Paul Kimmage: Anti-doping chief Dr Una May is battling to keep sport credible
Doctor Una May, the head of anti-doping at the Irish Sports Council, didn't get where she is today by sharing the secrets of her trade with journalists, and she keeps a chain on the lock whenever this one calls. A year ago, it was a call about one of our finest rugby players:
PK: "Under what circumstances would you contact an athlete with regards to a sample they had provided?"
UM: "As a general rule?"
UM: "Well, if it's a positive (test) or if we have a medical or a follow-up concern."
PK: "What if it's a positive?"
UM: "We get a result from the lab and go through all of the paperwork and documentation internally to see that all the procedures and standards were followed correctly. We check the athlete and the substance concerned and evaluate whether it could be a legitimate medication. And if it is a positive, and there's no TUE (therapeutic exemption) involved, we notify the athlete, the NGB (national governing body) and the disciplinary panel."
PK: "What if the substance is testosterone?"
UM: "Testosterone is different in that there's a threshold for testosterone - a T/E (testosterone/epitestosterone ratio) - that has changed over the years. If a person exceeds the threshold, we would either check and see if we have a file on that individual and a long-standing record of an elevated T/E. Alternatively, we would do what's called an IRMS (test) and check if its endogenous (naturally produced) or exogenous. If it's naturally produced, we build a file on the athlete if we don't already have one, to see if the levels are consistent over time. And if it's not natural we would proceed with a case."
PK: "And you would have a record of all this if it happened?"
PK: "Do you have a record of it happening in 2006 because there's no reference to it in your anti-doping report?"
UM: "Well, if it's a case where the person has a naturally elevated T/E we wouldn't report that, because it's not a positive test."
PK: "Jamie Heaslip told the Sunday Times last month that he'd tested positive for testosterone in 2006. Is that what happened with him?"
UM: "With him as with anyone else. We have (collected) a lot of his samples. We know what his natural levels are, so there is nothing untoward."
A month ago, there was a rumour a GAA player had tested positive:
PK: "Any news for me?"
PK: "Heard you've caught a big fish?"
PK: "In our national sport."
PK: "We've a great source."
UM: "I've no idea what you're talking about."
And on Thursday, it was confirmed the rumour had been true:
PK: "I knew you were good, but not that good."
UM: "What have I done now?"
PK: "How many inter-county GAA players are there currently in Ireland?
UM: "I wouldn't be able to tell you."
PK: "2,100 according to the GPA (Gaelic Players Association)."
PK: "You tested just 89 of them last year?"
PK: "89 out of 2,100 players!"
PK: "And you've managed to find a guy using steroids."
PK: "You got a tip-off?
PK: "Come on! You had to?"
PK: "That's pretty good."
UM: "Well, if you remember, we also got the guy (Martin Fagan) who took EPO for the first time in his life."
PK: (Laughs) "That was exceptional."
UM: "Yeah, but we're not here for our own gains. We're here for sport. We want sport to be credible. We're responsible for a lot of government money that goes into our high performance athletes and we want to safeguard that investment as much as possible and the anti-doping programme is our insurance policy.
"The last thing we want is the country to be boiled with enthusiasm and thrill and enjoyment if there's a good result, only to have it thrown back at them a few weeks later (with a positive test). Sport is what we're about and it's very important."
Sport has always been important in Una May's life. The second youngest of five children, she was raised in the south Dublin suburb of Rockbrook and instilled with a love for the great outdoors from her earliest days. Her late parents, John and Nuala Creagh, had a passion for orienteering and nurtured Una's ambition to compete at the world championship.
In 1988, she completed her Leaving Cert and took a sports science degree at Liverpool John Moores University. The Ben Johnson affair had just kicked off in Seoul and the planet was transfixed with urine and the science of cheating, but she had no idea it would define her career.
"I thought about PE or physiotherapy at first but loved the idea of sports science, but it didn't exist in Ireland at the time.
"The lead professor over there (Liverpool) was Tom Reilly, a Mayo man, and he was very encouraging at getting Irish people over there.
"I suppose I was a scientist at heart. I loved the idea of knowing what goes on and how the body works and the science behind it was fascinating to me. The fact that you could go to college and study something to do with sport that wasn't teaching it."
In 1994, she was studying for a PhD and racing competitively for Ireland when a sample she provided tested positive for steroids.
"When you're a student in sports science you become a subject for every (experiment) going and you do so many different things. I've done two 10k (runs) in a day testing energy drinks.
"I've done a study on the effect of alcohol on blood coagulation and exercise where we had to drink vodka in the morning and go cycling in the afternoon on an exercise bike. You're a subject for everything and anything and one of the things that was making headlines at the time was the Diane Modahl case."
(Note: Modahl, a former 800m Commonwealth gold medallist, tested positive after a race in Portugal in June '94 and was banned for four years. A year later the ban was lifted when she successfully argued that the high levels of testosterone in her urine was caused by excessively hot temperatures and mishandling in the Portuguese lab.)
"Some of the scientists in our biochemistry lectures were involved in doing some research around what would happen with a urine sample if it was left lying around. Different samples were taken and some were left on worktops or put in incubators with extremely warm temperatures.
"My sample would have come up positive for steroids because of the way the natural hormones in (my) system had degraded when they put it in an incubator. I remember thinking, 'Wow! That is scary!' There was a serious question mark around the science but I was fascinated by it."
In 1996, she was running for Merseyside and still enjoying her studies when Michelle de Bruin became the first Irishwoman in history to win an Olympic gold medal. "I remember, like everyone else, waking-up in the morning and thinking, 'Oh my God we have a medal!' And then the next day thinking, 'Oh Jesus we have another one!'"
"You were sceptical?" I suggest
"Well, I think everyone in sport knows that you don't come from nowhere to do something like that in the space of a few years. It was lovely to get the first one, but then the medals kept coming and you thought, 'Oh God, this doesn't feel so good.'"
In 1998, after ten years in Liverpool, she came home and took a job as a development officer with the Irish Sports Council. It was an interesting year for sport in Ireland. The Dublin start of the Tour de France was destroyed by the sport's worst drug scandal and our favourite swimmer was slapped with a four-year ban for tampering with a urine sample.
"Did you ever try that one in Liverpool?" I ask. "Submit a sample that contained whiskey?"
"No," she smiles.
She ran in her last world championships that year. She had met Justin, her future husband, and became engrossed in her new role as the head of anti-doping in 2001. "There was a lot of work in that first year," she says. "We had to sort-out sample collection and people and labs and I kept thinking back to the Diane Modahl case and the importance of getting it right."
She's got it right most of the time since but smiles when you ask how she measures success. Is it delivering an annual report with no positive tests? Or is it easier for her to justify her budget with several?
"That's the million dollar question in anti-doping," she says. "I think the fact that Ireland is such a small country makes our job relatively easy. It's very hard for an athlete to do anything out of the ordinary and not be noticed in this country and that makes it easier to target our testing. But I'm not naïve. I've no doubt there are people we haven't caught."
"And what of your critics? I ask. "You've encountered a lot of resistance to testing in the GAA. Were the headlines this week a validation?"
"Well, I still don't believe that the sport has a huge doping problem," she says, "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.
"There will be cases of people who will take something and that's the reason why we carry out the doping controls. It's a deterrent. It's not always about testing - sometimes it's about deterring - so there are a lot of lessons to be learnt from this. And I have no doubt those lessons will be learned and that the GAA will, and already have, recognise that they need to do more."
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