Stephen McGovern argues that the pros outweigh the cons in the GAA's proposed moves to introduce mandatory blood-testing for its players.
On May 10th the news broke that a GAA player in Monaghan had failed a drugs test. The substance he tested positive for was a steroid and the player, believed to be on the fringes of the inter-county team squad, is under investigation by the Irish Sports Council’s anti-doping unit.
The debate since has centered around two questions: is this just a drop in the ocean, a small glimpse at a bigger picture? And if so, should blood testing be introduced into the GAA as an anti-doping control?
Whether by design or merely coincidence, the Irish Sports Council had announced plans to start testing for blood in the GAA in 2016 a few days ahead of the news of the positive test.
"During 2015, we will be rolling out an education programme with the GAA and then the blood testing will come in next year,” said Irish Sports Council CEO John Treacy at the announcement. He called it “a very important step” in their anti-doping procedures.
Some have questioned whether such testing is necessary, however. Former All-Ireland winner and RTÉ pundit Pat Spillane called it “draconian”, claiming that testing amateur players “is a joke”.
“I don’t think players involved in an amateur sport such as GAA should be subjected to doping tests in the same way as professional sports people are,” he told The Irish Daily Star earlier this week.
This is an argument supported by Kilkenny team doctor Tadgh Crowley, who believes the stigma of being labelled a drugs cheat could render a player incapable of finding employment. Furthermore, Crowley believes the amount of money being spent on testing GAA players is a waste.
There is a point to be made here: since testing began in 2001, there had only been one positive test until now, the case of Aidan O’Mahony and his inhaler in 2008. He was later deemed to be innocent. Some may argue that money could go into a player welfare fund.
Meanwhile, what happens to this player if and when his name is made public? He is just an amateur after all and should be arguably not be held to the same standards as professional athletes. Mistakes are made, as in the case of O’Mahony, where a player can inadvertently take a banned substance when they are merely trying to treat an illness.
When this happens to a professional, the line goes that, “you need to be aware of what goes into your body.” An amateur GAA player won’t be held up to the same scrutiny in the eyes of the public for not knowing. But it’s easier to know now than it was for O’Mahony seven years ago. Nowadays he could just download the ISC’s medicine smartphone app and check what’s safe to take and what’s on the banned list. Easy.
The amount of testing for GAA does seem somewhat disproportionate. In 2013, 89 players were tested — 44 in competition, 45 out of competition — and this number rises to 97 when you include Ladies GAA and camogie.
GAA is the third most tested sport in Ireland behind cycling and athletics. It is also ahead of rugby, which had 85 tests (although there is a smaller pool of players).
The paucity of failed tests may lead one to believe that testing is unnecessary, but despite the game’s amateur status, it still happened. Someone failed a test. The idea that Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) are not used in a sport because it’s amateur or professional is simply wrong.
A Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) report earlier this year confirmed that amateur cycling is riddled with EPO. Semi-professional cycling is equally bad for doping, as controls and reprimand are in short supply.
This furthers the argument in favour of blood testing. If the GAA are seen to take a firm stance on doping, then not only will it enhance its reputation as a clean sport, it will also act as a deterrent for players to cheat.
This is why how the GAA deals with the Monaghan case is so important. Being caught isn’t always a big deal for athletes, especially if they know the sporting authorities are not going to mete out harsh punishments. Such inaction has fueled doping in cycling and athletics for decades.
The one reason above all to bring in blood testing, however, has been lost in this debate, and that’s the player’s health itself. Athletes can cause serious damage to themselves (and in some cases others) by doping. Some have died, many more have had to live with with the consequences.
None of this is a concern to the sprinter wearing the gold medal, the cyclist in the yellow jersey or the Gaelic footballer walking up the steps of the Hogan Stand. But with blood testing in place, the GAA might be able to stop the problem before it ever develops.