Friday Opinion: Doping in Sport

The multi-billion international sports industry rests on the public accepting that what they see is genuine or at least that it is fair.

One of the biggest threats to that is when questions arise around competitors integrity and one of the biggest dangers in that broad canvas is whether they are cheating by taking performance-enhancing drugs.

Knowing the enemy is one step, tackling it is another but yesterday in Dublin we got an insight into how Sport Ireland is doing just that through the publication of its Anti-Doping review for 2017.

In terms of numbers, it carried out 989 Anti-doping tests over the year, equivalent to 2.70 every day and enough to act as a deterrent in terms of fearing a knock on the door.  It does, however, represent a tiny reduction from last year’s total of 1003.

The number is made up and surpassed by an increase in the number of tests carried out and paid for by individual sports which rose from 275 to 315 over the twelve months.

Sport by Sport

In terms of a sport by sport breakdown, the number of tests in athletics reduced from 250 to 188 in the programme with only a slight rise from 8 to 11 in the user pays category.

Cycling moved in the opposite direction, up from 155 to 189 and from 4 to 8 in the user paid.

Irish Rugby is the third major testing sport and that saw an increase from 113 test in 2016 to 145 last year on the programme side, a substantial increase of 28 percent.

There were an additional 212 tests paid for by World Rugby, up from 127 in light of hosting the Women’s Rugby World Cup, 28 paid for by the IRFU, 24 paid for by Six Nations and eight paid for by European Professional Club Rugby.

In total than across both sets, Rugby accounted for 417 tests out of an overall total of 1,304, a figure representing 32 percent of the total.

The GAA accounted for 126 tests and the FAI 53 though neither body paid for additional testing programmes.

The total tests carried out by Sport Ireland under both forms can be seen below.

An effective anti-dpoing approach though is about more than needles and bottles.  It requires transparency and education, both were addressed at yesterday’s briefing.

The publication of the review coincides with the hosting of the Advisory Group on Education, a monitoring group of the Council of Europe’s Anti-Doping Convention.

“Sport Ireland’s Education Programme is a vital component in ensuring that all athletes are fully aware of the risks and consequences associated with doping in Sport, and Sport Ireland is delighted to host our European colleagues here in Dublin this week to discuss the very important topic of education,” said Chairman Kieran Mulvey.

2017 was the first year of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s new Code Compliance Questionnaire, a tool developed by WADA to measure the compliance of all signatories.

“Sport Ireland welcomes the transparency which the new Code Compliance Questionnaire brings, seeing it as an important part of running an effective anti-doping programme,” commented Caroline Murphy, Chair of Sport Ireland’s Anti-Doping Committee.

“We view this as a positive step towards increasing global compliance with anti-doping.”

“Also in 2017, Sport Ireland began its participation in an Erasmus plus project called RESPECT. To accelerate positive change in the quest of protecting the rights of athletes at all levels to clean sport, we aim to develop a 10-year strategy which shifts the focus from stopping those who might dope to support those who chose to compete clean. To do so, athletes, practitioners and academics must work together. It is hoped this project will be the first step in an athlete-centred focus to anti-doping.”

Government Backing

Sport Ireland has strong Government backing for its approach to anti-doping and Minister of State for Sport Brendan Griffin was on hand to launch yesterday’s report.

“Sport Ireland has been working diligently and with great professionalism to ensure that Ireland’s sporting interests are protected,” he said.

“Sport Ireland, continues to be one of the leading National Anti-Doping Organisations, running a robust testing programme here in Ireland and contributing to the global fight against doping in sport.”

“We are very supportive of the anti-doping movement, having publically affirmed Ireland’s commitment to fair play in sport and protecting the rights of clean athletes. We will continue to liaise with our EU Ministerial colleagues to send out a clear message that doping, both in Ireland and internationally, should not be tolerated at any level.”

Commenting on the domestic focus and the global perspective, John Treacy, Chief Executive of Sport Ireland, added: “On the domestic front Sport Ireland had a good year, with training and education at the forefront of our doping prevention programme. The purpose of this programme is to provide up-to-date information to all athletes who are likely to be tested, as well as their support personnel, with particular focus on their responsibilities. I am delighted that 28 new anti-doping tutors from a range of different sports were trained in 2017.”


“Internationally, Sport Ireland continues to be one of the leading advocates for clean athletes and is pushing for reform of the anti-doping system internationally. At the back end of last year we welcomed an announcement from the IOC that the Russian Olympic Committee had been banned from competing in the Winter Olympic Games, however what transpired was a lamentable situation where over 160 Russian athletes went on to compete in the Games.”

“In addition, Russia’s Olympic suspension has now since been lifted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).”

“What type of message does this send to clean athletes who are competing fairly around the world; Sport Ireland will continue to advocate to protect clean athletes everywhere as we head into what is a very important qualifying year for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.”


Sport Ireland has also published its new guidance on the use of supplements in sport.

The document provides Athlete Support Personnel working with National Governing Bodies with a guide to appropriately assess the need for supplementation, assess the risk of supplementation, understand the consequences of taking supplements from an anti-doping perspective and provide practical guidelines and tools for the safe usage in order to support athletes.

“We have been seeing an increase in the number of anti-doping rule violations globally which involve the use of supplements, whether contaminated or otherwise,” said Dr Una May, Sport Ireland Director of Participation and Ethics.“

“As such, Sport Ireland felt the need to take a pragmatic approach to what is a complicated area, hence the production of our new guidance on the use of supplements in sport. Nutritional supplement use has become common practice for many Irish athletes, with a recent survey of high-performance athletes by Sport Ireland finding that 50 percent of athletes reported using nutritional supplement products.”

“While acknowledging that when used effectively and safely, there may be a place for limited and cautious supplement use. Athletes and support personnel need to be fully aware of the risks associated with taking supplements and how they can minimise their exposure to risk.”

Can it ever be won?

There are those who feel that the battle against doping can never be won.  That does not mean that it should not be fought at every turn.

There is an argument that real and effective change can never come about until the mettle of those who choose fairness is fully tested.  The ban on Russia was perhaps half hearted at best but still raised questions of fairness on those athletes who were competing clean.

Perhaps it will take the action of a number of countries to screw their courage to the sticking place and decide that if banning the bad ones isn’t working then withdrawing the good ones is the only alternative to achieve lasting change.

Would a boycott of an Olympic Games or World Cup serve the interests of those for whom it would be their one chance of glory? No.  Would it lay down the ultimate marker that sport if seen as unfair is not worth our emotional, financial or other forms of investment and faith, now that is a trickier one.

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Image Credit: Seb Daly, Sportsfile

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