Sport GAA

Friday 17 January 2020

John Greene: No sport can believe that it is exempt from risk of doping

John Treacy
John Treacy

John Greene

The Irish rugby players' representative body, IRUPA, believes that imposing severe bans for anti-doping rule violations is essential to combating the problem and says players have to take responsibility for their own use of supplements.

The IRFU and Irish Sports Council yesterday announced that Blackrock College player Michael Carroll had been banned for a year after committing an anti-doping rule violation when he tested positive for methylhexaneamine in a urine sample collected on October 1.

‘When the story broke in this paper, initial shock that a Gaelic footballer had failed a test quickly gave way to disbelief that the failure dated back to April 2016, and the ban had already been served’
‘When the story broke in this paper, initial shock that a Gaelic footballer had failed a test quickly gave way to disbelief that the failure dated back to April 2016, and the ban had already been served’

The former Connacht player pleaded guilty to ingesting the substance contained in an energy drink, but stresses that he did so inadvertently.

The disciplinary panel accepted there was no intent to enhance performance on Carroll's part or to mask the use of a performance-enhancing substance but imposed the ban under article 2.1 of the Irish anti-doping rules. Carroll is not planning to appeal the suspension, which will rule him out of rugby until September 30 next year.

The IRFU and Irish Sports Council yesterday reminded all athletes to be "extremely vigilant" in their use of supplements, warning that special care should always be taken to ensure these products do not contain banned substances.

Irish Independent,

The Sunday Independent is aware of at least one inter-county panel where it was an open secret that a player from the Kingdom had tested positive after a game in 2016. Photo: Sportsfile
The Sunday Independent is aware of at least one inter-county panel where it was an open secret that a player from the Kingdom had tested positive after a game in 2016. Photo: Sportsfile

December 21, 2011

RUMOURS that a member of the Kerry football panel had failed a drugs test had been circulating for a couple of months. The Sunday Independent is aware of at least one inter-county panel where it was an open secret that a player from the Kingdom had tested positive after a game in 2016, which makes it all the more extraordinary that for almost 13 months it was kept under wraps.

GAA Newsletter

Expert GAA analysis straight to your inbox.

When the story first broke last Sunday morning, initial shock that a Gaelic footballer had failed a drugs test quickly gave way to sheer disbelief after Kerry County Board released a statement confirming that their panellist Brendan O'Sullivan was the player concerned, that the failure dated back to April 2016, and that the ban had already been served.

More details were made known on Monday by Sport Ireland - that the substance at the centre of the controversy was methylhexaneamine (MHA), that it had been determined that the source of the MHA was a contaminated supplement and that the ban had been served in two lots, and in two different years. This was fast becoming an extraordinary, and unprecedented, story in the annals of Irish anti-doping.

In the vacuum between the revelations across Sunday and Monday and the eventual publication of the details of the case by Sport Ireland at teatime on Thursday, questions swirled about how this could have happened. How could a system which must have transparency at its core in order for it to have the confidence of those it is there to protect have allowed this to happen? Athletes from other sports looked on with incredulity, deeply suspicious that a Gaelic footballer from a high-profile county had received preferential treatment.

O'Sullivan is the second Gaelic footballer to be suspended for failing a drugs test following a two-year ban imposed on Monaghan's Thomas Connolly in 2015 after he tested positive for a steroid. O'Sullivan is the sixth Irish athlete to test positive for methylhexaneamine. Rugby player Michael Carroll was the first, in 2011, and he was banned for a year. In 2012, three members of a tug of war team each received 18 months after testing positive for MHA.

In August of that year, after Drogheda United defender Shane Grimes had been handed an eight-month ban for testing positive for MHA in May - he accepted the test result and identified an energy drink called Jack3d as the source of the substance - the Irish Sports Council issued a warning. There had been five positive tests in less than 12 months for this one substance, and the council noted its concern over "anecdotal evidence of widespread use in team sports in Ireland".

