Thursday 18 January 2018

Dick Clerkin: I bought stuff online, how could I be sure it wasn't dodgy?

Brendan O'Sullivan's positive test brings back some unpleasant memories from my career

30 January 2016; Brendan O'Sullivan, Kerry. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Round 1, Dublin v Kerry. Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
30 January 2016; Brendan O'Sullivan, Kerry. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Round 1, Dublin v Kerry. Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Dick Clerkin

Yesterday afternoon, as Derry and Tyrone prepared to do battle with each other in Celtic Park, news broke of a confirmed doping violation involving Kerry's Brendan O'Sullivan. Only the Gooch coming out of retirement would prevent Brendan being the most talked about Kerry footballer this week.

As viewers were served up with another one-sided Ulster encounter, social media came alive with the details of the latest GAA doping case, the latter proving significantly more interesting.

With that, two of the most unpleasant memories from my GAA career returned to my focus. In 2009, in a game that was later dubbed the 'Battle of the Bogside' we lost to Derry in an ill-tempered Ulster opener in Celtic Park. After the game, I was randomly selected for my first and only drug test.

As was common during those years, yours truly was front and centre of the fractious controversies. My thorny battle with Fergal Doherty was of particular interest to the commentators.

As controversy raged on post-match airwaves around the unsightly spectacle both teams had served up, I sat alone, despondent, in a side dressing room alongside an unsympathetic Irish Sports Council testing official. Going through the tedious procedure, I listened carefully to what was required of me.

As is part of the testing procedure, you are told to list any supplements you are taking at the time of testing.

As I started writing them out, I immediately began to question a decision I had taken a few months earlier.

Drug testing was a relatively new concept for players back then, and the checks and education around same was limited if non-existent in most counties.

Like many emerging footballers, I dabbled in various supplements in an effort to support my strength and conditioning development.

Mostly in my younger years, on and off I tried everything from whey protein, creatine, pre-match energy drinks and recovery shakes - standard fair nowadays for most avid gym-goers, let alone high-performance sportspeople.

During the late noughties, Monaghan were pushing hard to make the breakthrough, and we constantly pushed ourselves to seek gains wherever we could.

Preparing hard for another crack at provincial success, that year I bought a number of supplements online to support the heavy training load.

Carrying out my own due diligence on the company and products, I was content they were all above board.

A relatively familiar brand nowadays, buying them online didn't give me much cause for concern at the time. But paper doesn't refuse ink as they say, and looking back I was naïve to simply trust what was written on the website and container. How could I be sure they were safe? Had I properly thought through what I was doing?

Eventually building up my hydration levels following an exhausting afternoon, after a tortuous hour wait, I finally provided the testers with the sufficient samples required.

Handing them over and signing the requisite forms I left the now-deserted dressing room area with all sorts of negative thoughts running through my head.

How could I be sure there was nothing dodgy in them? Had I possibly taken too much and gone over a limit? Jesus… what if?

Thankfully I was never notified of anything untoward but regardless, after that episode I immediately stopped taking those supplements and never bought anything online like that again.

I wasn't prepared to take the small, albeit real, risk associated with putting your trust in what on deeper analysis looks a very uncontrolled and unregulated industry.

Anything I took thereafter was supplied directly through the Monaghan camp having been checked and approved by the medical team.

Even at that, I never had much appetite for them as I did before that test. Focusing on a balanced diet, I would recommend any young player to get into good eating habits before taking to the shakes. Any good nutritionist will recommend the same.

Reading the details behind O'Sullivan's case, I have a certain amount of empathy for him.

There has never been greater focus and education around drug-taking in sport, yet the promotion and proliferation of supplements across all sports is relentless.

You can't even buy a KitKat these days without a multitude of protein bars grabbing your attention with their lofty performance claims.

'Build muscle' is proving as catchy a tag-line as 'Have a break'. The majority of sporting supplements being taken appropriately are legal, yet every player has to take individual responsibility for the risk associated with taking them.

If anything, this recent case should provide a good learning example for all players out there.

Regardless of many alarmist headlines you will read this week, I can be fairly sure that doping is not an issue in the GAA. Certainly not in comparison with other sports, where the gains are substantially more appealing for the associated risk.

For what is still largely a skill-based game with little or no significant financial benefits, the GAA will largely be protected from the incentives to dope that are prevalent elsewhere. The work being carried out by the Irish Sports Council anti-doping team is a vital cog in that wheel.

The finer details of Brendan's case will come out over the coming weeks but on the face of it, it looks like it was an honest mistake.

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