GAA drug-testing regime 'appropriate' - Sports Council

Gavin Cummiskey talks to Dr Una May about how Donegal captain can play seven inter-county seasons without being tested

Dr Una May, director of the anti-doping unit at the Irish Sports Council

Dr Una May, director of the anti-doping unit at the Irish Sports Council


Q. How does Michael Murphy, the Donegal captain get through seven seasons as an inter-county footballer without being tested?

“We plan our testing programme around the risks associated with sport. We have a whole criteria to plan how many tests we’ll do in any one sport and that’s around the risks associated with the sport itself. The obvious one being a sprinter is more at risk than a high jumper, for example, and whether there is a history of doping in the sport, there are plenty of criteria and we plan around that.

“You see it in our testing. Some sports get proportionally a lot more cycling, for example, we did 130 tests and in fencing we did two. So, they reflect what we consider to be the risk of the sport and the levels of performance within the sport.

“You also have to look at the number of athletes in a sport when it comes down to being tested. The GAA are talking about a couple of thousand players across the board (If you round the 51 championship panels across football and hurling to 30 players, the actual figure is closer to 1,530 players).”

“So, what are the chances of any one of them being tested in any one year? Last year we did 87 tests so they are not all going to be tested and it is a random system. In any one year the same guy could get tested twice. One guy could never be tested. That’s just the random nature of it.

“But Mr Murphy doesn’t know if he is going to be tested next week. That’s the point of it, 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 them him.

“The point is he doesn’t know we are going to come so he has to abide by the rules on the basis that we could turn up.

“Realistically, within the context of a normal reasonable proportional budget spent on anti-doping that’s what we consider to be appropriate. It is not a sport that has a history of a problem of doping and I hope nobody is suggesting that it does have a problem.

“Mr Murphy himself seemed to be fairly clear that it doesn’t have a problem.”

Q. Citing half the amount of football/hurling tests in comparison to rugby, are resources an issue?

“We’re in a public body. 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.

“In an ideal world we would have more funds available . . . resources are a problem for everybody.

“Within the context of the budget available to us we feel (the testing) is proportionate to the risks within the sport.”

There has been one positive test since the procedures were put in place in 2001. Kerry football Aidan O’Mahony tested positive for salbutamol in September 2008. In January 2009 the GAA’s anti-doping committee reprimanded O’Mahony, an asthmatic, as they “considered that the dose inhaled was in excess of that authorised on the therapeutic use exemption form submitted in relation to the player.”

However, O’Mahony did not receive a subsequent suspension as the committee, which included Dr Pat O’Neill, concluded that he had “not intended to enhance his sporting performance or mask . . . a performance-enhancing substance.”

Q. Is it surprising there have not been any positive tests for recreational drugs in GAA or mistakes with supplements?

“Well, that’s a question I have asked myself. The answer I have been give is maybe it is a different type of ethos. A different type of sport, a different demographic who play the sport and it is isn’t such an issue within that sport.

“I can’t answer that. I don’t know the sociology behind the difference of the players. There is as much a chance of a GAA player testing positive for recreational (drugs) as rugby. I don’t have an answer for why there have been more positives tests in rugby than GAA. That’s a sociological kind of question really.”

Q. In team sports are the majority of positive tests down to supplements with banned ingredients?

“It is a big risk area. It is not just team sport, it is across the board; we have a huge, huge problem with supplements. I mean the supplement industry is absolutely massive. Sport is one of their most significant target groups but not their only one.

“The commercialism behind the industry does not necessarily allow for the strict regulations within sport. The supplements industry isn’t regulated in the way the medicine industry is regulated, for example, and so contamination is an issue, labelling is an issue.

“Just general knowledge and information. When you go into a pharmacy you can ask the pharmacist for advice and you’ll get clear, unequivocal advice based on the medicine and what’s been approved. We can give people advice on what’s been approved and what they need to take. It’s really obvious what’s what. It’s a regulated industry.

“However, if you go into a gym and the supplement shop in the corner that is selling 50 different varieties of a protein shake, an athlete just gets swamped with an overload of information.

“I’ve always tried to explain to people is if something is so good then it would probably be banned anyway. But athletes just want to believe the answer is in that tub and it is going to help them to give them an edge that they might not be able to get otherwise or that it can replace healthy practice because they haven’t time to get a healthy dinner.

“They are swamped by this industry and we are in the middle of that and trying to educate and inform athletes to make good, solid, sound judgements.

“You get some athletes that take nothing. Some of the very, very top rugby players in this country take pretty much nothing and then you have a low level player taking 20 supplements, popping 50 tablets in one day.

“That’s not an exaggeration. A form came in this week from an athlete taking 28 different supplements. No education is going to stop someone if that’s the way they want to go. It’s a personal judgement. No normal, sensible individual could possibly believe that it was actually necessary to take that many supplements but if someone is of that mindset it is a really big challenge in sport of how we deal with the issue of supplements.”

Q. Does the amateur argument the GAA can fall back on ever come into your thinking?

“It doesn’t at all. It is elite sport.

“To be totally honest with you if anyone can tell who the national fencing champion is I’d be impressed but even me, who doesn’t have a notion about the GAA, can tell you at least half a dozen players on every team.

“It’s a much more high profile sport despite the fact there is no money in it, it is not professional. It is high profile.

“We take that consideration in how we devise our testing. Sports that are low profile, we could have people who are very high level in them, top 10 in the world, but the GAA players are better known so they are under more pressure. They are more professional in their approach than some of them.”

Q. Is underage testing in the GAA going to happen?

“I wouldn’t rule it out. It is not one of our targets at this moment in time but throughout all of what we do I do believe athletes in the developmental stages of their career, we should certainly be targeting them when it comes to education and sometimes testing as part of an education programme.

“It is not always about catching cheats, sometimes it is about deterring them. I do believe we have to focus attention on the younger players because it is at that age we can develop their attitude and approach to sport, and what they consider to be fair play.

“They are a really important group but not where we feel we should be committing resources to.”

Q. In GAA in 2012 there were eight out of competition missed tests, with weather cited as an excuse. Is this a little alarming?

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say alarming. A little frustrating. It’s not just the weather. GAA teams do train in a lot of different locations and I suppose it is quite difficult to keep on top of it but it is a mindset and they are improving.

“In some of the sports they have developed a system that works to keep us updated. They might include us on the message that goes out to players. That’s something we’ve been working with them over the last year or two to get county boards to do this.

“It is partly down to the fact that the GAA is so big and it is about making sure the right person is notifying us, and they know the information, be it the county secretary, as they might not know if there is a last minute change in training.

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

Q. That’s your job, right? Once you get suspicious you have to target that area?

“That is the key to our programme. As I said, sure, I would love more resources, who wouldn’t, to do a lot of new, innovative things. If I could, I’d like to spend more energy on certain areas. But the reality is we have limited resources and we have to focus on the highest risk areas.

“If we see somebody or a team performing out of the ordinary then we will target that and make absolutely no apologies. That is one of the most important tools we have; the whole targeting of an area.

“The intelligence is something we are really trying to work on at the moment. Finding out background information, being able to focus attention, knowing what’s going on in a sport, rather than just figures, schedules and calendars of events. Trying to learn a lot more in depth about what happens in a sport and the patterns of people.

“On top of that, working with the law enforcement agencies, finding stuff that we might not be aware of, working closer with those people.”

Q. Are performance enhancing drugs regularly discovered in Ireland?

“There are vast amount of steroids coming into this country. We work very closely with the Irish Medicines Board so if they have a situation where they believe something may be connected to sport, even a faint possibility, they notify us and we investigate.

“We do have a very good working relationship with them.

“So yes, there is a lot coming into the country. The majority of it is going to . . . the normal drug culture has been expanded to include steroids not only for sport but the image enhancing, body builders, bouncers, people in the gyms and stuff like that.

“That is something else that is a risk as more and more GAA players are training in gyms. We do believe that substances are being abused within the gym culture and there is a risk a GAA player can come in contact with it.

“We are aware that is evolving. We are keeping an eye on it. When I talk about the intelligence approach we are aware of risks like that rather than randomly going out and testing teams every weekend. That’s wasting resources. It is far better if we focus on specific areas.”

Q. Missed testing of GAA teams still frustrating?

“We do continue to have missed tests, yes. But then we also have missed tests in athletes as well. Athletes don’t get sanctioned unless we have a missed test within their hour. But if we go looking for them outside their hour we still have to look for them, we still have the frustration and cost of trying to look for them. They might not be sanctioned and it might not go down on record anywhere and that’s why we started to record those figures 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, you know, paper work.”

Q. 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.”

Q. You are doing it in rugby so what about blood testing in Gaelic games?

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

“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. What I don’t want that is athletes to have a belief that, ‘okay, if they don’t do blood tests I can take such and such in my sport.’

“If we believe it is a risk in a sport we want the athletes to know it can happen in their sport. It will filter down to any sport that has any vague risk at all. That will include the GAA at some point.”

Q. Six championship matches this weekend – how many players will be tested at these six venues?

“In any one match, four players will be tested so a random draw will take before the match, which will be attended by a representative of each team, and two players out of each team will be picked. The representatives won’t know who the players are until afterwards. They pick a card and sign the back of it and after they have left the doping control station the doping control officer will see what number player it is.”

Q. Testing in team sports – in competition or out of competition, which produces the greater number of positive results?

“Looking over our records and annual reports, you’ll find the majority of our positive tests have been in competition. They have been stimulants in competition. Stimulants are not prohibited out of competition.”

Q. Stimulants are not prohibited out of competition?

“They are abused by athletes to get them fired up for a competition. They are not as useful for someone in training. They don’t allow you train for significantly longer or help you recover from injury, like the things we would be looking for out of competition.”

Q. Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell – the recent sprint controversy proves doping remains a huge issue?

“There are two sides to these stories. The negative effect from all these positives, but a whole load of them have been caught so that’s changing. They are not getting away with it like they used to. There are new tests, new analysis, every day more and better tests. Samples are being stored if they are suspicious, if they don’t have the right analysis now, they can re-analysis them later. There is a lot more chance of catching athletes now so it is improving but it is still depressing to see how much doping is going on in sport.”