The head of Irish anti-doping has warned GAA players that ignorance is no longer an acceptable excuse when it comes to athletes who test positive due to the use of supplements.
Dr Una May, the Director of Participation and Ethics with Sport Ireland, has overseen the body’s anti-doping unit since 2001 and in the wake of Brendan O’Sullivan’s positive test for methylhexaneamine in 2016, she believes the Kerry footballer’s case should be a cautionary tale for players who may be tempted to roll the dice with supplements during the upcoming league campaign.
“The excuse of lack of education continues to frustrate us very significantly,” said May.
“We have trained 37 tutors within the GAA who are now qualified to go out and educate players. That’s a massive investment of energy and time. The GAA are now in a position to say the excuse of not knowing is no longer acceptable because everybody who could be tested has without fail received proper education.”
O’Sullivan tested positive after the national league final against Dublin in April 2016, though an explanation for the finding was only made public in June last year when Sport Ireland published its reasoned decision. That revealed O’Sullivan had taken a supplement called ‘Falcon Labs Oxyburn Pro Superthermotech’, which he purchased on the advice of a friend in a vitamin shop in Cork.
O’Sullivan satisfied Sport Ireland that he did not intend to ingest a banned substance and his ban was reduced from 26 weeks to 21 weeks on appeal.
Sport Ireland, the GAA, and the Kerry team itself all came in for criticism due to the handling of the case, but Dr May believes that with the dust now settled the sport is in a better place.
“There were all sorts of criticisms and conspiracy theories, but what we have to do is get a positive out of that, and it was the increased awareness of the risks of supplements,” she said.
“Supplements concern us very, very significantly. It’s a massive industry and they’re used by everybody, not just sportspeople.
“We’ve been very vocal about the danger and it’s become more and more of an issue as they’ve become more available. If someone wants to take a supplement it should be recommended by someone qualified. They’re a matter for a dietician. Not only should you not go in and buy something off the counter, but everybody who’s in a position of power should understand not to give poor advice.”
In O’Sullivan’s case the banned substance was not listed on the label of the product he ingested, and while the rule of strict liability still applies — meaning an athlete is held responsible for what enters their body — many felt the Kerry player bore no fault for his positive test. But ever since Sport Ireland has been working hard to stamp out such careless behaviour among high-level players in the GAA.
Sport Ireland faced criticism from Éamonn Fitzmaurice at the lack of expediency in O’Sullivan’s case, with the Kerry manager also querying how news of his violation leaked to the media, but May stands over how the case was handled by Sport Ireland.
“The decision is published so the full record of what arose and why there were delays is all published. There are no secrets. It’s very clear the process that was followed.”
O’Sullivan’s was the second high-profile doping case in the GAA in recent years, with Monaghan footballer Thomas Connolly banned for two years in 2015 for taking an anabolic steroid. In 2015 just 97 of the 1,003 tests conducted by Sport Ireland were on GAA players, but May believes this is appropriate to the level of risk.
“We do have limited resources and have a lot of sports that we test. We have to spend those wisely and we can’t justify it because there’s a media interest in the sport.”
However, should the GAA wish to fund additional testing to protect the sport’s integrity, May said Sport Ireland would welcome the decision.
“There are 35 to 40 sports tested every year, so we have to spend them in the higher risk areas,” she said.
“If the GAA offered to provide for extra testing we’d certainly facilitate that.”
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