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Dublin: 12 °C Tuesday 1 September, 2015

Opinion: Drugs aren’t the real problem in sport, hoping they don’t exist is

With PEDs once again making headlines in baseball, it’d be foolish to think your favourite sport is clean.

The news of Alex Rodriguez's alleged PEDs use has reignited the debate about drug use in sport.
The news of Alex Rodriguez's alleged PEDs use has reignited the debate about drug use in sport.
Image: Charles Cherney/AP/Press Association Images

IT’S NEARLY 10pm on a Saturday evening and I’m stuck on a LUAS overflowing with Celtic and Liverpool fans on their way home from the Dublin Decider.

I’m trying to mind my own business but I can’t help but overhear a man in a Celtic jersey — and wearing a distinctive yellow Livestrong bracelet —  telling an American how he could “never watch any of your sports, sure they’re all full of drugs.”

He’s not wrong of course. Baseball in particular has a Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) problem, but he’s a fool if he thinks the sports we follow on this side of the Atlantic are without fault.

The difference: testing.

As of 2012, every single player in Major League Baseball is tested at the start of spring training. Each player then has a second, unannounced urine test later in the season to determine if there have been any significant changes.

In addition, MLB conduct 1,400 random urine tests during the season so, in total in 2012, the League conducted an impressive 3,955 urine tests or 3.3 per player.

And that’s before we consider the nearly 2,000 blood tests players were forced to take.

Last year in Ireland, just 787 tests were carried out by the Irish Sports Council across all sports, a phenomenally low tally given the number of sports and sporting events that take place throughout the year.

Take Gaelic football, for example, and the 2012 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship. 33 teams took part with, for the purposes of this argument, an average of 25 players per panel. That’s 825 players playing their chosen sport at the highest level in 2012 and they already outnumber the amount of tests carried out last year.

Worse still, it’s almost 10 times the number of male GAA players who were tested by the Sports Council last year (87).

Little deterrent

Of course, that’s just one sport, an amateur one at that, so maybe it’s an aberration. Rugby, with its high-profile players and professional set-up is bound to do better, right?

Well, not exactly.

While the 2011/12 season saw the IRFU carry out 73 tests on players categorised as being ‘senior xv’ in Ireland’s international rugby squad, just 19 were carried out during the 2012/13 seasons and only two were taken in-competition.

Of course, as Dr Una May who oversees the tests for the Irish Sports Council told last month, players would also have been tested when lining out for their provinces but the prospect of just two in-competition tests while appearing for Ireland is unlikely to serve as much of a deterrent for anyone.

Nothing to see here

So I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we don’t test enough, but of those tested, what were the results? Well, of the eight athletes who did test positive in 2012, four were found to be guilty of cannabis offences.

That means we’re expected to believe that, of the thousands of athletes who competed in Ireland last year, just four used PEDs, and three of those were on the same tug-of-war team.

As much as I’d love to believe that Ireland and Irish athletes are shining examples of the way sports should be played while the rest of the world degenerates into winning at all costs, that’s just wishful thinking. That said, I believe the vast majority of Irish sports stars are clean, as the vast majority of all sports stars are.

That doesn’t change the fact our testing system here gives people the opportunity to cheat.

Problems everywhere

Irish sport is not alone of course. The Bundesliga plan to introduce blood testing for the first time this year while its use as an anti-doping device in tennis actually decreased by 33% between 2006 and 2011.

Want to know how many doping cases there have been in football? Don’t ask FIFA because they don’t know, nor does anyone it seems.

What we do know is that since 1994, no male player has tested positive for a banned substance at an international tournament. With all the doping that goes on around the world, it seems unlikely that football has remained immune doesn’t it?

Of course, we had a chance earlier this year to see just how clean football was but a Spanish judge ordered the destruction of 211 blood bags — some believed to belong to footballers — seized during a raid on the offices of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes.

Fuentes, who is at the centre of infamous Operation Puerto, has already admitted he worked with footballers as well as cyclists, boxers and tennis players.

My own favourite sport, American football has massive problems too. The NFL and players can’t agree on testing for Human Growth Hormone despite suggestions that up to 50% of players in the League use HGH. Perversely, the NFL don’t release information regarding what exactly its players test positive for (because of its collective bargaining agreement with them) so players are free to create any excuse they want when they test positive.


It’s not all bad news of course. Viewership of the Tour de France was up 50% this year compared to 2012, despite all the revelations about Lance Armstrong, and the IAAF would argue the high profile positive tests to emerge last month are evidence that testing will eventually out most of the cheats.

As a sports fan, not to mention someone who makes a living from writing about sport, my heart sinks every time news emerges of another Lance or A-Rod and I understand completely why people have a go at cycling, baseball and athletics with their high-profile and sometimes unrepentant cheats.

It’s both arrogant and stupid, however, to think that just because nobody’s been caught, that your favourite sport is clean.

The likelihood is, they just haven’t been tested yet.

IRFU report shows 74% decrease in international squad drug testing

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