Sunday 26 January 2020

Neil Francis: Sometimes fellas haven't a clue what they are taking and sometimes they know exactly

Gerbrandt Grobler is a second row rugby player from South Africa who tested positive for steroids in 2014 and was banned for two years.
Gerbrandt Grobler is a second row rugby player from South Africa who tested positive for steroids in 2014 and was banned for two years.
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Two years ago I brought my three boys to Vanderbilt Beach which is in Naples, Florida. Simple pleasures - sandcastles and splashing. All three are tall, angular, long-levered and lanky. Plenty of rib and clavicle showing and their presence on an American beach was a subject lesson on the incongruous - as an essay in body shapes, this beach was as diverse as you could get.

When we finished for the day we headed for the pick-up zone. A small cul-de-sac gantried by a pretty wooden bridge over the initial dunes. There were, as is usual with American beaches, showers and WC facilities along with benches and an ice cream shop while people came and went from the beach.

We waited for my missus to come back from the shops to collect us, my Visa bill now the size of the sovereign debt of a small African republic. As we waited, my eyes were drawn to a young man who was no more than five metres away from the bench I was sitting on.

The guy was about 5' 10" and in his early 20s sporting a pair of red budgie smugglers. The boy was bulked up to the nines. Bulked to the point that his ligamenture would find it difficult to support the muscle it had to carry. He took up position a few metres away from the bridge entrance and began posing, or vogueing, whichever. There was no music or money plate. He had not gone over the bridge to the beach. He was there purely to display himself. Brad Pitt hair, no tattoos, not a bristle of body hair anywhere else on his body and very, very handsome. My guess was that he was not a professional bodybuilder.

There was a mixture of bemusement and wonder from the passers-by. Every woman who went by had a long gawk while a lot of young men stopped and chatted to him. When they were finished he would nonchalantly strike a pose, not a bother on him.

As numbers dwindled I couldn't help myself and I went over to engage with him. He didn't understand me at first, not because of my Irish accent but because it's hard to get three or four sentences out when you are trying to hold your stomach in.

The kid lived three or four miles away, wasn't going to college, didn't have a job and his thing was to work out and show his body off at the beach, for no reward other than the fascination and attention he would get. I asked him directly how he had bulked up to such a level. In between me hopping in and hopping out of his space when any viewers walked by, he was unbelievably frank to a total stranger.

He was taking 'stuff' in high school and was on highly sophisticated rotas a year after leaving school. He had a co-ordinator who provided everything from THG to injectables; he even got 'stuff' on Amazon. An incredible existence, but I couldn't get a peep of humour out of him. Fifteen minutes in his company and regrettably the vacuous reality of his situation became evident. As a distant observer, he would have been far more aesthetically pleasing to the eye if he didn't have all the bulk - bulk though is in vogue.

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The boy was pleasant and well-mannered but was without question one of the most stupid people I have ever met. I left him with two points - he didn't need to get any bigger, and he should really take notice of what he was ingesting. A vacant nod and that was us done.

I use the beach story to illustrate a point. Our young athletes who take performance-enhancing drugs - are they pharmacologically naive or prescient? This boy would have difficulty tying his own shoelaces yet his programme was highly sophisticated and he knew exactly what to take and how to take it.

On one hand a lot of young people haven't a clue what they are taking or what the long-term consequences will be. On the other they are very efficient and knowledgeable in the administering of these drugs. Incredible that this boy with a room temperature IQ had access to such dangerous substances.

What percentage of these people actually know what they are doing? What are the parents of the beach boy doing while they watch their son turn into a freak? How can they sit by and watch a boy of limited intelligence do unquantifiable damage to his body and mind. There are tens of thousands around the world just as naive, just as unaware of what they are doing.

What about the pharma-cognoscenti or even the ones who think they know about what they are doing. A while back, I wrote about Gerbrandt Grobler, the 23-year-old second-row for the Cape Stormers in South Africa. The boy got caught using Drostanolone - part of the DHT group of androgynous anabolic steroids - a proper steroid and a very reliable muscle bulker. Grobler 'fessed up straight away so there were 'no further questions your honour.' Except that Drostanolone is an injectable.

How do these young men buy needles and the correct dose of the drug and learn where to inject and when to inject and when to finish. Does the steroid Fairy Godmother swoosh the knowledge with a twink of her wand? I think not. I think the term we are looking for here is systemic. Knowledgeable help.

Let's turn our attention to what used to be the illegal stimulant of choice: Methylhexaneamine. Whenever athletes or rugby players have been caught using this drug, it always seems to me to be in multiples. The first time it came to light was when five Jamaican sprinters were caught using it. If the Jamaican sprinters were using it, it must be good.

In rugby, Chilliboy Rallepelle and Bjorn Basson got done for MHA in Dublin with the Springboks, but later were cleared on the basis that it was in a supplement they were given.

On the IRB anti-doping list we had three Sri Lankans in 2011, in 2012 two Peruvians, in 2013 two Namibians and 2015 two Botswana players.

Yeah, ok they are from the powerhouses of world rugby but the trend is unmistakeable - same team, same competition, and multiple players. What would have happened if the whole team was tested. They can't all have misread the labels on the bottle.

Two things caught my attention going through the lists. One Samoan player was done for Salbutamol, the active ingredient in asthma inhalers. The player got done because he had no TUE for Salbutamol and, more pertinently, he took it orally. He didn't obviously suffer from asthma. Fantastic assistance when you don't actually have asthma. I think I'll take some for the bike this weekend - sail up those hills.

Those pesky Russians at it again on the Meldonium caught by World Rugby in 2016 - Maria Sharapova not the only Russian on that PED.

Back to World Rugby's doping list. Nobody got caught with MHA in 2016. I am advised that MHA is not the stimulant of choice any longer and newer varieties and alternatives are now in play. Same effect, just legal at this moment in time.

This brings us nicely to the recent MHA finding in the GAA. It's not my sport but I would be disillusioned to see it corrupted or tainted as other sports have been. There is no question in my mind that some GAA players have taken PEDs - no matter how minute the number. The contagion spreads as in all other sports when one player of average ability jumps in performance unexpectedly, others will see and follow.

There are elements of Brendan O'Sullivan's case which are depressingly familiar. Contamination and cross-contamination are easy outs. Easy to shrug the shoulders and point at a label. If you look on Falcon Labs webpage, they will show you that an active ingredient AMP citrate has similar properties to DMAA (methylhexaneamine) - the same but legal. It is only a matter of time before WADA put their constituent ingredients Metylpentane and Dimethyl Butylamine on the prohibited list. Derivatives are concocted in laboratories on a weekly basis.

O'Sullivan may or may not have had a cold or 'flu in the middle of April we have to take his word on that. Great commitment to the cause if he was playing in a match with a dose of the 'flu.

The problem with these type of cases is that sometimes fellas haven't a clue what they are taking and sometimes they know exactly what they are taking! Naive or prescient?

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