Wales Rugby League



Exclusive Interview about Doping in Sport

24th November 2015, 20:53

Exclusive Interview about Doping in Sport

With WRL Chief Chris Thair

Tonight a programme will air on BBC Wales at 10.30pm exploring the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs in both codes of rugby. Here Wales Rugby League Chief Operating Officer Chris Thair, who was interviewed as part of the programme, goes into greater depth on the topic in an exclusive interview for the WRL Website.


Article by Wales Rugby League Chief Operating Officer, Chris Thair

The issue of doping in sport is as old as sport itself. The ancient Greeks used magic mushrooms to gain a competitive advantage, early 20th century marathon runners used Strychnine (rat poison) and champagne, East German athletes had issues in the 70s, the huge scandal of Ben Johnson in the 80s, cycling and baseball in the 90s and more recently the accusations of state backed doping programmes in Russia and allegations around medallists in the London 2012 Olympic games. No sport is immune to the issue and history to its use suggests that doping in sport will never go away.


Rugby League, just as other sports, has a robust anti doping programme which can be covered by four key facets of work. Education, Testing, Intelligence Systems to make catching easier and Continually Reviewing practices and policy to ensure annual improvements are made. The latter being the response to the fact this will be a persistent challenge in sport and therefore a constant requirement by the authorities given the seemingly ever increasing sophistication, deception and science that is involved by those not wishing to be caught.


Robust testing remains integral to any anti doping programme as it ensures offenders can and will be caught. Rugby League has a strong history of testing its players and has consistently been one of the  most tested sports in the UK. Tests are conducted by UK Anti Doping (UKAD). To date there are 50 athletes on the UKAD banned list for 2015 across 10 different sports, rugby union topping the list and rugby league second. Two aspects shine out of the data and are worth noting. Firstly, very few athletes are taking performance enhancing drugs given the large number of negative results and secondly; the problem in rugby does not rest at the elite level of the game. The majority of those testing positive in rugby league are very young men between the age of 19 and 22 who have just entered the lower tier semi professional ranks of the sport.


A unique issue for rugby league in Wales is the transient nature of the player between both codes of rugby. Two players tested positive earlier this year during the pre season for a rugby league club, one had never played a competitive game of rugby league before and the other, just two professional games. Rightly these positive tests are listed under the sport of rugby league however it doesn’t portray the whole story. Each player having their own unique story and use of differing drugs suggesting there was no culture developing, just young naivety.


Education is another essential aspect to a sports anti doping programme. It is mandatory for every professional rugby league club to have a “100% Me” anti doping workshop delivered to their players by trained personnel each year. Every player is also provided with booklets through the post on the topic, it is highlighted in every playing contract and additional educational interventions are provided to young players coming through the scholarship and academy ranks. Not knowing cannot be an excuse.


Valuable systems such as the 24 hour confidential whistle blowing phone line called Report Doping in Sport allows anyone in the sport to provide information directly to UKAD. This is another essential tool to support the fight against doping in sport.


So given the rugby league authorities are doing what they can to tackle the problem, whilst recognising we must continually do more, why is it that a small minority of rugby players are still tempted to take performance enhancing drugs?


Firstly, doping is not just an issue for rugby, the subject’s history shows no sport is immune to the problem and this is a challenge for the whole of sport. Ten UK sports have had athletes banned in 2015 and many other sports over the years and certainly globally have had their athletes record positive results.


The riches, sporting prowess can bring to a person is another temptation factor. Sport is such a high profile business now. The rewards of winning, gaining (or maintaining) a seemingly great lifestyle, adulation and greater finances will obviously greatly appeal to an athlete.


Performance enhancing drugs is increasingly becoming a societal issue for those people wishing to gain an enhanced cosmetic look. Biggerexoria has now been reported as a genuine condition and there is a strong argument that societal pressures are often just as big a driver as performance enhancement. One study has shown steroid use in society (outside of professional sport) has increased by 600% in the last 10 years. In this digital age impressionable people have more access to and information about drugs than ever before. Backed by an incessant media who promote certain looks over others and reality TV shows which make it seemingly more attainable, the pressures to look trim and toned have probably never been greater.


The challenges specifically to rugby are probably in relation to what these young people see happening above and around them in a professional environment.


The statistics show the problem is not with elite level fulltime professional rugby players but young men in lower tiers of the semi professional ranks. The fulltime players have nutritionists, been tested many times, know the risks, a fulltime support network around them and in general “have made it”. That is different to the young person just breaking through into the professional ranks and the data shows that the majority of those who test positive are from this category.


What this young person sees on TV with the fulltime players or quite possibly within the new semi-professional team they have just joined is a contributing factor that is probably specific to rugby. They see huge men, with phenomenal speed, power and strength and when they compare themselves they may feel they are not up to standard physically. It is during this period they may feel tempted to try and take a shortcut to becoming the player they picture themselves against or in their mind.


To compare themselves against a seasoned professional or fulltime athlete is of course absurd. These players have had years in the gym, on the field and getting the very best nutritional guidance possible. The look and physical prowess of the 27 year old international player cannot be had by a 19 year old and it is important the player and the club have realistic expectations.


Size is an obvious factor in the physical world of rugby, along with speed, pace and power, and because of this there is a supplements culture in rugby. Taking protein, energy and vitamin shakes will be part of the daily routine for most fulltime rugby players across the world. Brought in and passed on by the clubs these will all be independently verified. Thankfully there are companies out there now, such as “Informed Sport” that quality assure these products and guarantee they are not on the banned list before they arrive at the club. Of course a premium is paid for this type of supplement and in the lower tiers of sport which has less finances, other supplements may be taken which will have a higher risk of contamination. Rugby League isn’t just about size and power of course and this is pointed out to the players. It is also about skill, teamwork and dedication, none of which can be found in tablet form.


When discussing doping in sport there are also wider debating points. I don’t agree with the recent call from someone in the House of Lords to make doping in sport a criminal offence. Also the view that cheating in sport is just a function of those sporting rules and if you remove those rules, nobody would be cheating and therefore fair. Again this is not a view I share, the athletes long term health is paramount and it would wrongly put pressure on everyone to take drugs. the current regulatory framework is sufficient and has the support of Wales Rugby League.


Fairness is an integral part of sporting regulation however we all recognise sport, just as life itself is not always fair. Some athletes and sporting teams can afford doctors, nutritionists, high altitude training, lots of daily supplements, sports scientists, fantastic facilities and the very best coaches. Others cannot. These are all ways to enhance performance and certainly give a competitive advantage. Players just need to ensure they understand what is within the rules.


After testing positive these young athletes are then banned from all sport for up to four years. UKAD, through the World Anti Doping Code, allows players to take part in education or rehabilitation activity whilst banned and to return to training two months before their ban ends to ensure they are fit to play when the ban ends.


One aspect I think UKAD could review is the support to the players who are banned after testing positive. These are very young men who have to be completely removed from the sport. They cannot play, coach, volunteer or have any official involvement in sport, all sport, other than delivering anti doping messages. The argument being, and it is a strong one, is that dopers shouldn’t be in a position of influence such as coaching others in the sport and the punishment should be severe to act as a clear deterrent. A four year playing ban is a huge deterrent and one which we fully support. We feel those young people testing positive aged 21 or younger who do not operate in the elite of their sport should be able to maintain some non playing involvement with the sport during that four year period. Providing some support and guidance to the individual at a much needed time, in what is already a difficult age for people, could be crucial to their future and prove positive for the sport. Many young criminal offenders have used the power of sport to change their lives and contribute to their community and this is same debate.


In conclusion we have explored some of the reasons why rugby players may take performance enhancing drugs and what the sporting authorities do to counter this. We need more research into the reason why people do this, as it is only through improved understanding and learning from each other that National Governing Bodies sports may improve their anti doping policies and procedures. In the sport of rugby league we test people rigorously, educate on a regular basis and put in systems and procedures in place which make catching people easier. Finally we recognise through the history of sport that doping will probably always be a factor and therefore we will always try to continuously do more.