John McEntee: Time the GAA took its head out of the sand over drugs issue

Young businessman hiding head in the sand

DRUGS are drugs. If you fail a drug test you are de facto a drug cheat. Why can't we accept this in the GAA?

When it comes to protecting our own, or should I say making excuses for our own, we are the world's best.

“It didn't say it was a banned substance on the bottle.”

“Sure he didn't know what he was doing.”

“He's just a young lad playing an amateur sport.”

“Sure it's not an issue within the GAA.”

Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Are we so naive to think our sports stars are immune from the lure of drugs?

In an era when the demands on our elite players are of super-human proportions, where the fitness and conditioning levels have rocketed and where the pressures to perform are greater than ever, it is human to want to gain an advantage by whatever means necessary – by means fair or foul.

In our hearts we want to believe that good nutrition and scientific training methods can account for the progress of every county player or aspiring county player, but this is simply not true. For some, their bodies are not genetically configured to be super fast, super strong, super fit.

Three inter-county footballers who have been found in breach of anti-doping rules have been showered in sympathy.

The ongoing case of Brendan O'Sullivan has been

well-documented but one has to ask the question: what have we learned from the previous two cases?

In 2008, Aidan O'Mahony was found to have a salbutamol level of 1,977ng/ml in his system, almost twice the World Anti-Doping Agency's (Wada) permitted level.

He escaped a suspension and was was instead handed a reprimand after the GAA's Anti-Doping Committee were satisfied with his explanation that he had taken eight-to-10 puffs of his inhaler on the day of the 2008 All-Ireland final against Tyrone.

I have friends and family who are asthmatic so I can understand how such high levels may have built up in his system.

I've always admired him as a footballer but my relief for Aidan at that time was overshadowed by the reaction of GAA folk saying drug-testing in the GAA was a disgrace – that it should not happen in our sport.

Did Wada ever consider a 12-month retest given the cloud of doubt that hung over this case to demonstrate transparency and clear Aidan unequivocally? Would it not have been in the public interest to do so?

It is worth noting at this point that testing only occurs in-season, that is from the National Football League until the third weekend in September. Players could easily consume recreational or performance-enhancing drugs for the other six months of the year without fear of detection or incrimination.

In 2015 Monaghan's Thomas Connolly took a prohibited anabolic steroid, stanozolol, and was banned for four years, though the GAA thought it only fair to reduce it by 50 per cent, accepting the defence that it was taken unintentionally.

Stanozolol is the same steroid Ben Johnston took before the infamous 1988 Olympic 100m final. Remember the one when he crossed the finish line, eyes bulging and barely out of breath, miles ahead of America's Carl Lewis? Millions of viewers worldwide simultaneously shouted: “That man must be on drugs!”

Many Irish taboos have

developed due to half-hearted sanctions and brushing the

issue under the carpet, both by society as a whole and our GAA leaders.

We are all familiar with Maria Sharapova's 15-month ban for continuing to take a medicine called meldonium weeks after it was added to Wada's list of banned substances.

She was originally prescribed this medicine by her GP and said she had taken it for 10 years for legitimate medical reasons. It sounds plausible, like something a GAA player would say.

When she was reconnecting with the sport she loves she was refused entry into events, her peers lambasted her and the media hounded her.

What makes our sports stars any different to her or the many others who seek advantage over others? Is it that they are amateur? Is it that they are not awarded grant aid to comply with the testing? Is it that the GAA is whiter that white and they want to maintain that image?

Well, it is time we took our

heads out of the sand. We

often take our guide from professional sport stars. This is what Maria Sharapova said: “I have taken responsibility from the very beginning for not knowing that the over-the-counter supplement I had been taking for the last 10 years was no longer allowed.”

Paul Kimmage, the Irish sports journalist who has a track record of exposing drug cheats across all sports, is onto the issue of drugs in the GAA like a sniffer dog sensing a pack of cocaine at a Dublin airport carousel.

When he comes knocking at your door, negligence cannot be an excuse. Jumping into bed and pulling the duvet over your head will not cut it either. Dressing it up as an error of judgement won't wash.

Every step to improve playing standards is a step closer towards the sinister world of performance enhancement.

We've seen enough evidence to ask the questions. It is time to shine a light. Don't let this be the last Irish taboo.

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