseudoephedrine as an ingredient, you could be in trouble.

Dr Una May of the Irish Sports Council says that they have been warning athletes and National Governing Bodies for a number of years about how careful athletes need to be when buying supplements;

"When it comes to sports supplements, we can't give an easy yes or no answer because we can't guarantee that something hasn't been contaminated; people don't have a notion of what they're taking most of the time. If the product is promising something magical, it's either a waste of your money or something you shouldn't be taking. They need to be extremely cautious."

But, as Flanagan points out, if something like this can happen to professionals, what hope have the amateurs? "It's not a surprise that someone is going to get caught out by something like this, it's a surprise that people at that level can test positive when they're in such a tightly controlled environment. If guys like these can get caught out with the support of doctors and nutritionists, what hope has the amateur athlete who has absolutely no back-up?"

Sunday Independent

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