Rugby and cycling the focus for Irish anti-doping testers

Sport Ireland chief urges vigilance after reporting seven rule violations in 2019

Irish sport does not have "a huge doping culture" according to Sport Ireland chief executive John Treacy.

Of 1,303 anti-doping tests carried out in 2019, the authority recorded seven rule violations and a further four “pending” results in its annual report.

Addressing the question of whether the seven adverse findings reflected the wider Irish landscape when it comes to doping in 2019, and whether the cost of the anti-doping programme – €1.94 million, slightly down on the €1.98 million in 2018 – still represented a good return on the investment, Treacy highlighted the fact much of anti-doping is about deterrent.

“What I say every year, when I’m asked this question, is that we always have to be vigilant,” said Treacy, “and we always have to live up to our responsibilities as an anti-doping agency, in terms of the world fight against doping. The rules are there, we apply them as best we can. We don’t think we have a huge doping culture in Ireland, but we always have to be vigilant, and we will continue to be vigilant.


“I think the year before it was only one, and if you average them out over a number of years, that’s normally the way it happens. Maybe last year was very low, but if you average it out over five years, it’s fairly consistent. There’s nothing usual, it’s just the trend.”

What is certain is that rugby is now being increasingly target-tested: there were 196 tests carried out within the IRFU in 2019, up from 113 in 2016, 145 in 2017, and 178 in 2018; only Irish cycling now tops that with 218 tests last year, while athletics, traditionally the most target-tested sport, had only 154 tests last year, actually down again from 164 in 2018.

Sport Ireland are spreading the net that bit wider too, testing across 36 sports, compared with 28 sports in 2019, with 1,303 tests compared with 1,112 in 2018. The Football Association of Ireland had 55 tests in 2019, up from 42 in 2018, while GAA players underwent 135 tests, down from 139 the year before. The biggest single-leap in target-testing was in rowing, with 90 tests in 2019, compared with 50 in 2018.

Carlow footballer

The 2019 report does not include the latest case of Carlow footballer Ray Walker, who has blamed anti-inflammatory medication and a lack of anti-doping training for his inadvertent return of a positive test for a banned substance last February, while also accepting the resulting four-year ban.

For the second year, rugby has also topped the list of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE), whereby a player can be granted approval for a substance otherwise on the banned list: of the 44 TUEs approved in 2019, up from 24 in 2018, nine were in rugby, more than any other sport including soccer (six) and swimming (four), with three in athletics. There was, however, a decrease in the number of unsuccessful attempts when it came to testing whereabouts relating to the main governing bodies, with four in the GAA and the FAI (compared to six in 2018), and none in the IRFU (compared to two in 2018).

On the matter of continued testing in the face of coronavirus, Sport Ireland director of participation and ethics Dr Una May said: "While we are experiencing unprecedented and uncertain times, the anti-doping system is still functioning, albeit at a significantly reduced level of activity. Notwithstanding this, Sport Ireland remains in a position to act on any intelligence received; our close relationship with the HPRA [Health Products Regulatory Authority], An Garda Síochána and Customs is vitally important in this regard."


The 36 sports subject to Sport Ireland anti-doping tests in 2019 (versus number in 2018): In-competition 280; Out-of-competition 642; Blood sampling 381; Total 1,303

American Football Ireland 4 (0)

Athletics Ireland 154 (164)

Badminton Ireland 4 (4)

Basketball Ireland 4 (4)

Camogie Association 4 (0)

Canoeing Ireland 15 (18)

Cricket Ireland 4 (0)

Cycling Ireland 218 (179)

Football Association of Ireland 55 (42)

Gaelic Athletic Association 135 (139)

Golfing Union Of Ireland 3 (0)

Gymnastics Ireland 11 (10)

Hockey Ireland 8 (6)

Horse Sport Ireland 12 (27)

Irish Amateur Wrestling Association 4 (0)

Irish Athletic Boxing Association 50 (61)

Irish Judo Association 13 (6)

Irish Ladies Golf Union 3 (0)

Irish Martial Arts Commission 6 (4)

Irish Rugby Football Union 196 (178)

Irish Sailing Association 20 (7)

Irish Squash 2 (2)

Irish Surfing Association 4 (0)

Irish Taekwondo Union 4 (4)

Irish Tug Of War Association 4 (4)

Irish Wheelchair Association Sport 8 (5)

Ladies Gaelic Football Association 4 (6)

Motor Cycling Ireland 15 (12)

Motorsport Ireland 24 (16)

Paralympics Ireland 63 (57)

Pentathlon Ireland 24 (0)

Rowing Ireland 90 (50)

Rugby League Ireland 4 (0)

Swim Ireland 88 (77)

Triathlon Ireland 31 (22)

Weightlifting Ireland 15 (4)

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics