‘It’s not up to us to make those moral judgments’

Gerbrandt Grobler takes part in a Munster squad session in UL.

There may be various shades of grey lingering over Munster due to their signing of steroid user Gerbrandt Grobler, but for the most important figure in Irish anti-doping, the South African’s case is not all that complicated.

“It’s black and white for us,” says Dr Una May, the Director of Participation and Ethics for Sport Ireland. “The rules allow a person to come back, like any justice system. It’s not up to us to make those moral judgments.”

Having spent 17 years at the helm of Sport Ireland’s anti-doping unit, May has an almost unrivalled insight into the challenging world of high-level sport.

And when it comes to rugby – a sport where hulking physiques have become commonplace – she’s long been aware of how tempting a proposition doping can be.

“Rugby would always be considered on the higher end of risk purely because of the physicality of the sport,” she says. “We’d be very aware of the physiological profile of players and it shows a much greater emphasis on strength and bulk.”

In 2015 Nicole Sapstead, the chief executive of UK Anti-Doping, told a Culture, Media and Sport Committee hearing that rugby was the sport she considered most at-risk for doping.

The stats back up that assertion: of the 60 sportspeople currently serving bans in Britain, 29 are rugby players.

Dr May, however, believes the testing in Irish rugby is appropriate to the level of risk. While figures are not yet available for 2017, Sport Ireland conducted 113 tests on rugby players in 2016 (out of a total of 1002 tests), making it the third most tested sport behind athletics (250) and cycling (155).

“Within the context rugby is fairly highly tested,” says May. “The IRFU is the only governing body that pays for tests in addition to the national programme.”

And while rugby players don’t face the same stringent whereabouts policies as those in individual sports, May notes that Sport Ireland has the ability to test players outside of training times if required.

“We’re quite targeted in rugby. We don’t go in and look for random players. We generally go in with a player in mind to test.”

In 2016 Sport Ireland spent €1.7m on its anti-doping programme, a €100,000 increase from 2015, and despite the low rate of positives May believes the spend is justified.

“It’s quite a high allocation and some people would prefer to see it spent on development, but the integrity of our sport is critical.

"In Ireland there’s a very high awareness of anti-doping and a very low tolerance of doping as seen in the debate this week.

"We’re not naive in thinking we’re catching everyone – we’re only catching a proportion – but we have to make sure we catch enough and there’s enough testing and education that people are deterred from doping.”

In 2015 the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) seized 38,049 units of anabolic steroids, a number which rose to 109,006 in 2016. In the first eight months of last year, a whopping 443,263 units were seized, and May knows a portion of those were destined for Irish sportspeople.

“We work very closely with the HPRA and they provide us with information if it might be going in the direction of sports.

"We meet them monthly to discuss the substances they are seizing. We’re aware it’s more of an issue in the gyms, so whenever we see the increasing emphasis on strength and conditioning that’s drawing players into the gyms, they’re bound to come across that culture.”

Co-operating with international authorities, both in law enforcement and anti-doping, has helped Sport Ireland close the gap on cheats.

“We continue to see players and athletes prepared to take substances that have not been through any medical review or passed fit for human consumption,” says May.

“But when customs are seizing substances they’re forwarding them to the labs so we have a much better system of intelligence. The message gets around quickly if something new is found.”

While some sportspeople have invented ever more sophisticated ways to game the system – such as micro-dosing testosterone or EPO to avoid detection or by abusing therapeutic use exemptions, which allow certain substances to be used for medical reasons – Russian sport was revealed to be systematically doping its athletes with a cocktail of old-school steroids, avoiding detection through an elaborate system overseen by state authorities.

The IOC banned Russia from next month’s Winter Olympics but it’s likely hordes of Russians will still compete as neutrals, with indications they will be again fly their flag at the closing ceremony. That’s a concession that would bother May.

“Until they’ve fulfilled all the criteria in the road map that’s been laid out [for re-instatement], including the acceptance and acknowledgment of the findings of the McLaren report, then we don’t think they should be let back in.

"These decisions impact our athletes and it’s critical we protect them.” For May, the interest in fighting doping goes beyond her professional life. Her children are competitive cyclists and her eldest son, 17, has ambitions to one day ride as a professional. “I’d have a concern what the future holds for them,” she says.

And it’s inevitable that working on the frontline of anti-doping has eroded some of the enjoyment May gets from watching sport.

“It has tainted higher level sport,” she admits. “But we can’t spend our time fuming that everyone we watch is taking drugs. We have to have a healthy scepticism – when there’s something somewhat surreal, chances are it isn’t real.”


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