Friday 15 December 2017

Vincent Hogan: GAA fighting someone else's war as blood tests loom

The single positive test reported is that of Kerry's Aidan O’Mahony after the ‘08 All-Ireland final, and he was subsequently deemed innocent after the findings were attributed to his use of an asthma inhaler
The single positive test reported is that of Kerry's Aidan O’Mahony after the ‘08 All-Ireland final, and he was subsequently deemed innocent after the findings were attributed to his use of an asthma inhaler
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The Sports Council's plans to introduce blood-testing for GAA players next year should be celebrated, right? If nothing else, it presumably means bringing an end to that nonsense of detaining them in post-match isolation cells to decant urine samples from hopelessly dehydrated bodies.

The anecdotal file is swollen with stories of exhausted players detained for hours on end while comrades disappear into the evening without them.

Famously, the Cork hurling team refused to leave Croke Park without Diarmuid O'Sullivan after the All-Ireland final of '06. It took 'The Rock' three hours to produce a sample, yet his colleagues dropped anchor, telling those awaiting their arrival in the Burlington Hotel that they had arrived as a team and would leave as one.

Now drug-testing is first and foremost about player welfare, we understand that. But I sometimes wonder if the GAA has ever fully recognised the frustration felt by many county men at this nature of intrusion.

It has, after all, always been a little difficult to reconcile the chap who lives at home, who can't afford a car, who plays simply for the love of it, facing precisely the same conditions as the multi-millionaire professional for whom cheating can clearly reap a financial dividend.

The problem is one of two starkly polarised worlds being policed identically.

Put it this way: if you tell someone that the activity they pursue falls, technically (hilariously), into the category of "hobby", how then can you reasonably hold them to the standards of a professional sports person collecting £100,000 a week?

The grandiosely termed Inter-county Players' Support Scheme - now worth maybe ¤500 a year - won't pay for a holiday, let alone a change of life. So the GAA man, while not exactly falling into that "indentured slave" category, is still a small eternity removed from the professional.

That said, it seems like the worst thing you can do in sport today is question drug-testing on any level, so rather a lot of GAA lips have been bitten across the years. The Association receives Government funding and, accordingly, that funding is contingent on abiding by Sports Council rules. Hence amateur players are subjected to the same procedures as professionals. There is, we are told, no other way.


Now it would take a profoundly dim mind to imagine all GAA players to be immune to the attraction of performance enhancing drugs, given the level of strength and conditioning now deemed a basic preparatory requisite for inter-county play. But there has, thus far, been zero evidence of their use in Gaelic games.

The single positive test reported is that of Aidan O'Mahony after the '08 All-Ireland final, the Kerry defender subsequently deemed innocent after the findings were attributed to his use of an asthma inhaler.

Kilkenny hurling doctor Tadhg Crowley has questioned the amount of money being spent on the testing of GAA players and, maybe more pertinently, the potential ramifications a positive test might have on someone's employment prospects.

After all, the stigma of being deemed a drugs cheat, even if the incriminating product could not possibly have improved your sporting performance, will stay with that player forever.

Some years ago, I broached this subject with John Treacy, the Sports Council's CEO. At the time, I still competed in motor-rallying as a co-driver (on a resolutely social basis, I might add) and was, accordingly, open to testing before competition, even though at no point would I be licensed to get behind the wheel of the rally car. What, I asked him, would be my fate if I failed that test?

Technically, would it not declare me a drugs cheat?

John understood the anomaly, but could not offer a solution. The policing of sport simply could not, he believed, be applied with conflicting levels of rigour.

Hence the amateur Gaelic footballer or hurler fretting over whether they might ingest too much salbutamol through an asthma inhaler effectively occupies much the same ground in the eyes of a tester as the blood doping cyclist trying to win the Tour de France.

Inter-county GAA players have been subject to drug-testing since 2001 and were described by the Sports Council this week as being considered a "low risk" category.

Crowley's argument has been that policing them to the same level as wealthy professionals almost constitutes a form of abuse. If, say, a GAA player tests positive for a recreational drug, his view is "that young fella will never be employed again".

The potential sanction, in other words, carries an additional strand of placing his career at risk which, for someone pursuing "a hobby", becomes positively Old Testament in severity. So, for now, GAA players remain, remarkably, among the most tested athletes in Irish sport, without a single shred of evidence that any have been trying to rewrite their DNA.

Maybe blood testing will, in time, lessen the inconvenience, but it is unlikely to subdue the belief among many that they are just caught up in someone else's war here.

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