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'In 20 odd years, I've never been tested by Sport Ireland. That doesn't look good for our sport'

Karate star Caradh O’Donovan wants more athletes to speak up.

Caradh O'Donovan (file pic).
Caradh O'Donovan (file pic).

CARADH O’DONOVAN HAS spent over 20 years competing in sport at a high level.

Most of that time has been in kickboxing, but more recently she switched to karate with the ultimate aim of representing Ireland at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Last month, she won a silver medal at the International Karate Cup and had been preparing to compete at the European Championships in Baku later this month before it fell victim to the coronavirus outbreak.

It’s 24 years since she started kickboxing, and sport has taken a toll on her battle-hardened body.

She admits to having considered retirement and while ideally, she will continue competing for another three or four years, she acknowledges the end of her career is likely to come much sooner than that.

She is only just back from a long-term injury and her body is “breaking”. She underwent surgery in May, experiencing problems with her knee, ankle and hip in recent months, suffering tendonitis in the latter.

“If I can even get through the next six months, I’ll be doing well,” she tells The42.

She has signed up for a course in Britain in order to prepare for the day when she does retire.

“This is how bad the Irish sports system is. In order for me to retire, just from a mental health point of view, I have to go to UK sport for them to fund a programme for me to transition out of sport. That’s a two-year programme and the reason I’m doing that is I’ve always had work and I’ve always done other stuff.

“I didn’t realise how mentally difficult it is to not train and not have a goal to compete for. It was probably the most mentally difficult thing, getting through this injury.

“They do stuff around mental health and different bits and pieces. There are up to 50 different athletes that are considering retiring on this course. So it’s a good way to prepare for it.”

For O’Donovan, injury problems are not the only thing that is mounting. Her frustration, which has built up from two decades competing in sport, is also palpable. 

“Nothing has changed,” she says. “So we still have no funding and we’re still not given any kind of credibility. Even from a governance point of view, nobody cares what kickboxing is doing or what karate is doing.

But I genuinely think people just don’t like changing. People in this country think everything’s fine and they just like to keep everything the same way it is. But that’s not good enough for the majority of minority sports or the majority of athletes even. There are certain athletes that are looked after and then there are a whole pile more that nobody cares about, and it’s about time that they start doing something to change that.”

The degree of contact, O’Donovan discovered, was not the only big difference between kickboxing and karate. It was only when she joined the latter that she started to fully appreciate what she retrospectively perceived as problems with the former.

“When I was in kickboxing, it wouldn’t have been unusual to be on the day before you were weighed, three or four kilos overweight, and you’d sit in a sauna for as long as it takes. You could sit in a sauna for one full day and you’d make your weight. To us, or certainly to me, that was normal. Not everybody did that. I’m not trying to say not everybody struggled with their weight. But it was never anything that seemed unusual and nobody ever said ‘don’t do it’. Nobody ever said: ‘This isn’t right. This isn’t safe.’ It was just the culture.

“And when I went over to karate, and I was talking about making a weight that was much lighter than the weight I compete at now, I remember saying to the coach: ‘If I’m struggling, I can sit in the sauna and get rid of that weight.’ His jaw was on the floor and everyone else around me thought it was the most unusual thing ever. It then dawned on me: ‘Something’s not right about this.’”

O’Donovan ultimately believes Ireland’s minority sports must be better regulated, whether it’s Sport Ireland or another organisation that are ultimately required to intervene.

“I understand the issues and a lot of it comes down to budgets. I know they’ve intelligence where they decide on risk assessments of the sport and [how certain] athletes might be more vulnerable, so that’s kind of how it works. But at the same time, it’s still not good enough.

“From my perspective, I’ve been tested by my world federation in sport, but in 20 odd years, I’ve never been tested by Sport Ireland. That doesn’t look good for our sport and for any of the athletes I’ve trained with — they want to have some testing in the sport. 

“I also know some athletes who have medalled at world level in kickboxing, which is now an Olympic-recognised sport, and they’ve never been tested. So you have people at the highest level of that sport that have never been tested. Whether that’s an issue with Irish sport or the world federation, I don’t really know the answer to that, but I do think it can improve and if you look at the number of sports being tested, it’s really low.

I know a lot more from my own experience in those sports, but I do think there needs to be more testing across minority sports. I’m not 100% certain how they select and what their risk assessment is, but I do know that if you get funding as a carded athlete, that’s the first thing you sign up to — one of the things you sign up to is to have out-of-competition testing.

“So if you’re not a high-performance sport, then ‘you don’t matter’– that’s my way of looking at it. My view is that every single athlete, regardless of whether they’re important or not, deserves a clean sport. It’s not really acceptable to say that, because we fund x, y and z, we’ll test these sports, but you guys over here don’t matter. It could be the case that there are no issues there, but that’s not my experience. I’ve seen things that I know had there been testing, we’d have a whole different outcome. We’d have more positive tests. That’s just my take on it. 

“The bigger thing for me is there are a lot of people doing things to make weight or get some sort of competitive advantage in combat sports that’s not safe, whether it’s cheating, it’s certainly unethical and my biggest concern would be that young people are coming into sport and getting involved in dangerous practices to compete and to win. I think when they know they’re going to be tested, that changes your mindset a little bit.

“And people are afraid to say it. I don’t know why they’d be afraid to say this stuff about wanting more anti-doping tests. That always confuses me — why more athletes don’t say ‘I want to be tested.’ I really don’t understand that.”

A look at the most recently available Sport Ireland anti-doping review suggests athletes from minority sports are less likely to be tested. In 2018, sports like weightlifting, martial arts, taekwondo and basketball each carried out four tests. Compare that to the totals for athletics (164), GAA (139), rugby (178) and swimming (77), and there is clearly a big difference. The figures from 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014 are broadly similar in terms of the contrast between the popular and more niche sports.

In response to O’Donovan’s comments, Sport Ireland issued the following statement: “Sport Ireland does not classify sports as ‘minority’, ‘popular’ or otherwise for any purpose, including anti-doping.

“As has been consistently communicated over the 20 years that the anti-doping programme has been in existence, sports are tested on the back of comprehensive risk assessment, which includes, but is not limited to, physiological demand, susceptibility to doping, history of doping etc. The number of participants in a given sport is not a factor.

“This is underpinned by scientific analysis and a robust investigation programme which informs what sports and athletes are tested and when. This is consistent with the WADA Anti-Doping Code and the WADA International Standard for Testing.

“For context, internationally 1,236 tests were carried out in the sport of Karate in 2018.”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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