Wednesday 22 November 2017

Tommy Conlon: Veil of secrecy turns the molehill of an innocent mistake into a mountain

The crux of the matter is that it was consumed in all innocence. Photo: Sportsfile
The crux of the matter is that it was consumed in all innocence. Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

Some 12 months ago the Kerry County Board was presented with a doping violation that amounted to not much more than a molehill. In tandem with the management of the Kerry senior football squad, they made a mountain out of the molehill.

They decided to sweep it under the carpet. They decided to keep the public in the dark. They opted for secrecy rather than transparency. And now it is they who are in the dock, not the player who committed the violation.

Brendan O'Sullivan gave a urine sample to anti-doping testers, operating under the aegis of Sport Ireland, after the Allianz League final between Dublin and Kerry in Croke Park on April 24, 2016. He had come on as a substitute for Donnchadh Walsh in the 54th minute. Analysis of the sample showed it contained traces of MHA, a banned stimulant.

The crux of the matter is that it was consumed in all innocence.

Last Thursday, Sport Ireland published its report on this case. It says that in the week before the league final, O'Sullivan bought a tub of caffeine tablets in a vitamin shop in Cork. He subsequently researched the product on the internet. He inputted the list of ingredients on the label of the tub. Methylhexaneamine (MHA) was not on the label. Nothing showed up online, no warnings or red flags.

The squad's nutritionist had provided the players with a caffeine gel as part of their dietary regime. The gel comes in sachets. It seems that O'Sullivan literally found it difficult to swallow, according to the Sport Ireland report, "because of the taste . . . he was rarely able to finish a full sachet." Hence his decision to swap the caffeine gel for those caffeine tablets bought in Cork.

Sport Ireland accepted his bona fides on the matter. They accepted it was a genuine case of "contaminated product", naively purchased by someone who had joined the senior panel just four months earlier.

The sanctions for a contaminated product violation can range from a mere reprimand, without any time ban, to a two-year suspension from all sporting activity. One could argue - and presumably O'Sullivan's legal team did - that a reprimand would have been appropriate for their client, given all the mitigating circumstances.

But Sport Ireland (previously the Irish Sports Council) has traditionally taken a hard line on doping offences of any nature. It has repeatedly emphasised the golden rule for modern athletes, amateur or professional: they are ultimately responsible for what they consume. And having considered O'Sullivan's case, Sport Ireland still deemed it worthy of a seven-month ban. His suspension officially began on May 13, 2016 - two weeks and five days after the National League final.

The player immediately appealed and the process that would take another 12 months began. As part of this case, Sport Ireland sent some of the remaining tablets from O'Sullivan's supply to a laboratory in Cologne; it also sent an unopened tub of the same tablets for comparative analysis. The results vindicated the player's line of defence.

Last Thursday also, the GAA and Sport Ireland released a joint statement. "Sport Ireland," it said, "accepted that it was a contaminated product case, that Mr O'Sullivan bore no significant fault or negligence . . ."

Meanwhile, on June 12, 2016 - one month after his suspension began - Kerry played Clare in the Munster SFC semi-final in Killarney. The week before, Eamonn Fitzmaurice, the Kerry senior team manager, told local reporters that Brendan O'Sullivan was among the list of injured players who would be unavailable for the game. "Those of us in the room," wrote Damian Stack in The Kerryman last week, " . . . were left with the distinct impression that O'Sullivan was on the injury list."

O'Sullivan disappeared off the radar thereafter - until last weekend.

The question for the board, and indeed Fitzmaurice and others, is this: did they collude in a fiction over the O'Sullivan case? Did they deliberately withhold this information? It is inconceivable that they did not know. It is unthinkable that O'Sullivan would not have informed his manager.

Perhaps they were trying to protect him. Maybe with a protracted legal process imminent, they decided that any disclosure of the facts would be injurious to his case. But it was too late for this kind of shutdown.

The scientific verdict was already in: a banned substance was present in the player's system. The rest was just negotiation. The player had tested positive. All the appeals and legal argument thereafter would not erase this reality.

Proper governance demanded that the truth be told at the time. This was a public matter involving public stakeholders, from the player to the manager, the county board, Kerry supporters and the wider GAA. Trying to bury bad news behind a veil of secrecy is the old-school Irish way of doing business.

Apart from the ethical issues, it was poor strategy. The first rule of public relations is to state the facts and take it from there. And here a major exercise in media spin wasn't needed. O'Sullivan had a genuine case to make. It was an innocent mistake, no more than that. A lot of the circumstances surrounding the case exonerated him anyway.

And it was always going to come out at some stage, later if not sooner. Did those in the know think it would not?

Pending further clarification, this looks like a classic case of the cover-up being worse than the original offence.

thecouch@independent.ie

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