Sport Ireland point to deterrent factor as they report single positive doping test from 2021

A total of 1,354 tests carried were carried out across 28 different sports at a cost of just over €1.8m

Every anti-doping report in sport comes across as a sort of stand-off between the statistics and the truth, and the latest numbers from Sport Ireland are no exception.

Of the total 1,354 anti-doping tests carried out by Sport Ireland last year, across 28 different sports, there was a single violation reported resulting in a three-month ban. The prohibited substance in question was cocaine.

Depending on what you believe, it means Irish sport is pretty squeaky clean when it comes to doping, or else the current testing method isn’t quite doing its job.

In publishing its 2021 annual review, now in its 22nd year, Sport Ireland also revealed the anti-doping programme cost just over €1.8 million, slightly down on the previous year, although with a 30 per cent increase in overall testing numbers.


Cycling Ireland was the most tested sporting governing body with 221 tests, followed by Athletics Ireland (202), the IRFU (163), the GAA (140), and then Rowing Ireland (127).

The single anti-doping violation resulted from a sample provided by motorsport driver Harry McGovern during an in-competition test on October 3rd, 2021. McGovern established the ingestion of cocaine occurred out-of-competition and therefore unrelated to sport performance, hence the reduced ban of three months.

Although Covid-19 impacted on the programme over the last two years, 2021 saw some return to normality, particularly around the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. The overall cost €1,856,151 was down of the €1,904,328 in 2020.

Throughout 2021, there were 934 urine tests and 420 blood tests, with 1,133 of the total tests taking place out-of-competition (OOC) and 221 in-competition.

In interpreting the numbers, Siobhán Leonard, director of Anti-Doping and Ethics at Sport Ireland, told The Irish Times every anti-doping programme is as much about deterrent as it is about detection.

“Anti-doping is a cornerstone of integrity in sport, for fair and ethical sport,” said Leonard. “It’s about deterrent as much as it is detection, and most athletes will support it, believe it’s a very important element of Irish sport, and have confidence within the Irish system.”

The 2019 annual review, which included 1,112 tests, also returned a single positive, in that case for cannabis, which like cocaine, is only banned in-competition, given both can be viewed to have performance-enhancing effects in competition.

On the single positive finding, Leonard said: “That fluctuates as well, we can bounce to three or four, down to one or two, but we’re also there for the education programmes, raising awareness. We’d certainly have overall confidence in the anti-doping that it’s doing what it needs to do.

“The in-competition tests didn’t go back into force until later in the year, but overall numbers came back up to pre-pandemic levels, so we’re happy those figures have stabilised now.”

On the same five or six targeted sports, she added: “There is always some fluctuation say between athletics and cycling, given the fluctuation in numbers on the registered testing pool, or on the carding scheme, and given 2021 was an Olympic year, testing was always going to be aimed more at those particular sports.”

Whereabouts failures decreased from seven in 2020 to five in 2021, while unsuccessful attempts on National Governing Bodies relating to team sports numbered 17, including GAA (10) soccer (four), rugby (two), and hockey (one).

Overall, there was a reduction in the number of approved Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) applications in 2021 (11) when compared to 2020 (18). Seven sports had TUE applications approved in 2021; three sports had a single TUE approved in 2021, this was down from four in 2020 and 11 in 2019. Four sports had two approved applications each.

“For us, it’s very important that we follow the procedures that are set, for how a TUE is granted,” Leonard said, “not necessarily the figures that are coming through. It’s about keeping that process always in line with the international standard.”

Sport Ireland added: “The areas of intelligence and investigations continue to be key components of Sport Ireland’s work in the area of anti-doping. Sport Ireland was represented on a World Anti-Doping Agency selected panel of experts that assisted in the development of guidelines for intelligence and investigations, a role descriptor for intelligence and investigations practitioners and a training course for intelligence and investigations officers and managers.

“In 2021, Sport Ireland continued its close collaboration with colleagues in the Health Product Regulatory Authority, Customs and An Garda Síochána and the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland from a monitoring and intelligence perspective, helping to improve testing and surveillance.”

Sport Ireland Anti-Doping 2021: Tests per sporting governing body

Cycling Ireland 221

Athletics Ireland 202

Irish Rugby Football Union 163

Gaelic Athletic Association 140

Rowing Ireland 127

Swim Ireland 109

Football Association of Ireland 73

Paralympics Ireland 61

Irish Athletic Boxing Association 56

Triathlon Ireland 37

Canoeing Ireland 22

Motorsport Ireland 21

Irish Sailing Association 18

Pentathlon Ireland 17

Hockey Ireland 15

Irish Judo Association 14

Horse Sport Ireland 9

Women’s Gaelic Football Association 8

Badminton Ireland 8

Gymnastics Ireland 7

Camogie Association 4

Golf Ireland 4

Irish Wheelchair Association Sport 4

Irish Taekwondo Union 4

Weightlifting Ireland 4

Cricket Ireland 2

Irish Tug of War Association 2

Motor Cycling Ireland 2

Total: 1,354

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics