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Drugs in sport: Authorities `failing British sport'

Many top performers are frustrated with poor testing methods and demand harsher penalties to punish cheats

Nick Harris
Wednesday 09 December 1998 00:02 GMT

INEFFECTUAL GOVERNING bodies that ignore drug abuse are contributing to the common problem of illegal drugs in sport, according to the country's leading sportsmen and women. The Independent's survey of drug use in British sport shows elite sportsmen and women believe a range of drugs are being used and drug testing programmes are failing British sport.

The survey targeted more than 1,300 people from the top levels of sport - the most highly-ranked Lottery-sponsored athletes and swimmers, Premier League and Nation- wide League footballers, first-class cricketers, Super League and Premiership One rugby players, leading flat and National Hunt jockeys, tennis players in the British top 40 and weightlifters of international standing. There were more than 300 respondents to the survey.

Of all those who replied, 13 per cent think steroids are being abused, rising to 47 per cent in rugby league, 31 per cent in rugby union and 16 per cent in athletics. Erythropoietin (EPO, a substance which increases the blood's oxygen-carrying capacity and was at the centre of this summer's Tour de France debacle), is cited as a problem by eight percent (27 per cent in athletics) and human growth hormone by eight per cent (19 per cent in athletics and 15 per cent in swimming).

Respondents called for improved testing methods and harsher penalties and feel current measures do not go far enough to combat the drugs problem. One 19-year-old rugby union player wrote: "Drugs are widely used in rugby union and officials - I have a feeling this is so - turn a blind eye." He added that frequent testing needs to be introduced, randomly and without warning, especially in the off-season between April and August. "If a sport does not have a rigorous all-year round drug testing programme, with coverage from 16-years-old to senior level, then there should be a campaign by business sponsors to withdraw support from the sport.

"No government money, including Lottery cash, should be made available to such a sport. Put simply, if the papers do not take up the challenge then the sporting bodies will never act."

Many respondents in rugby echoed his views, calling for more random tests and fines for clubs as well as players to encourage team officials to tackle the problem. In rugby union 62 per cent of respondents felt the laws in their sport were inappropriate and needed enforcing more effectively. In rugby league and swimming the corresponding figure approached 50 per cent and in athletics it was 64 per cent. A common complaint in the survey was that testing was virtually non-existent in their experience. "Drug tests should be more frequent," one 30-year-old footballer said. "I have been tested once in 12 years. Testing does deter the use of drugs, although not to the extent it should." A 20-year-old female tennis player, who said she has competed at 20 events internationally in the past year, revealed: "I have yet to see drug testers at any tournament." Her experience was not uncommon but testing away from competition is less likely still.

According to figures released by the Sports Council, the number of out of competition tests (conducted with no notice, away from events) in athletics last year was 602. In British football there were just two, in rugby league and cricket one apiece. There were none at all in rugby union, tennis or swimming. Testing at major events and `squad testing' - pre-arranged visits to club training sessions - were more widespread (517 individuals in the year in football, 243 in rugby league, 139 in swimming, 126 in cricket and 21 in tennis), but many respondents to the survey called for more.

More than 43 per cent of all respondents called for tighter rules, with many calling for blood tests in place of urine tests. Others went further, and one 34-year-old female athlete wrote: "Testing urine is a joke as distance runners use EPO which is undetectable. Either test blood or you may as well legalise all drugs. Let British athletes lead the way in blood testing by volunteering a blood sample and take a polygraph test and have all the results publicised.

"I bet there would be a reluctance on the part of a lot of athletes to do this. Clean the sport up once and for all. At the moment I would not encourage any child to take up athletics because of the hypocrisy of some of their so-called sports role models."

Fears that drug abuse could spread were also common. One footballer wrote: "In athletics I think it's out of control. Whenever someone wins a race on the track or comes first on the field I'm now not sure if their win was pure or assisted. I wouldn't like football to go that way, that's why regular testing - every player from every club every two to three weeks - is the only way to deter drug abuse, whether recreational or performance enhancing."

A 22-year-old female swimmer added: "Governing bodies must continue to work hard with science to try to get one step ahead of the drug users, if they really do want to catch them out, which I sometimes wonder."

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