GAA warns players to be aware of anti-doping changes
Croke Park says members need to be absolutely sure of what they put in bodies
Maria Sharapova claimed to have been taking meldonium for 10 years and to be unaware it was added to Wada’s prohibited-substance list. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters
The GAA has warned senior intercounty players that they must adhere to all revisions and updates to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (Wada) prohibited-substance list – including that suddenly popular hormone and metabolic modulator known as meldonium.
While the messy repercussions of Maria Sharapova’s positive test for meldonium continue – such as meldonium still being permitted on golf’s PGA Tour – the GAA’s message remains clear: all players subjected to their anti-doping programme need to be absolutely sure about what medicines and substances they can and cannot take.
“The Wada code is essentially our code, in agreement with Sport Ireland, and similar to almost all other Irish sports,” says Feargal McGill, the GAA’s head of games administration and part of Croke Park’s anti-doping committee.
“So we’d always make that point, and whatever changes are made to the Wada code is circulated and communicated to our distribution list, which includes administrators, medical personnel operating teams, and of course the players.
“Of course there is the concern that some players might be negligent, or may not be aware of changes to the banned list. The vast majority of players aren’t doctors or scientists. And we’re dealing with amateur players too, essentially volunteering for their intercounty team. Nothing about the Sharapova case has changed that.
“That concern has been there since anti-doping was introduced into the GAA. It’s an extremely technical area, extremely legal, and anyone who has ever been involved with an anti-doping hearing will understand that.”
This time last year Monaghan footballer Thomas Connolly tested positive for banned steroid stanozolol, after an out-of-competition test taken at the Monaghan county training session. The mandatory four-year ban was reduced to two years after Connolly claimed the steroids were not being taken intentionally, but instead had been recommended to him in tablet form by a work colleague to help relieve his back pain.
“Our message is that players can never be too careful, and need to check, and double check,” says McGill. “We’ve always advised players to be vigilant, and to be very, very conscious of what they are taking, because our nightmare situation is that someone gets caught inadvertently.
“We have no sympathy whatsoever for anyone who is caught with an anti-doping product, absolutely none, because our mission is to make sure our sport is kept a clean as possible. But there is always that risk of an inadvertent analytical event, and that does worry us.”
What Sharapova’s positive test has also highlighted, among other things, is the apparent difficulty some athletes have in updating their own knowledge of what substances they can take. Sharapova claims she’s been taking meldonium for 10 years and wasn’t aware it was added to the Wada prohibited-substance list on January 1st of this year. In the meantime the PGA Tour has confirmed that their anti-doping policy is revised on a “seasonal basis”, and therefore they’ll only fall in line with the latest Wada prohibited-substance list at the end of their 2016 season.
Sharapova’s case also indirectly highlighted the ever increasing prevalence of the Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) for medicines or substances athletes shouldn’t ordinarily need; for the GAA, however, the concern here is not so much the misuse of TUEs but rather that players are mindful of when they may actually need one.
“We definitely don’t believe the TUE situation is being abused in the GAA, and I’m sure Sport Ireland would back that up. Our bigger worry is that a player doesn’t get a TUE when say they join a county panel for a medicine which may actually be on the banned list, but again they don’t realise it. So from our perspective, it puts huge onus on the medical teams that look after our intercounty teams.”
As well as updating their prohibited-substance list, Wada also updates its advice on non-prohibited substances.
The GAA, according to McGill, has always mirrored that advice: “Our belief is that the best source of nutrition is to eat the correct food, the proper diet, and if you do that, then you do not need to use supplements. But of course there are backroom members of most teams who believe their players still require supplements, either because players can’t or don’t get the right diet.
“But we are not trying to spread fear either. The overwhelming majority of intercounty teams have nutritionists and strength and conditioning coaches working in this area, and they play a key role too. Most players know they shouldn’t be buying tubs of stuff off the shelf. If they are taking supplements they are usually prescribed by a professional. We believe all of those messages are getting out there. But you can never be certain that someone won’t do something foolish or slip through the net.”
Since January 1st the GAA has been brought further in line with the Wada code by introducing blood as well as urine tests as part of their anti-doping programme, although they still benefit from one variation, as agreed with Sport Ireland, in that intercounty players aren’t tested at home, with all out-of-competition testing taking place at training grounds.