Once again anti-doping in sport comes across as a sort of stand-off between the statistics and the truth, and the latest report from Sport Ireland would appear to provide further evidence.
One adverse finding out of 1,112 tests - or less than 0.1 per cent - is certainly open to interpretation. Depending on what you believe, it means Irish sport is almost squeaky clean when it comes to doping, or else the current testing method is not quite doing its job.
According to their 2019 Anti-Doping annual report, now in its 19th year, of the 1,112 tests carried out by Sport Ireland, across 28 sports, only one came back with an adverse result, from an in-competition test: that was the case of Irish amateur boxer Evan Metcalfe, who tested for the cannabis derivate carboxy-THC, and already served his four-month ban.
Last August, the Irish Athletic Boxing Association confirmed that a four-month suspension has been handed to Metcalfe: this followed a sample provided by Metcalfe in an in-competition test in February 24th 2018, after the 25-year-old Dubliner won the 56kg title at the National Elite finals.
Metcalfe was stripped of the title he claimed by defeating Thomas McCarthy at the National Stadium; at a hearing which took place in May, Metcalfe explained he unknowingly ingested cannabis after being offered what he thought was a cigarette at a party in a friend’s house three days earlier, February 21st.
An Irish Sport Anti-Doping Disciplinary Panel accepted Metcalfe’s evidence and that the substance was taken neither to enhance his sporting performance nor mask the use of a performance-enhancer; however he was handed a four-month ban.
There were a further 232 user-pay tests, down from 315 in 2017, carried out on behalf of 12 international organisations. Even with all the necessary sampling boxes neatly ticked - in-competition, out-of-competition, blood, urine, etc - it also raises a question over whether the now hefty €1.98 million annual taxpayer cost represents any sort of return on the investment; in 2017, the cost of the anti-doping programme was €1.75m. Much of the ant-doping programme, however, is about deterrent.
What is certain is that rugby has closed the gap on cycling and athletics, and is now the second-most-tested sport in Ireland. Of those 1,112 tests, 179 were in cycling, just one more than rugby’s 178 tests; in 2017 there were 113 in rugby.
Athletics drops back to the third most tested sport with 164 tests. GAA (139 tests) and soccer (42 tests), with high numbers also carried out in rowing (50), swimming (77) and Paralympics (57).
Sport Ireland also approved 24 Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) in 2018 - from 58 applications. Rugby had six TUEs, more than any other sport; soccer was next with four; cycling, golf and shooting had two. However overall approved TUE’s are down from 27 in 2017.
Of some note was the appearance of Kapake, a strong prescription painkiller, as the most searched product on the Sport Ireland eirpharm site, designed to check legal and non-legal medications. There were 1,102 searches for Kapake tablets in 2018, compared to 11 in 2017, the suggestion being this is partly down to Kapake being mentioned in the public domain: Kapake is a co-codamol prescription painkiller used to relieve severe pain in adults, using a combination of codeine and paracetamol. Former Ireland rugby captain Brian O’Driscoll mentioned his regular use of difene and co-codamol products and legal painkillers by rugby players before games in a Newstalk radio interview in December.
In 2016 there were five positive cases, including Olympic boxer Michael O'Reilly and Kerry footballer Brendan O'Sullivan. The sole positive in 2017 was the case of Canadian distance runner Natasha Yaremczuk has been banned for 14 months after failing an anti-doping test in the Dublin marathon in October 2017, which she claimed was the result of a food supplement.
The 38 year-old Yaremczuk, who lives in the US, finished as the 10th best woman overall in Dublin, in a time of 2:52:38. Afterwards she was selected for an in-competition test, carried out by Sport Ireland on behalf of the Dublin marathon, which showed “ the presence of a Prohibited Substance or its Metabolites or Markers” in the sample, testing positive for the presence of the prohibited substances 1,3-dimethylbutylamine (DMBA) and higenamine.
Speaking about the international doping landscape, Sport Ireland Chief Executive, John Treacy, said: "The reinstatement of Russia by WADA was a watershed moment in sport where the validity of the current global anti-doping system came under intense scrutiny. One positive aspect that has emerged from the fall out of the decision to reinstate Russia is the unification of athletes expressing their dismay at the decision and the global movement to elevate the athlete voice in the anti-doping system. Sport Ireland feels very strongly in the current climate that now more than ever the athlete voice is needed."