Authorities insist there are no dopers in the GAA

Ongoing random testing has failed to show any evidence of a problem within hurling or football

Sign on a wall in Thurles notifying players of a drug-testing station. “We don’t believe we have a problem. But that’s because we continue to educate players,” said director of games administration Fergal McGill. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

The GAA does not have a doping problem. The highlighted figures prove as much. One positive test since 2001 and that was dismissed, on medical grounds, as the player in question was asthmatic.

In January 2009 Kerry’s Aidan O’Mahony was reprimanded but not suspended. Case closed and nothing since.

But a worrying fact bobbed above the surface recently. Turns out an intercounty footballer can play at the elite level for seven years, making it all the way up the steps of the Hogan Stand without ever being tested.

Donegal's brilliant young captain Michael Murphy said as much, very matter-of-factly, when talking about the widespread use of supplements by his peers.


Still no problem?

“Our attitude is very simple,” said Fergal McGill, the GAA director of games administration and player welfare. “If there are people out there who are doping in Gaelic games we want to know about it, we want to catch them and we want to suspend them.

“The integrity of our games is at stake here so, absolutely, that’s why we are stepping up our education campaigns.”

In order to access the player grant, players will have to do a course on what can and cannot go into their bodies.

“It is our honest belief that any player who dopes within the GAA will do so out of lack of knowledge rather than a deliberate attempt to dope,” added McGill.

Another issue prompted action at central council level recently. When Dr Una May’s dope-testing team arrived at eight of their planned 53 out of competition Gaelic games training sessions in 2012 they were met by an empty field.

No cones. No sliotars. No balls. Nobody.

The explanation was weather conditions forced a change of venue. The testers arrive unannounced – that’s the whole point – so no one informed them.

Is this not a little suspicious?

“A little frustrating,” May replied. “There are a lot of different factors involved. I wouldn’t say I have a concern about it. I’m not suspicious of it. Frustrated, but not suspicious.”

An agreement was made to fine the county board €1,000 if it happens again.

Find someone
"We do continue to have missed tests, yes," May confirmed. "But then we also have missed tests in athletes as well.

“If we fail to find someone it is an issue for us more than them. If we are failing to find the same person consistently then obviously that is a major issue for us and straight away we will start targeting that athlete.

“We will target their training and competition schedules and look at them much more closely.

“Often it will be fairly obvious to us that they are a fairly incompetent administrator. You can see quite quickly the patterns emerging and the differences between what is clearly deliberate avoidance of testing versus sloppy paper work.”

Which category do the GAA teams that missed testing come under?

“I don’t believe there is any GAA team that is clearly avoiding us,” May replied.

Out-of-competition testing of team sports in Ireland only takes place at training sessions. No knocking on doors. Unlike the boxers, cyclists and athletes who must accept that as part of their profession.

There is also no testing of underage footballers or hurlers. Not even at under-21 level.

More facts. When not treated as “Gaelic games” but two separate sports the amount of testing done in 2012 is half that of rugby.

The Sports Council would not reveal any information about 2013 anti-doping policy. That means it is unclear if any testing will take place at the four football qualifiers today or tomorrow's provincial finals in Mayo and Clones.

Spread out
But the testers are active most weekends during the GAA season, right?

“Well, if you spread out the number of tests we do throughout the year you get a good idea,” said May.

There were 42 in-competition tests in 2012, so four players after each game means there was a doping station at 10.5 matches.

That’s 87 tests in total. When rounding up 51 championship panels – across football and hurling – to 30 players we come to 1,530 players.

“Because it is random there is a deterrent effect; they don’t know when they could be tested, in and out of competition. We could turn up at their training ground next week and test them.”

It’s a resources issue.

“We’re in a public body,” May explained.

“Resources are low everywhere. Budget is cut across the board. Sport gets less funding than it used to a few years ago. Anti-doping gets less funding than it used to.”

Still, one positive test in 12 years seems low. Not even recreational positive tests or mistakes with supplements?

Different type
"Well, that's a question I have asked myself. The answer I have been given is maybe it is a different type of ethos. A different demographic who play the GAA sports and it is isn't such an issue.

“I can’t answer that. That’s a sociological kind of question really.”

What about blood testing of footballers and hurlers?

“I would have every intention of introducing it to the GAA in the near future. We haven’t started yet but we will do,” May confirmed.

“It is something that is going to filter down to most sports at some point. There might not be an awful lot of it but, again, it will be the deterrent effect.

“If we believe it is a risk in a sport we want the athletes to know it can happen in their sport.”

McGill’s attitude earns him the last word.

“We don’t believe we have a problem. But that’s because we continue to educate players. The minute you stop doing that or take for granted your sport is clean that’s when you might start encountering problems.

“Prevention is better than cure.”