With complex anti-doping regulations, mislabelling of supplements, and sporting bodies wanting to keep investigations in-house, drug tests are more likely to uncover cheats among amateurs than professional athletes. By Jack Kerr.

Amateur sportspeople more likely to be found doping

Her grandchildren are probably too young to understand what the term “drug cheat” means. But that’s exactly what Gail, a 55-year-old triathlete from Brisbane, might be considered. After failing to comply with requests to be drug tested in March last year, she now finds herself banned from sport on a worldwide basis. By the time she can compete again, a new decade will be on the horizon and a Seniors Card will be almost within reach.

Gail is one of 40 or so athletes currently sanctioned by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA). And like most, she’s very much an off-Broadway competitor. Because when it comes to amateur, semi-professional and subelite sport in Australia, it seems all you need to do is scratch the surface and you can find drug cheat after drug cheat.

ASADA’s sanctions list includes state league footballers of various codes, whose crimes range from trafficking steroids and testosterone to using cocaine. Another, whose ban just ended, was found with oestrogen-reducing chemicals in his system. A junior cyclist was caught breaking injection regulations. Even wheelchair table tennis has a mark against its name. These are likely just the tip of the iceberg.

ASADA’s ambit is organised sport, whether under the bright lights of the MCG or at your local lawn bowls club. But doping is hardly an issue confined to the trophy hunters. The use of performance-enhancing drugs has become so normalised that recreational cyclists are said to dope just to beat their personal bests. Thanks to the gym scene, steroids may be more widely used than heroin. Even high school students are known to be using them.

“People want higher, faster, stronger. There’s only one way to achieve that,” one banned athlete tells The Saturday Paper. He took a hell-for-leather, Olympics-or-bust approach to doping, and found himself slapped with a lengthy ban. If it’s a heavy price, then it’s one worth paying, he says, for the chance to push his body to its ultimate. “It’s not like Popeye and spinach. You’ve got to put in all the training as well.”

While there are concerns about bikie gangs dominating the local market for steroids, many users simply order online. One supplier from Bangladesh, for example, uses the public forum of Twitter to advertise “injectable testosterone”, “methepitiostane for cutting” and “raw steroid powder from China”. Whatever you fancy is just a few mouse clicks away, and since the turn of the decade, there has been a massive increase in the amount of steroids seized at the border.

Those in the know say mail from Thailand – a hotspot for performance- and image-enhancing drugs (PIEDs), the latter employed in bodybuilding – is now checked so rigorously that orders are being diverted through countries such as New Zealand, from where mail draws less suspicion. Some have received their drugs laced into paper and cardboard, which can then be dissolved in water. Other users prefer to go straight to the source, flying to Bangkok or Phuket for
a “hormone holiday”.

But while buying PIEDs can be relatively cheap, testing for them can be prohibitively expensive. Each test costs about $1000. One organisation that has been happy to shoulder the expense – not to mention the blowback from dirty results – is the iCompete Natural Bodybuilding Alliance (INBA).

“We genuinely drug test,” says the INBA’s president, Tony Lanciano. “That’s probably why we’ve got a good record in terms of catching them.” A quarter of sportspeople currently banned by ASADA were caught out at INBA competitions. Tests from the recent national championships, which are still being processed, could turn up more violations yet, though Lanciano is confident the INBA’s testing is acting as a deterrent.

Others question if money spent on drug testing is money well spent. “All they ever do is catch the easy ones,” says Stephen Moston, adjunct associate professor at James Cook University and an expert in anti-doping investigations, regarding ASADA’s sanctioned athletes. “They catch the people who are not clued up on doping issues, or the people who’ve bought the wrong nutritional supplement. The halfway clever people know when to taper off their drug use, how to microdose, and basically how to have very, very little chance of actually being caught.”

Gail might be one of those easy ones. The details of her case remain a secret, but those who know her are puzzled by her ban. “I’m all for testing world-beaters, but why are we wasting money on testing people like this?” asks one of her former running mates. He has seen triathletes of all ages taken off for testing at big races.

Another athlete who has been regularly tested says the procedure for providing a urine sample is highly intrusive, for men and women alike. Pants must be dropped to the knees, shirts lifted high – only when virtually naked can the tester ensure a clean sample hasn’t been snuck in.

Still, many will try to defy the tests. German newspaper Die Zeit went to three triathlons last year and found hundreds of amateurs willing to admit to taking forbidden substances.

Others may have been unaware they were doping. While the subelite athlete must submit to the same testing regime as their professional counterparts, they do so without the access to elite sports scientists who can keep them from breaking the rules, when all they wanted was to get an edge.

In 2012, testers found methylhexanamine, a legal dietary supplement, in the system of a player at the Sunshine Coast Sea Eagles (now Falcons) rugby league club. The previous year, following an increase in positive results, the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) had issued a warning about the drug turning up in a range of off-the-shelf products.

“The ongoing problem of dietary supplement mislabelling continues to create a risky environment for athletes,” the USADA wrote in a memo. In 2013, a number of other players from Queensland Rugby League were banned in similar circumstances.

A similar issue arises with illicit recreational drugs, often considered performance-inhibiting. The justification for such a ban is that elite athletes are role models. Yet the only athlete serving a lifetime sanction in Australia is a low-level rugby player caught using marijuana for a third time. His first two strikes came while playing touch football.

It’s doping at the elite level that most Australians are concerned about, and catching the cheats may require far greater resources than are currently being made available, Moston says. “If you want to catch doping, take it seriously and investigate it properly. We know that having proper investigators does have an impact. There’s plenty of evidence of that.

“But that makes a lot of people in the sporting world nervous. The terror they have is [of police being involved], athletes being arrested and imprisoned and so forth. And there’s plenty of places where that has been happening.”

He points to Italy, where police use surveillance, phone-tapping and interrogations in anti-doping investigations and have been “spectacularly successful”, arresting hundreds of people.

“This is clearly the way to go,” says Moston. “But as soon as you mention something like this, the sports bodies get very, very nervous. Because you’re talking about essentially criminalising doping. And they want the problem kept in-house.”

In most big cases made public – such as Lance Armstrong and Essendon Football Club – investigations have turned up evidence where repeated testing has failed.

So is there a chance any player who ran out in this year’s AFL or NRL grand finals could be doping and getting away with it? “Probably more than one,” says Moston.

“We know that something’s going on far more than the authorities of each sport would have us believe.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 10, 2016 as "Winning hedge".

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Jack Kerr is a dual Australian Sports Commission Media Awards winner who writes about the business of sport.

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