Ire­land’s steroid boom a tell-tale sign of re­cov­ery

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Ian O’Rior­dan

We all have our own dif­fer­ent tell-tale signs of the re­cov­ery. The 70 per cent rise in aver­age monthly rents since the bot­tom­ing out in the re­ces­sion, now 23 per cent higher than their Celtic Tiger peak.

The now record ¤727 bil­lion net worth of Ir­ish house­holds, eclips­ing the pre­vi­ous peak of ¤720 bil­lion reached in the sec­ond quar­ter of 2007.

The 449,411 units of ready-to-use an­abolic steroids seized in Ire­land last year, up over 300 per cent on the 2016 fig­ure. Booms times are back al­right, baby.

Not many peo­ple took much no­tice of those last fig­ures, pos­si­bly be­cause these aren’t ex­actly class A banned sub­stances, although it is il­le­gal to pro­cure an­abolic steroids in Ire­land without a pre­scrip­tion, or, in­deed from any­where other than a phar­macy. No won­der those with a closer eye on the busi­ness are prop­erly star­tled.

“This is an ex­cep­tion­ally dan­ger­ous en­deav­our,” Caitri­ona O’Rior­dan, ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee mem­ber of the Ir­ish Phar­macy Union, told its an­nual con­fer­ence in Wex­ford last Satur­day, “which in­di­cates a pos­si­ble rise in the num­ber of peo­ple us­ing these drugs to build mus­cle mass and boost sport­ing per­for­mance.”

These don’t come cheap – but are sig­nif­i­cantly less ex­pen­sive without the re­quired pre­scrip­tion and med­i­cal su­per­vi­sion, and stan­dard qual­ity con­trol. Those sourc­ing them out­side the realms of elite and com­pet­i­tive sport aren’t strictly cheat­ing on any­one ei­ther, un­less, of course, they count them­selves.

The big worry here is where ex­actly are the mas­sive doses of steroids that are not seized end­ing up? Those 449,411 units were part of the 948,916 dosages of tablets, cap­sules and vials seized through­out 2017 in the joint op­er­a­tions of An Garda Síochána, Rev­enue and the Health Prod­ucts Reg­u­la­tory Author­ity (HPRA) – and that rep­re­sents an in­crease of 40 per cent on the 2016 fig­ure of 673,906.

Close watch

The HPRA has been keep­ing a close watch on these fig­ures in re­cent years, es­pe­cially as the coun­try comes out of re­ces­sion, and, like rents and net worth of Ir­ish house­holds, there is a trend here.

The first no­table shift came after 2014 when the num­ber of units of steroids seized rose from 20,752 to 38,049 in 2015. In 2016 that in­creased to 109,006, and within an­other year it’s now up around the half mil­lion mark.

That’s the amount seized, re­mem­ber, which means the num­bers get­ting through must be sev­eral times higher. That’s a lot of steroids for a lot of peo­ple, and even if some of them are be­ing smug­gled on to for­eign ath­letes, it begs the ques­tion: who ex­actly in Ire­land is tak­ing them?

A quick Google search will tell you they are aimed pri­mar­ily at the am­a­teur gym en­thu­si­ast. But that doesn’t mean they are not end­ing up in the hands of our am­a­teur rugby and GAA play­ers, or any am­a­teur sport where body size and body im­age is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly more im­por­tant than raw tal­ent, es­pe­cially, it seems, at school­boy level.

And even if there is no ev­i­dence to sug­gest this in­creased use of an­abolic steroids is find­ing its way di­rectly into elite or com­pet­i­tive sport, there is that clear and present dan­ger. So much so these are now be­ing la­belled as per­for­mance and im­age en­hanc­ing drugs (PIEDs), rather than old-fash­ioned per­for­mance en­hanc­ing drugs (PEDs). They have also be­come as much about re­cov­ery as per­for­mance.

Part of the prob­lem here is that Sport Ire­land is not in the busi­ness of polic­ing am­a­teur or re­cre­ational sport when it comes to anti-dop­ing. There­fore there is no great de­ter­rent to avoid them un­less the risks are con­sid­ered (why an­abolic steroids are con­trolled in the first place) such as be­ing more than mildly ad­dic­tive, and typ­i­cally end up de­creas­ing sex drive.

Not for­get­ting the po­ten­tial for heart and liver dam­age, or the very def­i­nite risk of in­ject­ing with dirty nee­dles. Those who run nee­dle ex­changes, such as Mer­chant’s Quay Ire­land, have been warn­ing of that dan­ger in re­cent years.

In one of his last acts as di­rec­tor gen­eral of the World Anti-Dop­ing Agency (Wada), David How­man ad­mit­ted he was wor­ried about the “en­try level and am­a­teur ath­letes” just as much as the “elite ath­letes”.

He said in 2016 that the big­gest threat to the in­tegrity of sport was no longer from the top down, but rather the bot­tom up. “Only that’s the area where there’s no test­ing,” he warned. “That’s the con­cern.”

Given that 449,411 units of an­abolic steroids were seized here last year, that con­cern should be greater than ever.

Dr Una May, head of Sport Ire­land’s anti-dop­ing com­mit­tee, has ad­mit­ted that too. “It is a re­ally big con­cern,” she said at its an­nual re­view in March. “We can see one of the places it’s com­ing in is the gym and leisure in­dus­try side of it, and we’ve been work­ing over the last num­ber of years to in­tro­duce a sort of ‘white flag’ scheme, although it would the rep­utable leisure cen­tres who would be in­ter­ested in that any­way.”

Banned sub­stance

Of the 989 tests car­ried out by Sport Ire­land in 2017 across 22 sports, only one came back pos­i­tive from an in-com­pe­ti­tion test. That case, for a banned sub­stance, is still pend­ing, the iden­tity of the sport or in­di­vid­ual yet to be re­vealed.

One can only won­der what they might find if Sport Ire­land moved a lit­tle fur­ther down the elite chain, test­ing more of our strictly am­a­teur sports, or even into school­boy rugby, where for now Sport Ire­land in­sists it is not in a po­si­tion to carry out anti-dop­ing con­trols even if it wanted to.

This may not help an­swer the ques­tion of where all these an­abolic steroids are end­ing up. They may, how­ever, find some tell-tale signs of sport­ing re­cov­ery.

They’re aimed pri­mar­ily at the gym en­thu­si­ast, but that doesn’t mean they’re not end­ing up in the hands of am­a­teur rugby and GAA play­ers, or in­deed any am­a­teur sport

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