A war that can never be won

Dr Una May, Director of Participation and Ethics at the Irish Sports Council — the woman leading Ireland’s anti-doping charge

THE use and abuse of drugs is the black cloud that hangs constantly over almost every sport.

An athlete excels and suspicion immediately falls upon them. People can’t believe in heroes any more.

Most recently, Team Sky felt moved to release data about their leader Chris Froome which had until then remained a closely guarded secret in an attempt to end accusations that the Tour de France leader was doping.

Mo Farah continues to compete and win, though he may never be Britain’s Sweetheart again as he was after his incredible Olympic track double at London 2012. This follows accusations earlier this year that his coach Alberto Salazar has long been involved in juicing athletes and revelations that Farah missed two out of competition drugs tests — one in 2010 and another in 2011. Three failed tests equals an automatic ban.

The 100 metre final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, notoriously won by Ben Johnson, was branded the Dirtiest Race in History but just this month (July), six of the seven athletes running the blue ribband sprint event at the Lausanne Diamond League meet had either been banned for doping or had strong links to coaches with doping history.

Justin Gatlin, a two-time convicted cheat, won in Lausanne. To many his continued presence — and mind-bendingly fast times at the age of 33 — make a mockery of the sport.

Closer to home Monaghan’s Thomas Connolly this year became the first GAA player to return a positive test, earning himself a ban, while sprinter Steven Colvert continues to protest his innocence as he begins a two-year suspension.

Almost every athlete across all sports banned for doping insist that they did no wrong, blaming contaminated supplements, sabotage and testing errors . US sprinter Denis Mitchell blamed the ‘birthday treat’ he gave his wife — sex four times the day of the test — for the presence of an increased level of testosterone in his system. He was believed at the time too, though he eventually admitted habitual doping and involvement in the infamous Balco scandal.

Drugs testing equipment used by the ISC. (Right) A blood testing kit and urine sample containers for A and B samples. (Left) and blood sample container which is sent to a laboratory in Cologne, Germany for analysis

There is a perception in Ireland that we don’t have a doping problem in sport, but the statistics show that the levels of positive tests in this country roughly mirrors international trends — three or four from the 1,000-or-so tests carried out annually.

The Irish Sports Council (ISC) is the agency charged with keeping sport as clean as possible here and their Director of Participation and Ethics since 1998 is Dr Una May, herself a former international orienteering competitor.

The ISC runs, by international standards, a robust anti-doping programme, though, as always, the cheats remain ahead of those policing their games.

According to May, athletes are willing to risk their health and wellbeing to use products not yet licensed fit for human consumption in order to gain an edge.

Micro-dosing is the latest trend to be detected amongst dopers, which is the regular use of extremely small amounts of a banned substance, such as Lance Armstrong’s favourite EPO, to boost performance yet evade detection. It has been proven to work and, done correctly, remains virtually undetectable.

On the ground, the ISC has around 50 testers carrying out urine and blood tests in sports as diverse as judo and hockey, motor cycling and swimming. Those discplines with questionable histories — the likes of cycling and weight lifting — are targeted for additional scrutiny and testing.

In competition testing sees competitors tested straight after an event — or at least as soon as they can produce a sample, which isn’t always straight forward — and out of competition can be done at any time.

“It’s gas because in the two hours before a fight you might go to the toilet ten times because you’re drinking so much trying to stay hydrated, but once you start your warm-up the water leaves your body and it might be two hours before you can provide a sample,” explained Olympic boxer and Rio 2016 hopeful Darren O’Neill.”

“Out of competition means they come out to your home or where you’re training, or wherever you’ve told them you’ll be. You get a form and you’re asked to fill out where you’re going to be every day of the year and a 60 minute slot where you can be tested.

“We don’t know where we’ll be a lot of the time. We had a training camp in Azerbaijan and I didn’t know what hotel I’d be staying in or what the room number would be until I was there. Same with the athletes’ village at the European Games — you don’t know until you arrive.

“I always write down in the additional notes section to avoid testing at the weekend where possible because I may be in transit between Dublin and Kilkenny. But I always seem to be tested at weekends and that drives me mental.

“If it’s a urine test there’s two people and if it’s blood there’s three,” continued O’Neill. “You sit down and do the paperwork and no matter how many times you’ve seen the tester you have to provide some form of ID like a passport or driving license.

