CLAIRE SQUIRES was a fit 30-year-old woman with a modest goal: to break four hours for the London marathon. That was her sole motivation when she put a scoop of Jack3D — a then-legal sports nutrition supplement containing DMAA — into her water bottle before she set off to run the race last April.
No prizes, no glory, no money, just the satisfaction of smashing her personal best, and if a powder she bought over the internet, that was all the rage among gym bunnies, could help her surmount the infamous ‘wall’, then why shouldn’t she take it?
In August, Britain’s Food Standards Agency advised people never to take products containing DMAA, and linked it with side effects ranging from nausea to cerebral haemorrhage and strokes. Four months too late for Claire, who collapsed in the final stages of that marathon. The coroner concluded she died of cardiac failure, caused, on the balance of probabilities, by taking the supplement in combination with extreme physical exertion.
Most of us have been guilty of woeful naivety when discussing drugs in the GAA. We have been caught in a complacent mentality that our lads are simply not the type to dabble with performance enhancing supplements, be they dodgy but legal supplements bought via the internet or flat out illegal steroids.
The logic goes that drugs are the preserve of professional athletes, that the glory of the parish is not a strong enough lure to mess with your health and the possibility of being caught.
Let us address the motivation issue: gym culture has brought forth thousands of people willing to take banned substances simply to look better, let alone win seven Tour de Frances. To think that an inter-county player who puts his reputation on the line in front of 80,000 people and the watching nation might not be tempted is ridiculous.
Let us address the possibility of getting caught: it is practically non-existent. Gaelic Life, the Ulster-focused GAA magazine, did some excellent research recently and their journalist Ciaran Woods arrived at the conclusion that an inter-county player has a 0.04 per cent chance of being tested, never mind being caught. Furthermore, they pointed out that that possibility drops to zero in the off-season, and is zero all year round for club players. They also exposed the ease of buying inexpensive EPO and steroids, and spoke to players who had experimented with Jack3D.
To top it all off, a recent edition of the Irish Examiner featured a respected inter-county footballer flat out telling us that players are taking steroids.
Fermanagh captain Ryan McCluskey couched his language a little in a way that Irish people often do: “I have known and I kind of know to a certain extent that it has crept into the sport in certain areas.”
But there is no question that we can rephrase it more unequivocally and retain his meaning. What McCluskey really said, in an indirect way, was: “I know some players are taking steroids.”
When you set this anecdotal evidence against the fact that eight GAA teams missed drugs tests last year, do you not start to feel a little uneasy?
In that context, the attitude of Dr Una May, the Irish Sports Council’s director of anti-doping, leaves a lot to be desired.
“The reality is we don’t consider GAA to be a high-risk sport, and time has told us that. We’re not deluded to think they’re exempt from the problem, or may potentially have a problem, but they’re not at the same risk as some other sports.”
“The missed tests are something we have discussed with the GAA,” she says, “but we’re conscious of the nature of the GAA, that they often do change training venues because of weather conditions. What is agreed is that if counties aren’t at the specified training ground, but have moved somewhere else, then the county board pays a fine, or essentially covers our costs. It’s not a huge concern.”
Allow us the liberty of rephrasing, like we did with McCluskey. “Yah, look, the boys didn’t show up for some tests, but it’s probably because the pitch was a bit mucky. And sure look, they’re probably not taking anything anyway and the fines were paid. We’ll continue with 80-90 tests on 2,000 players all year and sure I doubt they’ll show up anything, because the Gah lads are sound.”
We’re not suggesting missed tests means teams are systematically doping. May is probably right on that. But we are suggesting that we could do with a testing regime led by ultra-paranoid people.
Because this is a world where drugs are easy to obtain. It is a time when players are immersed in a gym culture where dodgy supplements are de rigueur. Athletes who are tested several times a year are able to fool testers and we expect players who might not be tested in their entire careers to be turned off by the chance of getting caught.
It is a world where an inter-county player has just told us that players are taking steroids. Where the testers’ attitudes seems to be “it’ll be grand”. We are guilty, all of us, of complacency and ignorance that would almost make you laugh, until you think of Claire Squires, who wasn’t even trying to cheat, as full of life as a 30-year-old could be this time last year, cold in the ground now.