On Athletics: Something about Irish anti-doping doesn’t add up

Results of Sports Ireland’s latest doping survey are properly disturbing

Irish boxer Michael O’Reilly (red) failed an out-of-competition drugs test just before the Rio Olympics last year. Photograph: Ilyas Gun/Inpho.

According to a recent survey, nine out of 10 people believe that having sex more than three times a day is good for their health. What is wrong with that other guy?

Actually that’s the problem with surveys. Perceptions will always run free and the results are often anecdotal at best. Plenty of people might believe that having sex more than three times a day is not necessarily good for their health, but wouldn’t feel comfortable suggesting it. That’s assuming they can even get it.

Not dismissing all that, the results of Sport Ireland’s latest anti-doping survey are properly disturbing. Presented on Thursday as part of the 2016 Anti-Doping annual report, now in its 17th year, the survey effectively threw a grenade at the report itself.

Still it appears we're catching just .40 per cent of that perceived 10 per cent in Ireland, despite the now hefty €1.76 million annual taxpayer cost. All of which begs the question: could that money be better spent?

On one hand, the report claimed just under 0.40 per cent of the 1,003 anti-doping tests carried out across 25 sports by Sport Ireland last year resulted in a rule violation, all the necessary sampling boxes neatly ticked, in competition, out of competition, blood, urine, etc.


Only boxer Michael O’Reilly, who failed an out-of-competition test on the eve of the Rio Olympics, is considered high-profile, the other three cases involving a motocross rider, a Paralympics cyclist, and a still pending case described as “nothing earth shattering”.

On the other hand, the survey claimed 42 per cent of 148 elite Irish athletes, across 14 team and individual sports, personally knew others who used banned substances.

Indeed six per cent admitted they themselves had knowingly used a banned substance, albeit in most cases a banned recreational drug such as cocaine or marijuana.

‘Morally wrong’

More worrying, perhaps, was that only 90 per cent of those surveyed – in other words nine out of 10 people – believed that drug taking was cheating, and that deliberately using banned substances to improve performance was “morally wrong under any circumstances”. Again, what is wrong with that other guy?

There is no easy way of equating those figures, and Dr Una May, long-serving member of Sport Ireland’s anti-doping committee, admitted as much.

“We weren’t going to hide anything that came out of it,” she said, while making some valid points about the findings of the survey: Irish sport is a small world, and “anyone in athletics would know personally for example Steven Colvert (the Irish sprinter who tested positive in 2014), so straightaway that knocks out all the athletes.”

The use of a banned recreational drug (and who doesn’t personally know someone who hasn’t used one) must also be factored into that 42 per cent figure, but still something doesn’t add up. And not just numerically. At base level, those surveyed put their perceived prevalence of doping in Irish sport at 10 per cent, and 18 per cent when considering it globally.

That 18 per cent isn’t all down to those Russian doping revelations either. Just this week a Spanish anti-doping operation resulted in 14 arrests and the seizure of more than three million doses of banned growth hormones believed to be destined for a variety of sports.

Still it appears we’re catching just .40 per cent of that perceived 10 per cent in Ireland, despite the now hefty €1.76 million annual taxpayer cost. All of which begs the question: could that money be better spent?

The relatively small survey pool is unlikely to elicit any kneejerk reaction from Sport Ireland, yet there is one blinding contradiction: our anti-doping programme continues to focus on individual sports, namely athletics and cycling, while the survey, and those disturbing findings, involved mostly team sports (71 per cent), suggesting that’s where the problem actually lies.

Those surveyed weren’t peripheral players either but at the coalface of elite sport: 81 per cent had competed in their chosen sport for at least five years, and 84 per cent were currently competing at national or international level. These are mostly team players, rugby, soccer, GAA, etc, the 42 per cent of which are claiming to personally know others who have used banned substances, yet they’re the least likely to be tested.

Highest figure

Look at the 2016 testing figures and how they correlate: nearly one quarter of the 1,003 tests were on our track and field athletes (250), the next highest figure of 155 on our cyclists. Rugby is creeping up the list, with 113 tests, but we’re still testing more of our swimmers (61) than our soccer players (44). Will the testers even be at the Aviva for the Republic of Ireland against Wales?

And still less than 10 per cent of our testing is on GAA players (97), while another sport subjected to an apparently disproportionate number of testing is triathlon (35), hardly considered “high risk”.

This strategy was certainly necessary in the past – athletics and cycling naturally being those “high risk” sports – but the danger now is that it’s having some sort of inverse or opposite effect: Irish athletes know they are far more likely to be tested, whereas soccer and GAA and even rugby players can feel far less likely.

It would be different if we had athletes beating the Russians and Kenyans and Jamaicans and other “high risk” countries. Instead we’re struggling to compete anymore, Sunday’s World Cross Country Championships in Kampala, Uganda, offering further evidence of that.

Despite our rich tradition, including John Treacy’s back-to-back victories in 1978-’79, Catherina McKiernan’s four successive silver medals from 1992 to ’95, Sonia O’Sullivan’s double gold in 1998 and a women’s team bronze as recently as 2002, not a single athlete has been sent by Athletics Ireland, a situation not helped by the enduring absence of a high-performance director.

Although if Irish athletics does have any sort of doping problem then you do the math on that one.