Opinion: Real surprise of failed drug test is that it so rarely happens in GAA
Only one other case in 14 years of testing – and that was dismissed
Aidan O’Mahony had medical reasons for taking Salbutamol. Photograph: INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan
In a way the biggest surprise about the news that a GAA player is being investigated for a failed dope test is that this has happened so rarely.
In the 14 years since the association signed up to the Irish Sports Council’s anti-doping rules, there has been only one other case and that was dismissed because the player in question, Aidan O’Mahony, had medical reasons for taking Salbutamol, the active ingredient in Ventolin inhalers.
Whereas relations between Croke Park and the ISC have been at times scratchy, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that Gaelic games are seen as a problem area in relation to doping and two adverse findings in nearly a decade and a half would support that view.
That doesn’t mean the safeguards shouldn’t be there. The Gaelic Players Association believes that the ‘culture’ of testing is broadly accepted within its membership and that this acceptance will continue when the scope of the programme is extended to blood testing next year.
It would be incorrect though to say that there has always been acceptance and in fact that culture took a long time to take root. Players, managers and the GAA itself were slow to warm to testing when it was introduced.
The same of course applies to the player grants, which created controversy on their introduction seven years ago but which in the meantime have dropped in value to a pittance (less than €1,000 per annum) even though they cost the government nearly €1 million and have been a sore point with the ISC and Department of Sport.
In recent years Gaelic Games have registered as up there behind athletics and cycling as the third most-tested by the ISC – although rugby also undertakes additional drug testing, funded by the sport itself.
Dr Una May, the ISC director of anti-doping, was nonetheless asked in this newspaper about whether the level of testing was sufficient in the GAA given the number of inter-county players.
“We have to use our resources wisely,” said Dr May, “so we target our tests where we believe there are risks. We also target athletes on individual grants from the Government because there is an accountability there.
“But we would be remiss if we were to pour all our resources into the GAA, because it’s not a high-risk sport. We don’t have a concern about it. We will continue to monitor it, as we’ve always said. We’d be naive to think that there wasn’t some player who might take a risk. But, as a general rule, it’s not a sport we have a real concern about.”
Part of this probably relates to what is perceived as the questionable benefits of performance-enhancing drugs in games of skill – hurling especially – and team sports where co-ordination and combination play are important aspects. It would be naive to take such arguments too far however.
In both hurling and football fitness levels and physical strength and conditioning have become more and more influential in how the top teams play and doping can assist in the development of either.
There has also been enduring resentment about the fact that players are amateurs. For instance the current case involves a fairly low-profile player who’s facing a blizzard of publicity despite not having had a settled place at the elite level of the game.
Unfortunately the reality is that substance abuse is a danger to all sports and Gaelic games are no exception. The ‘amateur’ argument has never been persuasive because inter-county players have at least as much support and advice as individual, lower-profile sportspeople such as fencers or rowers.
The reputation of the games benefits from the low rate of positive tests but the price of that reputation is dope control, testing and, consequently, the occasional reality check.