Monday 18 December 2017

Colm O'Rourke: O'Sullivan's bad luck is a valuable wake-up call for everyone else

Kerry man pays price but sequence of events must be a warning to all top-level players

[Drugs] poison our faith. It’s only natural now that every rational person must at least wonder whenever any athlete, no matter how revered, does something exceptional. Photo: Stock photo
[Drugs] poison our faith. It’s only natural now that every rational person must at least wonder whenever any athlete, no matter how revered, does something exceptional. Photo: Stock photo
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Brendan O'Sullivan put Valentia Island on the map again last week. In years past there was a Valentia player who made headlines in a different way. Mick O'Connell was the islander who graced Croke Park, Killarney and hundreds of other venues with his athleticism, skill and sheer football ability. To many in Kerry, he was the prince of football who never veered from the view that football was catch and kick and the game itself provided the enjoyment as distinct from the result.

These days that notion would be looked on as absolute innocence. O'Connell, to the modern coach or indeed most county players, lived in a different universe, never mind a different world. Now at county level a player is urged never to kick in case the ball is given away and the result not the performance is the only thing. Enjoyment in playing is supposed to be based on winning not on the game itself. O'Connell's gym work was as good as any modern player: he rowed the boat over to the mainland from Valentia and back again after a game.

While things have changed and changed utterly at county level, underage football is still basically the same as 50 years ago in the O'Connell era. Last week I was watching a juvenile club match and players kicked the ball almost all the time and nobody discouraged them from doing so. Of course there were mistakes but there was plenty of fun too.

I suppose the advice to youngsters should be to enjoy it while they can before the robotic nature of the game takes hold in another few years.

Anyway, Brendan O'Sullivan has had a rough time of it recently and the obvious conclusion is that whatever offence that was committed was relatively minor. Now, of course, there are many who would argue that ignorance is not a defence before the law but in his case he seems to have taken something which was not what it said on the tin.

Recently, we had the Meath dietician David Tobin in our school to advise our students on diet as part of mental health week - the idea being to make diet, exercise, meditation and sleep a central part of a student's lifestyle. In his talk Tobin strongly advised students, especially those involved in team sport, to take no supplements whatsoever without the best advice as there is a serious risk of contamination. This is a big issue with many young people who use gyms.

They are trying to have a body shape for looks as distinct from the benefits it brings in playing football. Their 'guns' are for showing off and many are not involved in team sport at all. As an addition to this a lot of these young people are buying all types of powders, tablets and other types of rubbish, either through gyms or online.

Hence the dangers of taking something which may contain trace elements of substances which are banned. It may only take a very small amount to show up too; hence the importance of sticking rigidly to a team doctor's medical guidelines.

In horses, even the smallest amount of substances can be detected in samples and sometimes big races have been lost on foodstuffs being administered which had a very slight contamination and which brought no benefit in performance.

The substance which O'Sullivan tested positive for was from a tablet taken at half-time in the 2016 league final and is called methylhexaneamine which increases heart rate and blood pressure, is a muscle mass aid and a weight loss aid but is hardly something which is going to improve a forward like O'Sullivan's ability to kick points. There are many cases where other sports have handed out suspensions for having this substance in the system.

Hamilton Academicals soccer player Simon Mensing was suspended for a month in 2010 for unwittingly taking it, while Nesta Carter cost Usain Bolt and Jamaica the relay gold at the 2008 Olympics for testing positive for methylhexaneamine.

The submission of all the supplements taken by O'Sullivan at various times would suggest that there is a need for a mobile chemist shop travelling with some county sides nowadays. To most normal people these sort of things taken have never been heard of - Pharmaton, Whey Protein, Krill Oil just to mention a few. All completely above board tbut a long way from the footballers of the past having a couple of raw eggs in a glass of milk in the morning.

Modern county football management teams are looking for small gains - or marginal gains as they call it now - and as a result they supplement players' food intake so they can train harder and then become fitter and faster.

Only a small number of counties can afford to do it and the quality of football hardly reflects this extra nourishment and it would be interesting to see how the supplement intake of a few of our top inter-county teams compares to professional squads. A good healthy diet is still capable of providing the fuel to play at any level.

While this whole process has been a long drawn-out affair it proves that the system does work and players in future will be very careful about what they take without having it checked out fully.

There is a price to be paid in after-match testing with players often not being able to provide a sample on warm summer days, with all the accompanying travel hassle for the rest of a squad who are on a team bus. And I am not sure why a blood sample cannot be taken as this would speed everything up.

The Brendan O'Sullivan case is not in the territory of performance-enhancing and in many ways it will help protect players from themselves. If a group of players were offered substances which could help win them win the All-Ireland, even if there were long-term health risks, there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that some would take them. In the past there were always whispers about players who bulked up quickly and where performance improved dramatically.

At the time there were no controls so performance-enhancing drugs were easily accessed but I was always sceptical. In general, I treated those rumours like the ones you hear about players getting fortunes for going to play in the United States for the summer, you generally divide by at least two.

But 25 years ago there was a different drugs culture so it could have been much more widespread then than now. At that time cattle were getting a little enhancer which turned the meat a bit leaner and meant they killed out better in the factory.

More money to the farmer was the end result. You could tell the bullocks with the injection as they thought they were bulls and were pawing at the ground and had clay on their heads as they pucked the grassy banks. So when substances were more easily available it is only reasonable that some players took advantage of the lax system.

Brendan O'Sullivan has paid the price but it is a valuable wake-up call to everyone involved in the GAA and a rigorous enforcement system is important whether the sport involved is amateur or professional.

No matter what the hassle is, it is better for players and the game itself. There is no debate on that.

Sunday Indo Sport

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