Ray Walker doping case raises more questions than answers

How banned substance Meldonium ended up in his system will not be clarified

Confirmation that Carlow footballer Ray Walker is not appealing his four-year suspension for a doping offence has brought swift closure to a case which might otherwise have proven both costly and lengthy.

However it does present more questions than answers – not least how a heart-defect medication that is not licensed in Ireland and known to be performance-enhancing under World Anti-Doping Agency Rules (Wada) ended up in his system.

Despite initially waiving his right to a hearing, then subsequently filing an appeal against the reasoned decision which found him guilty of submitting a sample which contained the prohibited substance Meldonium, Walker informed Sport Ireland on Wednesday he was now withdrawing that appeal.

Case closed.

The 35-year-old will remain banned from all GAA activities until February 18th, 2024, or four years since the date of the out-of-competition test at the Carlow GAA training grounds where the player returned the positive sample.

He was first informed of the adverse analytical finding on March 30th, and two days later accepted the standard four-year suspension for a non-specified substance, in this case Meldonium, which is banned in sport at all times. He also also went without requesting an examination of the B sample, which is also within his rights.

In a statement of his own on Tuesday, issued via the Gaelic Players Association (GPA), Walker blamed an anti-inflammatory medication and the lack of anti-doping education for the positive doping sample, even though Meldonium is not a licensed medication in Ireland or most European countries.

The 35-year-old only rejoined the Carlow senior panel last November, after a long absence, and didn’t feature in any of their recent championship campaigns: “Anything that was found in my system was there completely unintentionally,” he said. “I cannot explain for sure how the substance came to be in my system but I was taking anti-inflammatories for a lower stomach issue around the time of the test.

“I am accepting the four-year ban because I want this episode over and done with and, at 35, even a lesser ban would still mean I was unlikely to ever return to playing. It is not an admission of intentional wrongdoing on my part in any way,” his statement said, adding that “from the time that I rejoined the Carlow panel in November to the time the test took place in February, I did not receive any anti-doping training or education.”

Walker is the fourth GAA player to return a positive test in recent years, the previous three of which did request a heating; his decision to accept the four-year ban without such a hearing leaves that question of how Meldonium might have ended up in his system, but also what exact anti-inflammatory medication he was on and just how lacking was his anti-doping education.

Global notoriety

First developed by Latvian scientist Ivars Kalvins in the 1970s, when Latvia was still a Soviet republic, Meldonium was intended to boost the stamina of Soviet troops fighting at high altitudes in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

It was subsequently developed and marketed as Mildronate by the Latvian pharmaceutical firm Grindeks to treat chronic heart conditions, and while available over the counter in Russia and some eastern European countries, it has also failed to get approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US.

It achieved global notoriety in 2016 when Russian tennis player and former world number one Maria Sharapova tested positive for the drug that January, and was later banned for 15 months.

Sharapova said she was unaware the drug had been added to the Wada banned substances list, even though it had been on their monitoring programme throughout 2015, once known to be performance-enhancing in sport due to its energy-boosting properties, though not without some health risks.

In a statement from Croke Park, subsequent to confirmation Walker was not appealing, the GAA said: “While it is ultimately the responsibility of individual players to be aware of the provisions of the Irish Anti-Doping Rules, including items on the Prohibited List, the GAA, in conjunction with Sport Ireland... has established an extensive anti-doping education programme for inter-county players over the last number of years.”

A statement from the GPA added that they would "continue to offer the player personal support" while also making an "appeal for his privacy at this time".

Walker's response also means all four GAA doping cases to date will go down as "inadvertent": in May 2017, it emerged that Kerry footballer Brendan O'Sullivan had failed a Sport Ireland anti-doping test, going back to April 2016, which he later blamed on the consumption of the fat-burning supplement Falcon Labs Oxy Burn Pro, which was found to contain traces of the banned substance methylhexaneamine (MHA).

He was later suspended for 21 weeks after it was accepted that he had taken it unknowingly as the supplement’s label did not indicate the presence of the banned stimulant.

Thomas Connolly from the Monaghan senior football squad was banned for two years after testing positive for a banned substance in early 2014; Connolly admitted taking stanozolol, a prohibited anabolic steroid, although he contested the pills had not been correctly labelled.

Back in 2009, another Kerry footballer Aidan O’Mahony returned an anti-doping test which revealed twice the permitted level of salbutamol in his system, and he got off with a warning, again after claiming the excess usage was done inadvertently.

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