The statement continued: "While the Irish Sports Council urged all athletes to check the content of supplements they choose to use, it stated that the real risk for athletes is the fact that the true ingredients of a supplement may not be listed on the label at all. Prohibited substances may be introduced to supplements for their effects (but left off the label) or may be introduced inadvertently through cross-contamination. With the integrity of the ingredients not being able to be guaranteed, the Irish Sports Council recommends against the use of sports supplements because of the risk of an inadvertent positive test."

A month earlier, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) had also issued a warning about food supplements containing methylhexaneamine which had been imported into Ireland. In July 2013, the powerful US agency, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), advised consumers not to buy or use dietary supplements that contain it "due to the health risks they present".

The Irish anti-doping system is held in high regard in international circles. It is viewed as robust and fearless. John Treacy, chief executive of Sport Ireland, has spoken regularly to international audiences about the need for rigorous anti-doping regimes across the world. Only last week, minister for state Patrick O'Donovan repeated his wish for Ireland to organise and host a gathering of all his European counterparts to start work on a serious strategy to deal with doping in sport.

But last week's revelations did not reflect well on our system. The story has even garnered international attention. There are still questions to be answered, even after details of what happened since O'Sullivan was tested in April last year became known on Thursday evening.

Chief among these is that in every step of the process there appears to have been inordinate delays: It took one month and five days after O'Sullivan was notified that he had tested positive for the 'B' sample to be tested; O'Sullivan handed over the tub of Falcon Labs Oxyburn Pro Superthermotech, and another unopened tub, in July, but they were not sent for testing to the laboratory in Cologne until October; the results of the test confirming that the product was contaminated were available in early November but a sanction was not imposed until seven weeks later; it then takes a further nine weeks to hear his appeal, two weeks for a decision, two weeks for another appeal, two more weeks to hear it, a week for that decision, and eight weeks for the decision to be published. When the reasoned decision was published, last Thursday, it was five days after the story broke in the Sunday Independent, and over three weeks after O'Sullivan's ban ended.

Of course, one of the biggest issues with keeping this out of the public domain was that a contaminated substance remained freely available to others who could be tested. Why weren't steps taken to inform all those eligible for testing of the potential dangers relating to this particular product?

Why didn't Sport Ireland issue an updated warning on MHA? What steps were taken within the GAA inter-county scene to again warn players about veering away from the recommendation of team doctors? O'Sullivan's plight had been caused by his failure to check the supplement with the team medics.

Prior to the report's publication both Treacy and Dr Una May, manager of the anti-doping unit, gave interviews to RTé and Newstalk and it wasn't hard to detect an element of frustration on their part over the delays.

High-profile GAA teams are well resourced, in a way many athletes in other sports are not, which means they are better positioned to string a process out to its fullest without breaking any rules. This, perhaps, is an area which may be tightened up as a result of this case.

Of course, it has to be said that although O'Sullivan had admitted the violation he had remained convinced right through that his sanction should be at the lower end of the scale because he had established its cause had been a contaminated product. "He is a victim of complete bad luck," a source told The Examiner last week. In the end, his legal team successfully had the ban reduced from seven months to 21 weeks.

But the time-scale involved in the entire process remains a concern. Had O'Sullivan been sanctioned by the GAA, say, for a disciplinary matter and suspended for six months, it would have been in his - and Kerry's - interest to expedite matters because he would remain suspended while going through the appeal process. Once his suspension was lifted in this case, the need for urgency disappeared. It will be a surprise if Sport Ireland don't review their procedures now.

The disbelief at the events in this case from those involved with other sports will not have gone unnoticed. Remember, Gaelic footballers and hurlers can only be tested at a training session or after a game; athletes in other sports are not so fortunate. Last December, athlete Ciarán ó Lionáird posted a picture on Twitter of being blood-tested while on a night out. Writing in his column for RTé on Friday, David Gillick said: "Recently I was bringing my son to the doctor and as I was leaving the drug testers pulled up to my house. I had 10 minutes to do a blood and urine test and thankfully I was able to provide a sample, otherwise I could have been waiting an age."

