The revelations around the Brendan O’Sullivan ‘anti-doping’ affair have led to much comment and debate far beyond the GAA field, writes Sean Kelly

There is no doubt doping and cheating in sport have shocked many people, especially as we have seen it in professional sports like cycling, tennis and at Olympic level.

Understandably so. Cheating in all forms is unacceptable; it ruins the integrity of the sports we love to watch and play, and drug scandals in recent years have made a mockery of some of the great events on the sporting calendar.

The revelations of the systematic and orchestrated Russian state involvement in widespread doping rocked the Olympic movement to its foundations, tarnished its image and cast a shadow over the entire Olympic ethos. Zero tolerance for cheating is vital, otherwise we will continue to see these problems into the future.

However, if things were that clear-cut, we would not be discussing each individual case with such passion. Questions are raised about knowledge and intent to cheat, differences between amateur and professional athletes are highlighted, appropriate penalties are debated. It suggests further discussion is needed, especially in the GAA which is an amateur sport with the philosophy, in many ways, of a professional sport.

Does a failed drug test always mean cheating has occurred? And, if so, we certainly need to distinguish between intentional and unintentional actions and penalise accordingly. Because of the revelations of failed tests over many decades, the public is ever sceptical and suspicious of anybody deemed to be in breach of WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) rules in any way. There is a tendency to tar everybody with the same brush and any indiscretion, no matter how innocent, tends to be treated with equal disdain.

Let us be clear. Nobody wants any form of ‘doping’ in any sport, amateur or professional. Yet, natural justice demands deeper analysis and the penalty must match the ‘crime’.

In Brendan O’Sullivan’s case, he unintentionally erred, yet he has received probably the biggest suspension of any inter-county GAA player in years. Brendan was not ‘significantly at fault’ in the sense he didn’t intend to break the rules, thus his penalty should have matched his ‘crime’, ie. been less drastic. Should it be incumbent on each player to seek medical advice and permission regarding any supplements they may take at any time? This is perhaps where GAA could step in.

County boards are nowadays expected to abide by the same standards of adherence, regulation and backup for players as any professional set-up, without having the resources to employ all these professionals, to advise, educate and monitor their teams.

Should the funding be made available from national or central level to comply with these impositions? Another debate. But if the penalties are as harsh as these, we need to take the roles of professional advisers much more seriously, a job both for county boards and players.

Then there is the amateur v professional debate. While we must maintain zero tolerance for cheating across all sports — amateur or professional — there is an argument we should not expect amateurs to have the same level of vigilance, or be held to the same extreme standard, as a sportsperson in a fully professional setup.

We need to debate the penalties for amateurs, especially when perpetrators are only guilty of negligence. When amateurs are under scrutiny, I feel that governing bodies should look in detail into these cases and seek to determine the circumstances.

This brings me to penalties and how they are decided and administered. The case of Brendan O’Sullivan suggests amateurism on the part of the professionals who dealt with the case. Nobody has yet answered why a player who was not knowingly at fault should still be subjected to this massive penalty. It is also timely to ask which ‘amateur’ players are tested and subjected to all the rules of WADA and which are not. Where do we draw the line? What is the difference between a player playing in a game with no reward at the end of it and, say, an amateur golfer, playing in an event with prizes at stake? That’s a debate for another day.

It is time for the GAA to address all these issues, independently or without external pressure, and come up with anti-doping rules that are proportionate, scaled and fair. The penalty must fit the ‘crime’. In Brendan O’Sullivan’s case, I do not believe that to be the case.


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