“You get to pick your vessels from a selection they have — one for collection and the other for storage. Then you go to the bathroom with a tester and, for the lads at least, it’s pants to the knees and shirt up so everything can be seen. Then you have to provide a 90ml sample.”

The form all athletes must fill out before a drugs test can take place

The vast majority of athletes say they believe in clean sport and they’re happy to be tested wherever and whenever in order to assure that. However, most acknowledge frustration with having to provide a sample whilst dehydrated and about having to fill out the a ‘whereabouts form’ for out of competition testing.

Whereabouts means an athlete has to give testers a one hour slot every day for three months saying exactly where they’ll be.

“Definitely it’s something I’m happy to do and I hope it continues and I hope there’s not a whole lot of controversy around it,” said current Hurler of the Year Richie Hogan, who has been tested five times in his career — a high number within the GAA. Unlike most other sports GAA players don’t have to fill out a whereabouts form, with the county board instead providing details of training times and venues in order to facilitate out of competition tests.

“I remember one year after an All-Ireland semi-final a good few years ago James McGarry, who was playing at the time, and I were running around Croke Park at 9.0 at night trying to get the water flowing back around the system after a game that afternoon.

“And neither of us had even been playing! It’s a strange thing, but it’s something that has to be done.”

May says that all athletes should be informed of their test results — positive or negative, once they are communicated from the testing laboratory in Cologne, Germany, though the ISC and then the sport’s governing body.

Though this isn’t always the case, as O’Neill explains: “Generally you’re not told, though occasionally I have gotten a text message to say I tested negative. I remember the first one I got it gave me the fright of my life because it was the first time I’d gotten a text off them in ten years and I didn’t know what they were going to say to me!”

Athletes are told never to take anything without consulting a doctor with anti-doping experience first. Any dietary supplements, such as protein drinks, should be okayed too and batch numbers recorded should their be any adverse findings, as contaminated supplements have led to positive tests in the past.

They also have access to a free ISC app which allows them to search any medicine, and whether or not it’s banned, ailment or treatment. The most searched medicines are, probably unsurprisingly, popular cold remedies and pain-killers like Lemsip, Nurofen, Panadol and Sudafed.

The ISC’s Med Check app for smart phones

A report-doping-line has also been launched, allowing anyone to report evidence or suspicions they have of doping transgressions to the ISC and they can do so anonymously if they wish.

Waterford’s Thomas Barr has begun moving in rarified company, with the Irish 400 metre hurdles record holder and newly minted World Student Games champion having recently made his debut on the Diamond League circuit.

He hates that the sport he loves is constantly, and rightly, under suspicion due to the lawless actions of fame and success hungry cheats.

The ISC has funded international research into doping and now works with Health Products Regulatory Authority, the Garda National Drugs Unit and with Customs in a bid to combat doping in sport.

Yet the dopers, their doctors, scientists and their backers, continue to come up with new ways to stay ahead of the authorities.

New research even suggests that athletes who have taken drugs continue to benefit from their activities years after they have stopped using — sometimes after serving a ban — with elevated levels of performance.

“What’s to say that they aren’t still reaping the benefit of when they were on drugs?” asked Barr.

Irish 400 metre hurdle record holder, Thomas Barr phtographed recently relaxing near his home in County Waterford

“They could have been taking testosterone for two, three years, take the ban and surely there’s still something in their system. Justin Gatlin and Gay are no spring chickens and they’re still running faster than they were when they were on drugs.

“It does pose questions and it’s not good for the sport to have that history there in the sport. Talk to anyone, even people who don’t watch athletics, and they’ll know ‘oh yeah, he was on drugs’. There’s no enjoyment in it in that respect.”

May remains optimistic that significant gains can be made however, to turn the tide in favour of clean sport.


  • 1054 — Tests carried out by the ISC
  • 18 per cent — Increase 0n 2013 total
  • 31 per cent — Increase in the number of blood tests carried out (up to 279)
  • 25 per cent (265) — Tests carried out in competition
  • 75 per cent (789) — Tests carried out out of competition
  • €1.53 million — Cost of the anti-doping programme (including testing, research and education and salaries).
  • 3 — Athletes who tested positive for doping violations

Top five most tested sports in 2014

  • Athletics — 213 tests, 20 in competition/108 out of competition/85 blood tests
  • Cycling — 180, 38/81/61
  • Rugby — 102, 0/62/40
  • GAA — 89, 44/45/0
  • Boxing — 87, 8/49/30

Video and photographs shot on iPhone 5/6+