Your legal five-a-day: avoiding an Irish anti-doping rule violation

There are only five performance-enhancing substances you can legally take, says IAAF

Ireland’s Michael O’Reilly (right) was served with the maximum suspension after he failed an anti-doping test on the eve of the Rio Olympics in 2016. Photograph: Ilyas Gun/Inpho

Grab a pen and write these down. According to a comprehensive study published this week by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body and protector of world athletics, there are only five substances which can legally enhance your sporting performance.

Everything else – the pills, the powders, the hemp-infused tea – will simply make for fluorescent, perfumed urine or, worse still, run the risk of returning an anti-doping rule violation. That’s assuming they weren’t labelled with an otherwise banned substance to begin with.

What might be considered a sort of legal five-a-day, they are (in my order of preference) caffeine, creatine, nitrate, beta-alanine and bicarbonate. Because, for most people who have ever laced up a pair of running spikes, they’ve all been tried and tested, and hardly a weekly shopping list goes by without them still being included.

The IAAF study, published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, was carried out by a team of 50 experts in sports science, the general consensus being a “food first philosophy” is best practice for all elite athletes, and that only these five substances “have an evidence base of contributing to performance”.


Blessed by kings, banned by popes, chewed on by the Aztecs, caffeine, as countless studies have shown, can also help open the lungs, improve heart efficiency and increase the use of fat as fuel. It used to be banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) above a certain amount, but given half the world is now addicted it’s become impossible to police. One recent study found that runners drinking coffee with a caffeine dose of 4.45mg/kg, or 400mg total, improved their 1,500m time by 4.2 seconds. Not bad for drink made from the shrub of a tree – and still the best part of waking up.

Muscle function

Creatine is known to play a key role in energy production and muscle function during intense exercise and, similarly with nitrate, best sourced in beetroot juice, by increasing blood flow and lowering muscle need for oxygen. Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid that helps reduce muscle acidity and fatigue, and the same with bicarbonate – good old-fashioned baking soda. Just beware of taking too much.

The problem is controlling all the substances which can illegally enhance your sporting performance, because there are a lot more than five. Some are banned only in competition, others banned in and out, and the list changes annually, sometimes depending on exactly what Wada are looking for. Not forgetting most of the recreational drugs which also make the list, performance-enhancing or otherwise.

Anti-doping has always been a sort of game of cops and robbers

The latest reminder of that came with Sport Ireland’s 2018 anti-doping review, published around lunchtime on Wednesday, which may or may not throw fresh light on the use of illegal substances in Irish sport. Now in its 19th year, the anti-doping programme carried out 1,112 tests in 2018, up 12 per cent on the previous year, reasonably split between 775 urine tests and 337 blood tests, 899 of which were taken in the more telling out-of-competition surrounds. In the end there was a single rule violation, or 0.08 per cent of the total testing, that being the case with Irish amateur boxer Evan Metcalfe, who tested positive for the cannabis derivate carboxy-THC.

Anti-doping has always been a sort of game of cops and robbers, reports such as this a sort of stand-off between the statistics and the truth; although, depending on exactly what you believe, Ireland remains pretty squeaky clean when it comes to doping, or else the cops still can’t catch up with the robbers.


Metcalfe tested for the cannabis derivate in February 2018, and has already served his four-month ban. It followed a sample provided in-competition on February 24th, after the 25-year-old Dubliner won the 56kg title at the National Elite finals. Metcalfe argued he unknowingly ingested cannabis after being offered what he thought was a cigarette at a party in a friend’s house three days earlier.

In 2017, the single rule violation was the case of Canadian distance runner Natasha Yaremczuk, 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.

Testing on rugby players in 2018 was up almost 60 per cent from two years ago

The anti-doping programme was a little more telling in 2016, when there were five positive cases, including Olympic boxer Michael O’Reilly (for the steroid methandienone) and Kerry footballer Brendan O’Sullivan (for the stimulant MHA). However, only O’Reilly was served with the maximum suspension, after he failed an anti-doping test on the eve of the Rio Olympics. He also blamed his positive on a “contaminated” supplement; the problem was that it was a banned steroid, methandienone, rather than a specified stimulant, and the maximum four-year ban was applied, and upheld on appeal.

What was different about the 2018 report was the position of Irish rugby, now second on the most wanted list. Testing on rugby players in 2018 was up almost 60 per cent from two years ago, and Sport Ireland now considers it a more high-risk sport than athletics. There were 178 tests carried out within the IRFU in 2018, up from 113 in 2016, and 145 in 2017, and only Irish cycling now tops that with one more test (179) in 2018.

Testing in Irish athletics has dropped from 188 to 164, with other sports such as GAA (139), swimming (77) boxing (61), and rowing (50) further back down the graph. Paralympics Ireland is also high on the graph with 57 tests in 2018, more than the FAI, with 42 tests.

Adverse finding

Each year the report begs other questions: is this sole adverse finding reflecting the wider Irish landscape when it comes to doping? Is the cost of the anti-doping programme – €1.98 million in 2018 (some €648,769 of which went on legal fees) – a positive return on the investment?

Sport Ireland chief executive John Treacy did confirm that rugby is now considered a high-risk sport when it comes to doping, effectively being target-tested, as it “is a hugely physical sport, there’s a temptation there”, and there’s also evidence elsewhere. At the end of 2018, UK Anti-Doping listed 70 violations on its website, 25 of them in rugby union and another 12 in rugby league, mostly for anabolic steroids, over half the number of all anti-doping violations in the UK.

Whereas failures here were up from 12 to 17 in 2018 – six each in the GAA and the FAI, and two in rugby. The problem is these sports are still only tested in group training environments, so unless the same team is a repeat offender, there is no penalty.

Most of those once in the testing game have their own suspicions. Earlier this week, David Howman, former head of Wada, said testing methods are still rooted in the 1970s, and better technology is needed to catch more than “dopey dopers” – “the inadvertent dopers, or the ones who are just darned stupid”.

On the sole Irish adverse finding, Richard Ings, former CEO of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, commented: “If you pick the right athlete to test at the right hour on the right day, collecting the right body sample and analysing it at the right lab with the right analysis, then only those using undetectable substances, of which there are many, will get away with it.”

The chances of getting caught, in other words, are slim, at best.

There’s also that Sport Ireland survey, from 2017, which claimed 42 per cent of 148 elite Irish athletes, across 14 team and individual sports, personally knew others who used banned substances. Maybe the risk or deterrent is simply not enough to stick to your legal five-a-day.