Football: A craze that is creatine tension

Ian Wright swears by it, athletes use it freely and it is legal. But the nutritional supplement is causing real concern.
Click to follow
IAN WRIGHT described it in the Sun as his "wonder drug". Sprinters, cyclists and rowers, as well as footballers, have been loading up with it for years to boost energy levels. Olympic athletes as far back as 1992 freely ingested it. All perfectly legally. But health food experts and sports scientists say the time has come to think again about creatine.

The International Olympic Committee even plans to put the whole question of creatine on the agenda of one of its sub-committees at the end of November. "We need more information about Creatine," said Dr Patrick Schamasch, the IOC's medical director. "Abuse or misuse of any substance worries us."

In the body, creatine is manufactured by the liver, kidney and pancreas and is found in fish and most red meats. But it is also an amino acid that is freely available over the counter in chemists and health food shops, either as a powder or in tablet form. On its own or mixed with glucose, creatine helps muscles to work harder for longer and improves recovery time so that athletes can train more intensively. But its growing reputation as the Holy Grail of performance-enhancing supplements is, according to many officials, getting out of hand.

Indeed, Schamasch says the IOC is asking all of its 26 drug-testing laboratories to watch for dramatic increases of artificially produced creatine and does not rule out banning it in the future. Critics of creatine will be delighted by such a suggestion. They argue that since the substance appears to provide performance advantages to its users, loading should be banned before important competitions. The opposing argument is that if creatine is no longer freely available, it will unjustly punish those who have an unusually high natural level.

"The fact that creatine is naturally produced does not alone prevent us from adding it to the prohibited list," Schamasch warned. "There is a distinction between something that is natural and artificially prepared. If we find it is being misused in large amounts and has side effects, we would certainly consider action." That would be bad news for the likes of Wright who says he took creatine at Arsenal and would do so again at West Ham.

The recent drugs scandal in Italian football was more about illegal substances than creatine. But Chelsea's Roberto di Matteo confessed that, like Wright, he has used the latter, although only once. "There was a period when creatine was very fashionable. Then suddenly it appeared in soccer," he said. "I tried it, but only once, because it upset my stomach."

In 1992, published reports named the Olympic Champions Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell as creatine users. Hurdles world record holder Colin Jackson was quoted by Bodybuilding Monthly as saying he had had "excellent" results using the substance, while in the US creatine has become the most widely used of all legal supplements.

Professional athletes argue that creatine, like vitamins, is totally harmless. The experts are not so sure. "The amount of creatine some of these people are consuming is the equivalent of 20 pounds of meat a day. That is ludicrous," said Dr Mark Harries, medical adviser to the British Olympic Association. "You could never produce that much in its natural form. There must be every chance therefore that there is a downside. Anything taken in excess should be treated with caution. Too much vitamin A or D is poisonous. Even if you breathe too hard for too long it can have a toxic effect."

Harries is not even sure that creatine has any benefits for footballers. "The theory is that if you eat an awful lot of it you can sustain a more powerful muscular contraction. There is limited evidence to show that for short-term bursts of energy, creatine might be useful. But in an endurance event like football, I can't see it."

Nevertheless, high street chemists and health food shops throughout the country freely stock creatine as one of several nutritional supplements. But it is expensive and not all pharmacists are happy about having it on their shelves.

At a health food shop in Hitchin, a sleepy Hertfordshire town, one 100g jar of creatine was available this week at pounds 19.99. But Peter Croft, the owner of Croft Natural Health, has reservations about how natural creatine actually is. While the daily requirement is about two grams, most creatine supplements recommend taking 10 times that amount.

"I don't push sales of it because it can be dangerous to anyone who is not used to working out regularly," Croft said. "I have read that it can damage the kidneys. The only reason I have creatine is that a few people want it and it's legal."

How much longer that is the case remains to be seen. For the moment, the long-term side- effects of excess creatine are still unknown although they do not seem to be doing Ian Wright any harm as he continues to score goals at 34.

Professor Jordi Segura, head of the IOC laboratory at Barcelona, in Spain, takes a different view. "At the moment, it appears creatine is safe," he said. "But so is aspirin if you take one of them. Take 200 and you will have a hole in the stomach."