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Neil Francis: Ambivalence towards PED abuse in sport is truly galling


Ray Rice, the former Baltimore running back

Ray Rice, the former Baltimore running back

Getty Images

Ray Rice, the former Baltimore running back

Sometime during 1988 I lined out for London Irish against Sale in the Courage League. Sale were a decent side, with a few England internationals and a good match for anyone in England.

I had no idea who my immediate opponent was but that would change within 10 minutes. It was Lou Ferrigno. This fella was like the Incredible Hulk. A huge muscle-bound hulk. In the first ball into contact this guy wrapped his arm around my neck, squeezed tightly for about 20 seconds and told me he was going to kill me.

He told me that he was going to kill me about 100 times during the game - not Tourette's but a hypo-manic form of expression. At the second line-out he would have followed through on his threat if he had connected with a swinging right hook. The third line-out turned into a fight and after it was over the London Irish pack gathered in a huddle.

"Who the fuck is that guy?" I enquired.

"That is John Howe," replied John O'Driscoll. "I was going to tell you about him before the game but I thought it would be more fun if you found out for yourself."

We changed to two-man line-outs (remember those?) and got on about the game. Howe could neither jump nor could he fight properly and after our fourth engagement, the referee called the two of us aside. I was calm and rational and listened to what the referee was saying. It was a caution that if we didn't stop fighting he would send the pair of us off. I took the admonishment and had already taken two steps backward when I realised that Howe had grabbed the referee's jersey. He let go and half apologised and then glared at me. He was unable to control himself.

The referee policed the game reasonably well until the final quarter when there was more fighting - not me this time. As one of his team-mates dragged him back, Howe started to fight with him and punched his fellow player square in the face, drawing blood.

We scored two late tries and won a match we probably didn't deserve to win. Afterwards, Howe took off his jersey and started ranting, roaring and roving around the pitch aggressively. I was on my way into the dressing room when he stopped me, eyes bulging, veins pulsing and acne covering his entire back. Shake hands?

The whole rugby thing of knocking lumps out of one another on the pitch and then shaking hands and retiring to the bar to skull loads of pints with your opponent is a fallacy. I did not want to shake hands with this man or have a pint with him either. I did eventually shake hands under duress and said I'd meet him for a pint. The game was over a few minutes and he still had the demeanour of a post-coital silverback. I took the longest shower of my life and went to the bar where there were more threats and aggression and eventually he left after some exasperated persuasion from his team-mates. A memorable afternoon in Sunbury .I never saw him again.

On March 30, 1992, in a seconds game in Morley, John Howe dropped dead from a massive heart attack aged 32. Some of the online comments that I saw stated he had a heart defect from birth. Fair enough if that is what they want to believe. I am fairly certain that the English league back in the 1980s was rife with steroid abuse and Howe was just one of quite a number.

That match stands out and there were many witnesses to Howe's behaviour. He was a danger to everyone on that pitch, including himself. What strikes me going back to that day is the ambivalence to steroids, which has carried right up to the current day. We know how dangerous they are and yet fail to see their prevalence in day-to-day occurrences.

We know the side effects are many and varied. The one we might look at is the neuropsychiatric element. Typically most steroid abusers suffer from mood disorders, depression, psychosis, hypo-mania, bipolar dysfunction and dependence syndromes. Symptoms include paranoia, irritability, recklessness, histrionics and anti-social behaviour. A heady and dangerous cocktail.

Physically, the heart is usually the organ that suffers the most. The enlargement and thickening of the left ventricle from most androgynous anabolic steroids causes cardiomyopathies in abusers as well as congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death. Liver damage also promotes high levels of bad cholesterol. Steroid abusers have dangerous conditions and are dangerous people.

Oscar Pistorius was convicted of the culpable homicide of his girlfriend last week. There wasn't much mention of the sizeable quantity of steroids that were found in his apartment on the morning after the killing.

The world got a taste of just what an unpleasant character he was over the span of his trial. Casually loosing off four rounds into a locked toilet when his girlfriend just happened not to be in the bed beside him. We all know what happened, the question is how does your mind get to such a place in the first instance?

The NFL has been awash with steroids since the 1960s. When OJ Simpson killed Nicole Brown Simpson we knew that he had regularly beaten her up but the savagery visited upon his ex-wife and Ron Goldman went beyond easy understanding. You would have to ask questions about how Simpson got into that frame of mind.

Last week Sean O'Haire, a wrestler in the WWE, committed suicide by hanging. Since 1990, 200 wrestlers have died while still active or very shortly after retiring from the ring. Many of the deaths were from heart attacks or suicide. It is pretty much recognised that every last single wrestler in that industry would have taken steroids at some stage in their career.

It was significant though in all this loss of life that when wrestler Chris Benoit killed his wife and seven-year-old boy before taking his own life in 2007, the WWE, in a truly galling move, tried to protect their industry norms from further federal investigation. Benoit was openly using steroids to optimise his performance levels and was a long-time abuser.

WWE attorneys tried to pass the atrocity off as a deliberate act as opposed to an act brought about by roid rage. "The physical findings amassed by authorities indicate deliberation, not rage. The wife's feet were bound and tied and she was asphyxiated, not beaten to death. By the account of the authorities there were substantial periods of time between the death of the wife and the death of the son, again suggesting deliberate thought, not rage. The presence of a bible by each is also not an act of rage."

Lordy, lordy that puts my mind at ease. Thank God it was a pre-meditated cold-blooded murder as opposed to roid rage. Every 'wrestler' I have watched on TV is a stereo-typical walking timebomb of aggression and rage, but it is important that the Feds don't find out that literally every one of these freaks are steroid addicted timebombs - at any cost.

Ray Rice, the former Baltimore running back, knocked his fiancé out cold in a lift earlier this year. Spousal abuse is very common in the NFL; certainly you can attribute a lot of it to social malaise and a moral decline. Money too is a factor - she did, after all, marry him a month later! The NFL tried to make it go away but were unsuccessful. I wonder in all their deliberations and obfuscation did they get around to testing him properly.

Last week Adrian Peterson, the unstoppable powerhouse star running back for the Minnesota Vikings, was up on charges of violent child abuse. It's alleged he beat his four-year-old son with a stick, the pictures of the bruising all over the child's body are chilling and sickening. Test him too.

In 2010 when Ireland played South Africa in Dublin, Chiliboy Ralepelle and Bjorn Basson both tested positive for methylhexanamine. The whole Springbok squad took the same 'supplement' it seems. Anyway Chiliboy and Bjorn go back to South Africa and get off on a bullshit case and were free to play again without sanction.

Chiliboy, now playing for Toulouse, tested positive in June of this year for Drostanolone. Chiliboy hasn't taken the findings too well. We haven't heard anything further on his B sample, but if he heads back to South Africa to have his case heard. . .

Finally, if you have nothing better to do, you can go online and count the number of international Test forwards who have died of heart attacks in their 40s.

Thankfully, those international Test players who took anabolic steroids have only been a danger to themselves, which we know about of course. Since 1995, Chiliboy is the only Test player from a major rugby nation to have tested positive for a PED. Amazing isn't it?

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