Louise Galvin: Here’s hoping Olympic dreams don’t end with a contrite admission in an LA hotel with ugly carpets

“Doping is fundamentally contrary to the spirit of sport. The spirit of sport is the intrinsic value of sport. The spirit of sport is the celebration of the human spirit, body and mind, and is the pursuit of human excellence through the dedicated perfection of each person’s natural talents. The spirit of sport is characterised, amongst other values, by ethics, fair play, honesty, health, teamwork, dedication and commitment, respect for rules and laws, respect for self and other participants, courage, community and solidarity.”

Louise Galvin: Here’s hoping Olympic dreams don’t end with a contrite admission in an LA hotel with ugly carpets

Unfortunately much of the discussion surrounding sport and its integrity in recent times is doping-related. Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test only serves to highlight what is fast becoming a common occurrence, and it’s only the high-profile cases that are cast into the public domain. The Olympic Games, aka the greatest show on earth, looms at the end of the summer, and many punters already have a sense of foreboding about the honesty, or otherwise, of the games due to this ugly underbelly.

A look back at the history books reveals multiple races where a significant number of the participants, usually the higher-placed athletes, have subsequently tested positive for banned substances. Half of the finalists in the Women’s 1,500m final in London 2012 have had positive tests (four out of the top five placed). Just to let that sink in, think back to the night you watched that race in London. Twelve females at the peak of their powers, carrying the weight of expectation from their home fans tuning in across the world, idols in their native country. Just as I was, you were admiring them, for their dedication and talent in getting to the pinnacle point of their career, an Olympic final.

Only to be revealed as cheats, at the end of it all.

Who is to say there won’t be revelations about the other finalists in years to come. Hence, it is hard to argue with some of the conspiracy theorists ahead of this summer’s games. History is heavy with dirty victories, not to mention the so-called ‘dirtiest race in history’: the men’s 100m Olympic final in Seoul in 1988.

So what about Maria Sharapova and the news that ‘rocked’ the tennis world? Meldonium, the banned substance found in her positive test, has been catapulted into the public eye. It is used to treat ischaemia, a lack of blood flow to parts of the body, usually relating to the heart. It is not a drug approved by the rigorous FDA (Food and Drug Authority) in the US, which should set off alarm bells immediately. It is manufactured and distributed in Baltic countries and Russia, Sharapova’s birthplace. When administered in the presence of cardiac ischaemia, it helps increase the blood flow around the heart. Why would an athlete use it? This increased blood flow will eventually lead to an increased exercise capacity, by carrying more oxygen to the working tissues, giving an advantage to any endurance athlete.

Statistically, it is reported that 2.2% of athletes worldwide had meldonium in their system in 2015, prior to it being added to the banned list by WADA. However, unsurprising to any sportsperson with a passing interest in the topic, 17% of Russian athletes tested had it in their system. And no, there isn’t corresponding evidence to suggest higher rates of cardiac ischaemia in Russian athletes.

Athlete responsibility

As an athlete who is part of the “registered tested pool” of athletes in this country, under the remit of the Irish Sports Council, there are a number of responsibilities I and my team-mates have to fulfil in order to comply with the rules. These strict rules are taken from WADA, and are rigorous and unyielding. The most basic and undisputed point to be noted is that no matter who or what influences you, what you ingest as an athlete, is solely your responsibility.

Violations can involve more than just a positive test; tampering; possession of a prohibitive substance; complicity and ‘whereabouts’ failure are all considered as ‘doping’. The primary purpose of the ‘whereabouts’ requirements is to facilitate out-of-competition testing. For this, each athlete that is part of the registered testing pool has to fill in a quarterly form indicating where they will be for one hour each day of the year. In our case, our Irish Rugby Sevens team training base is used (and has frequently been used!) from Monday to Friday for drug testers to come and test a sample of players out of competition. Beyond this, we are required to indicate where we are from 6am to 7am on non-training days too. This isn’t always as easy to complete accurately, though it is our responsibility. As a heavy sleeper, I wonder how anyone would manage to wake me up at 6am on a Sunday morning!

However, unannounced testing is the cornerstone of anti-doping. Hence, three missed ‘whereabouts’ tests is equivalent to a failed test, and the player must serve a ban. Yoann Huget, the French wing, famously missed the 2011 Rugby World Cup after failing to comply three times with ‘whereabouts’ testing. Sounds harsh? Any athlete can get caught once, maybe twice, in failing to update their location for testing. But at the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the athlete to follow the rules, in order to weed out the cheats.

Does intent matter?

Scottish skier Alain Baxter won Britain’s first ever Olympic medal for skiing, a bronze in the Slalom in Salt Lake City in 2002. Not long after, he failed a drugs test and his medal was rescinded. It turns out Baxter innocently took a ‘Vicks’ nasal spray for a cold he was suffering from. In the UK, ‘Vicks’ was safe to use. However, the US version (which he took) had methamphetamine in it, which is a banned substance in competition, as it is a stimulant. Had Baxter checked the medication, or brought it from the UK, or even been tested out of competition, he would not have failed the test. Again, it is an incredibly difficult lesson to learn for a clean athlete, but forewarned is forearmed.

Assumting a generic brand of a drug in one country has the same properties as its equivalent in another country is not encouraged. Caveat emptor.

Cheating versus doping?

Meldonium was placed on the banned substance list from January 1, 2016 by WADA, meaning that even though athletes were using it for enhanced endurance performance prior to this time, they were not technically doping. So the real observation I have is where is the line? For an athlete to remain ‘clean’ they need to know the rules, rather than have a clear conscience regarding any supplement they ingest. If there is a medication manufactured that is found to have benevolent properties for an athlete beyond its original use, and an athlete takes it, is it cheating? Maybe, but is it doping? Not until WADA says so. Maria Sharapova learned that lesson the hard way.

What do we do now?

Rob Heffernan spoke on ‘Newstalk’ recently about the ‘systematic’ doping of Russian athletes, in particular. In an incredibly humane way, he expressed sympathy towards some of these athletes, who were at times preventing him from taking his rightful place on a podium. Such is the widespread cheating by this federation, it suggests some athletes had no choice but to comply. Beyond sport, it is unknown what health issues these athletes could suffer from in years to come, due to their misuse of various drugs and medications.

Russia are our main contenders for the final Olympic Sevens qualifying spot in June. One of their players, who was named on ‘team of the tournament’ in the first leg of the World Series in Dubai in December, has subsequently failed a drug test for meldonium, and is currently suspended by World Rugby. As a competing team, do we throw up our arms in disgust, admonish cheaters and proclaim there is no point in competing against them? Of course not. We mind our own patch, keep progressing and working on the areas we need to improve on. We continue to comply with the Irish Sports Council, World Rugby and WADA, and trust that the rules and codes that they implement catch the dopers.

And the Olympic Games that are around the corner? The doubts will remain as to the credibility of many athletes and performances, particularly the underdog or dark horse who smashes a PB and the formbook. Which is such a shame. As athletes line up for their respective finals, the dreamer in me will admire the talent and work ethic required for each individual to get to that point. The sceptic will wonder how many we will see delivering contrite press conferences in Los Angeles hotels with ugly carpets.

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