Placing the simmering controversy in context, Professor Brendan Buckley said that it was so serious, it would be the subject of a tribunal in 20 years time.
Addressing the launch of the Anti-Doping Programme’s annual report in Dublin, Professor Buckley labelled rugby schools as the chief promoters of food supplements amongst adolescent boys, while the chairman of the Irish Sports Council, Ossie Kilkenny, gave evidence of one school that charged parents for supplements.
The ADU will go on the offensive with an awareness programme shortly to highlight the dangers of misuse of food supplements by young people whose bodies are not capable of dealing with the results of piling on weight and muscle.
However given the supplements are not illegal, the onus, according to Professor Buckley, will be on parents, schools, coaches and the young people to pursue best practice rather than short term goals.
“I have a concern as a practising doctor about the use of supplements in underage boys in particular in contact sport,” said Buckley. “This is based on the truth that the adolescent skeleton is not fully developed and extensive weight gain and massive muscle gain on a skeleton that’s not yet for that is likely to lead to serious injury.
“You don’t become Paul O’Connell or Brian O’Driscoll out of a tub of grey powder – and the notion that you can needs to be discouraged.”
Fourteen-year-olds were having supplements “pushed down them in some obvious and subtle ways”, he added.
Speaking later, Kilkenny revealed the extent of the problem. “I was in a house recently and I read a letter whereby a rugby playing school was asking for a cheque for €280 for supplements. It was as out in the open as that, even though the IRFU have clearly and publicly stated that giving them to young people is not acceptable.”
Buckley acknowledged that other sports were abusing food supplements but is in no doubt who the worst transgressors are.
“It’s not rugby exclusively, but it’s most prominent. My personal concept is that the degree to which pride is invested into winning schools’ cups in the provinces is extensive and leading to gladiatorial process, where schoolboys are being turned into gladiators and not always for themselves. There are others getting plenty out of it as well. There will be tribunals on this in 20 years time; it’s such a health risk.
“It’s going to have to be parents, teachers and school boards that will set the agenda but it’s our job to highlight it.”
This comes at a time when professional rugby players in Ireland have agreed to be available for out of competition drug testing in their own homes, a practice that began last year with their full co-operation.
But while the ADU can do nothing apart from vehemently discourage the use of food supplements, it maintains a major role as a deterrent to doping.
With just seven positive tests in 2009 out of 955 carried out, and only four of those for performance-enhancing drugs, there is a school of thought that perhaps the ADU should reduce the number of tests it carries out as Irish athletes clearly don’t cheat.
It is not a view supported by the ADU’s programme manager, Dr Una May. “I don’t think we could ever make that assumption. If we cut back we would give more opportunity to dope cheats. We’ve evolved to a figure we’re happy with. With sports that are higher risk, we test more. That must continue.”
Blood testing was carried out for the first time at the European Athletics Championships and gene doping testing has also begun. There is a hugely technical element to blood testing though and the ADU will concentrate on carrying it out on professional sportspeople at the moment. That means that GAA players are unlikely to be blood tested this year but it will happen in time.
“We’ll be looking at the higher risk sports but eventually it will be everyone” May revealed. “I think players will be happy with blood testing because it’s quicker. There will be no hanging around.”
The ADU began testing 10 years ago and now has an annual budget of €1.4 million. But it’s not just in the manner of testing that it has evolved.
Now there is an investigative approach, where the unit works in tandem with pharmaceutical companies, the Irish Medicines Board and other agencies, while the prospect of copying the UK in setting up a tip-off hotline is likely to be pursued.
“We’ve evolved from a detection and sanctioning approach to a more intelligence-based process” explained Buckley.