DERVAL O'ROURKE: In Ireland, the drug testers call as often as neighbours or friends

Asafa Powell: Recently tested positive
Asafa Powell: Recently tested positive

Drug testing has been a big part of my life as an athlete. The Irish Sports Council takes a strong stance on testing and I have been consistently drug tested for the past 12 years.

Let me shed some light on drug testing both here and abroad. Any athlete who is awarded an Irish Sports Council grant of €12,000 or more is automatically part of the anti-doping registered testing pool. Athletes who are dropped from funding often remain in the pool and athletes who are on the fringes of funding may also be added.

Internationally, different countries have vastly different testing standards. Athletics is considered a high-risk sport for performance enhancing drugs. In recent months Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay, two of the sport’s biggest stars, have both tested positive.

Globally, it is the role of the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) to ensure the sport is as clean as possible. In Ireland, the anti-doping unit of the Irish Sports Council are responsible. Irish athletes are obliged to provide up-to-date details of their whereabouts for every day of the year on a quarterly basis. In Ireland we have a system with an extremely high standard of drug testing. If there were Olympic gold medals for testing, we would definitely get one. It is a system that leaves no stone unturned and puts huge resources behind it.

Recently, Dr Bill Cuddihy conducted a report on international drug testing with Ireland ranking fifth in the world in terms of frequency and type of tests carried out. There were 241 tests carried out by the anti-doping unit on athletics in the run up to the London 2012 Olympics. These were 144 urine tests, 48 blood tests and 49 blood tests for athlete biological profile data. The ABP is a way to monitor athlete’s blood over time to indicate changes from possible drug use. In 2012 the overall anti-doping budget in Ireland was €1.4 million.

I believe the testing I’m subjected to is rigorous. On any day of the year from 6am, three people may arrive at my home or training facilities for drug testing. I must give blood and urinate in a cup, while a drug tester observes, to ensure the urine is mine. Any medication or supplement I take must be disclosed in the paperwork. There is no annual limit to how many times an athlete can be tested. Determining how high-risk an athlete is for doping is a complicated process, which means it is extremely difficult for any athlete to make a case that they are being over-tested. Whether an athlete is recovering from injury, on training camp, close to retirement or racing fast times, the anti-doping unit may see potential for doping violations.

I’m the first to admit that when it comes to my whereabouts for anti-doping, I’m tough to keep track of. The requirement to state where I am going to be every day for the following three months is something I struggle with. Like most people, my plans are not set in stone and regularly change, resulting in me texting the anti-doping unit most weeks with updates about where I am each day. I travel for races and spend time between Dublin and Cork when I am in Ireland, all of which are rarely organised months in advance. Last year the drug testers arrived in the middle of a birthday party at my house, which was embarrassing for all. In October, they arrived as I was leaving for a pool session and rather than miss the session, I took the testers with me. This meant they were stuck watching me splash around in the pool and I had to give a urine sample in the dressing room bathroom afterwards.

Tweets about random drug tests are a regular theme of Irish athletes on Twitter. In August, while Robert Heffernan was walking his last few kilometres to become world champion, David Gillick tweeted he was watching at home with two drug testers and a bowl of porridge. Robert himself has tweeted many times about the drug testers being with him at home or training camps.

I have no problem admitting I do not like getting drug tested. Who wants to be available 365 days a year, let strangers in their home and give blood and urine on request? It isn’t exactly fun or a duty that comes with most jobs but I do want my performances to be credible and for people to know my achievements come from hard, honest work and not some cocktail of banned substances. I don’t ever want the integrity of my medals and records to be under suspicion. When I stand on a start line in a major championship, there is a vast amount of evidence in a lab somewhere that shows I do not take drugs. There are blood and urine profiles that have been built up from years of being tested. Often I have wondered is there the same amount of evidence for all my competitors. When the knock on the door comes for Irish athletes to be tested, is the same thing happening all over the world? Unfortunately the answer seems to be no.

In Dr Bill Cuddihy’s study the figures show there are major differences between countries when it comes to anti-doping practices. In Ireland last year, 80% of the urine tests were out of competition, with additional blood tests, all of which were done out of competition. If athletes are cheating, testing outside of race day increases the chance of detection. Yet in France 90% of tests are performed in competition.

For me, the most startling revelation was the low level of testing some of the major athletics powers had undergone prior to the London Olympics. There seems to have been no blood tests done on Jamaican athletes before the Olympic games. A look at British testing figures in 2012 shows, per head of population, the testing numbers are tiny in comparison to Ireland.

Irish athletes were tested more than the majority of their competitors last year. Whether athletes from countries with far lower testing rates take performance-enhancing drugs or not is impossible to know because conclusive data is not available. To be an Irish track athlete, you must accept a certain level of invasion into your life. The more you achieve in the sport, the more you will be tested, as the perceived risk of you doping is higher. I believe clean athletes want a level playing field, vastly different numbers and types of anti-doping measures in different countries; this is not the current reality.

WADA will hold its conference on doping in sport in Johannesburg this week. With a recent audit of the Jamaican anti-doping system and discussion expected regarding an increase in positive tests from Kenya, it will make for an interesting few days. The hope is WADA will push for minimum anti-doping standards worldwide.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, the knock on the door will keep coming and the high level of scrutiny will continue. For the sake of all clean athletes, let’s hope the day will come where everyone will be subjected to the same levels of scrutiny and athletics will be a far cleaner sport.

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