The vehemence of the reaction to this controversy by high-profile GAA personalities has caused concern, and disappointment, in Sport Ireland. There has been a cosy notion abroad that footballers and hurlers have embraced the drug-testing regime that is now a part of their existence on the inter-county scene - a small price to pay for their annual government grant and the excellent way in which they are looked after.

But we saw a different side in the last week and a lot of the tired old arguments were trotted out: the players are amateurs and shouldn't be subjected to this; there's no doping culture in the GAA; there's no point in taking an illegal substance because there is no real gain, unlike the rewards in professional sport . . . and so on. None of these arguments stand up. The GAA is a publicly-funded organisation and there are standards of propriety which attach to this privilege. A strong anti-doping stance is just one of those standards. Inter-county players receive a grant from Sport Ireland each year and the latest multi-million euro deal between the GAA and the GPA includes a nutrition allowance which must be open to scrutiny.

There are other good reasons to have a strict anti-doping policy in Gaelic games, because it is not just about protecting the sanctity of the games themselves from corruption of any kind, it is also about protecting individuals too - protecting, if you like, the players from themselves, because there are health risks associated with many banned substances. The FDA said that ingestion of methylhexaneamine "can elevate blood pressure and lead to cardiovascular problems ranging from shortness of breath and tightening in the chest to heart attack". The FSAI said "it is an illegal central nervous system stimulant related to amphetamine. It can cause high blood pressure, nausea, cerebral haemorrhage, stroke and in serious cases can be fatal".

The most dangerously complacent argument, though, is the notion that as amateurs there are no real benefits to doping because ultimately doping is related to financial reward. This is head-in-the-sand stuff. Apart from the fact that all available evidence points strongly to a pervasive doping culture worldwide in amateur sport, there are great intangible benefits to being an inter-county player. As sport scientist Ross Tucker noted last week: "People don't need a professional incentive to dope. The incentive provided by adulation, fame and 50,000-plus fans in a national sport is huge."

Nobody thinks there is a doping problem in the GAA or that Brendan O'Sullivan set out in any way to cheat, although the events of the last week have lifted the lid on what appears to be the widespread use of supplements in the GAA. In the build-up to, and during, the 2016 league final, O'Sulivan took seven different types of supplements which are listed in the reasoned decision as whey protein, pharmaton, pre-fuel, caffeine gel, vitamin C, krill oil, magnesium and the caffeine tablets at the centre of this controversy. We can safely assume that this is the norm in football and hurling now. We know too that there have been concerns raised around education, although the GPA does hold detailed information briefings for inter-county squads, and it is also standard now for team medics to warn players not to take anything without checking with them first. In fact, there are warnings everywhere, including on product labels.

As an elite athlete - and that is what O'Sullivan is because he is on an inter-county panel in this country's number one national sport - he has certain responsibilities, to himself and to the game, whether he likes it or not, or whether the rest of us like it or not.

Despite the fact that it is clear that he did not intend to take a banned substance, last Thursday's report still points out he failed to act responsibly and that - to put it bluntly - he should have known better. He was not sanctioned for being a cheat, because he is not, but he was sanctioned under the principle of strict liability - that each individual athlete is ultimately responsible for what is in their system. As harsh as it may seem, strict liability must be part of the war on doping if it is to be effective.

As far as the wider GAA community goes, Una May does not believe there is a systematic doping problem and she has said this repeatedly, but that does not mean that there is not doping in the GAA. Why should the GAA be more immune to societal pressures than any other sport? More immune, say, than soccer, rugby or tug of war? All draw from the same pool.

Two years ago, after the story about Thomas Connolly broke, May spoke to the Sunday Independent on doping in the GAA: "Well, I still don't believe that the sport has a huge doping problem, but I don't think any sport should think they are exempt from the problem. It's a reality of the world we live in that people cheat - they cheat in taxes and exams - so nobody should be deluded in thinking that sport is exempt from the problem. And the GAA is no exception to that."

Sunday Indo Sport

The Throw In: From 1955 heartbreak to 2019's five in-a-row - Inside the Decades of the Dubs

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport