Thursday 22 February 2018

Reasons for positive tests rarely black and white

Education is vital for athletes and their associations

John Treacy of the Irish Sports Council has hinted at criminalising athletes who test positive for performance-enhancing drugs
John Treacy of the Irish Sports Council has hinted at criminalising athletes who test positive for performance-enhancing drugs

Jack Anderson

The revelation that a GAA player tested positive for steroids not only presents a number of issues for GAA players and administrators but also for all those involved in amateur sport.

There are reasons common to all amateur sports why a participant might risk taking a prohibited performance enhancing substance. First, there is a desire to win at all costs no matter how little, objectively, might appear to be at stake. Second, there is a desire, as a young up-and-coming amateur player, to boost performance so as to move quickly into the lucrative professional ranks of the sport. Third, substance abuse may be linked to the amateur having a skewed work/sport/life balance where, unlike a professional, recovery time is short or non-existent.

In the second and third examples, although the players are not paid for play, the environment in which they operate is highly professional and can lead to indirect commercial benefits such as sponsorships and endorsements. This is sometimes called 'shamateurism'. Players in such an environment, from college sport in the US (the NCAA) to, arguably, the GAA, might be motivated to take performance enhancing substances for exactly the same reasons as those full-time professionals who use drugs to prolong or artificially enhance their careers.

The first point, on win at all costs, was seen recently in a report from the Independent Commission for Reform in Cycling regarding doping in that sport in the post-Lance Armstrong era. An underplayed element was the conclusion that "doping in amateur cycling is becoming endemic." The report raised particular concern about doping in amateur 'masters' cycling - the so-called middle-aged men in lycra - with evidence that in Europe, "Masters races were said to have middle-aged businessmen winning on EPO, with some of them training as hard as professional riders and putting in comparable performances."

Cycling's world governing body, UCI, further acknowledged the report's finding that doping among amateurs, young and old, was "caused by ease of access to drugs via gyms and the internet, the reduction in costs for substances, a spread of knowledge in means and methods of administration, and a lack of funding for regular testing at the amateur level".

The easy availability of supplements of dubious and dangerous origin on the internet is of concern to all sports. For instance, a recent BBC NI TV investigation showed that banned drugs, including anabolic steroids, could be found in sports supplements sold across the counter in high street shops in Northern Ireland.

It is often forgotten, in the sometimes shrill debate on doping in sport, that the principal reason substances such as anabolic steroids are prohibited is because of the health risks they pose to athletes.

The second area where amateurs are vulnerable to doping is early in the stage where they seek to move from the amateur to professional ranks. The UCI report, for example, highlighted doping problems with under 23 and youth cycling academies.

Rugby union has also been affected by this problem, with indications of supplement abuse at schoolboy level. Indeed, the new chief executive of UK Anti-Doping (UKAD), Nicole Sapstead, admitted to fears about the increasing and worrying "explosion" in teenage steroid use in rugby in England in the year of the World Cup.

In March, Sapstead highlighted that of the previous 15 doping violations punished by UKAD, 13 had been rugby union or league players. The problem she observed was not at the elite or even academy level but younger players who take supplements in order to bulk and power up their bodies to attract the attention of academy scouts.

The third area of vulnerability is probably of greatest relevance to the GAA. The demands on GAA players, particularly in their late teens, are significant. A recent GPA survey of student county players reported that 50 per cent of those surveyed felt "overwhelmed" by their commitments and that 40 per cent of them admitted that they have had to repeat exams in college.

These players, as others in the GAA, train as professionals but recover as amateurs. A tired, distracted, pressurised player is vulnerable to taking something he or she shouldn't.

The above gives some context as to why an amateur player might take a performance enhancing substance. It must be remembered, however, that the vast majority will not take prohibited performance enhancing substances. The Irish Sport Council's Anti-Doping manager Dr Una May has acknowledged that the GAA is not a high risk area in terms of doping abuse.

It is likely therefore that those amateurs who test positive will have taken something inadvertently, and the length of any accompanying sanction will reflect that carelessness rather than any intention to cheat. Talk of criminalising dopers - as hinted at recently by John Treacy, chief executive of the Irish Sports Council - is an entirely inappropriate and disproportionate response. Threatening and stigmatising cheating athletes with jail has been shown to be a tokenistic and ineffective deterrent. Educating athletes is the key, as supplemented by sports-specific sanctions for those caught doping

Education should also include some critical reflection by the sports bodies themselves. The bigger issue for sports such as Gaelic games, and indeed rugby, athletics and cycling, is not the occasional inadvertent positive test, but whether the drive for success in such sports is pressurising its younger participants to compromise their long-term health.

Jack Anderson lectures in sports law at Queen's University, Belfast

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