Thursday 21 November 2019

It's dangerous to assume money lies at the root of all temptation

Gaelic games are 'low-risk' on doping scale but vigilance must be maintained, writes John O'Brien

It's a fairly poor reflection of what regularly passes for intellectual sporting discourse in this country that when there is clearly an argument to be put forward against government grant money being disbursed to GAA players, we instead get Jerry Kiernan, brandishing his anti-GAA prejudice like an Olympic medal, popping up on Newstalk to deliver a semi-coherent rant full of blissful ignorance about how teams prepare and the rigid discipline the top players maintain.

Kiernan's ill-received diatribe was made to seem even more ridiculous than it was by virtue of the fact that the GAA grants are hardly an issue worth getting worked up about. What are we talking about here? A total annual sum of €900,000 from which an inter-county player, depending on how long he defers his summer holidays, can draw a dividend up to a maximum of €700. In the context of the overall sports budget, such a sum just about qualifies as a pittance.

There's a principle at stake, of course. Not everybody is entirely comfortable with a grants system that is heavily skewed in favour of a narrow band of elite athletes performing with distinction at world and Olympic level but that, broadly, has always been the purpose since the scheme's inception. We support athletes competing on the international stage because we see an inherent value in whatever success they enjoy, an investment willingly given without any guarantee of an economic return.

The GAA grants don't fit snugly into that picture. The often repeated argument that players deserve some reward for all the revenue they help generate only ultimately serves to sidestep the much thornier issue of where precisely those rewards should come from. Should players in a sport with a token international dimension and which wears its amateur ethos as a badge of honour be in a position to draw down public funds? It is a valid enough question.

Ultimately, though, it isn't the money itself that rankles with Kiernan and several Irish athletes who expressed their opposition to the GAA payments being renewed for a further two years. In their criticisms it was easy to detect a long-standing gripe against the privileged position the GAA enjoys in Irish life and the huge attention it commands from the public and the media. In their eyes, the GAA, when it comes down to it, gets all the breaks.

That's not entirely true, of course, but you can see why certain athletes might think it. When the grants system was first conceived in 2007, at an annual cost of €3.5m, the Irish economy was still in overdrive and the GAA was reaping a rich financial dividend as soccer and rugby relocated temporarily to Croke Park. The downside was that pressure from players and the GPA for some sort of monetary recognition began to grow ever more intense.

And there's no doubt that the sports council grants arrived at a very convenient time for the GAA. It meant they could put the lid on tough questions that can only ever yield uneasy answers. They could see the players happy for a few bob while still proudly proclaiming the association's amateur ethos, entirely comfortable with the contradictions that always entailed. So how is that war against illegal payments to managers progressing anyway?

But essentially there isn't anything new here. The GAA, only rivalled by rugby in recent years, has always dominated the sporting landscape here and, inevitably, there are certain perks attached to that status. You can be sure that Minister for Sport Michael Ring didn't want to be attending functions last week and fielding questions as to why the GAA grants had been shelved. These days a government minister needs as many happy tunes to sing as he can find.

Ring was in attendance on Wednesday when the Irish Sports Council released its annual anti-doping report and, there too, you could get a small glimpse of the special position occupied by the GAA. Not that they are lax when it comes to testing GAA players – it was the third most tested sporting organisation last year, after all. But there was a clear sense that allowances might be made for the GAA that wouldn't necessarily apply elsewhere.

You could see it in the conciliatory language the ISC's anti-doping director Dr Una May used when it came to the subject of the eight missed tests by GAA teams within the last year. "The missed tests are something we've discussed with the GAA," she said. "But we're conscious of the nature of the GAA, that they often do change training venues because of weather conditions."

She went on to explain that, by agreement with the GAA, counties who were not at the specified training venue when the testers showed up would be liable for a fine that met the costs of the operation, a figure somewhere between €500 and €800. She suggested too that at least one county was a repeat offender in this regard. "Every one of those teams have paid their fines," she said. "It's not a huge concern."

Perhaps, though, it should be of more concern than it is, both to the sports council and the GAA. Nobody is suggesting that there is any subterfuge involved when a team misses a test and things have indisputably moved on since the days when testers were often given the run-around by certain managers.

But in an age when centres of excellence are becoming widespread and schedules are run with military discipline, the old excuses of waterlogged pitches and late, panicked changes must some day run thin.

Two years ago, the jockey Davy Russell failed to keep a drug test appointment at Naas racecourse and was subsequently referred to a Turf Club disciplinary panel even though he had belatedly provided a sample which tested negative. The Turf Club isn't signed up to the WADA code and doesn't come under the ISC's wing, but its tough treatment of Russell, who was subsequently cleared of any wrong-doing, is in contrast to the manner in which we tiptoe around other sports.

It's not that anyone suspects the GAA of being a hidden reservoir of illicit doping activity. "The reality is we don't consider the GAA to be a high-risk sport and time has told us that," said May. "We're not deluded into thinking they're exempt from the problem, or may potentially have a problem, but they're not at the same risk as some other sports."

The question is how you define risk when it comes to various sports. Athletics and cycling, overwhelmingly the two most tested sports last year, will always be viewed as high-risk because of their historical connection with doping and the endurance element of the sports. Yet they accounted for just one of the nine positive tests returned last year, a minor infringement for cannabis, while three athletes from the presumably low-risk sport of tug-of-war received 18-month bans after testing positive for the banned stimulant, methylhexaneamine.

What this suggests is that it's easy to assume that the absence of big money circulating in a sport is reason to suspect doping isn't an issue, but dangerous to truly believe it. Clearly, there are motivations beyond money why athletes resort to drugs and the GAA, among other organisations, would do well to remember that.



Athletics 158

Badminton 7

Basketball 4

Blindsports 4

Boxing 53

Camogie 4

Canoeing 14

Cerebral Palsy Sports 10

Cycling 130

Fencing 2

GAA 87

Gymnastics 2

Hockey 8

Horse Sport 11


Judo 4

Ladies GAA 2

Motorsport 16

Paralympics 2

Rowing 22

Rugby 81

Sailing 3

Soccer 46

Squash 3

Swimming 44

Taekwondo 1

Tennis 4

Triathlon 30

Tug of War 4

Weightlifting 8

Wheelchair Sports 13

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