Doping negligence no longer an excuse

Performance-enhancing drug use among athletes in certain sports teetering on 'prevalent' while others shocked at positive tests, writes Paul Radley.

The best laid plans always come to naught. For instance, offering significant prize money to go along with the medals at the Pan Arab Games in Doha at the end of 2011 probably seemed a sound idea at the time.

It worked in one regard, too, attracting elite athletes from the Arab world who might otherwise have skipped what ranks as a relatively low-profile event on the international stage.

Take Oussama Mellouli, for example. The outstanding Tunisian swimmer, who went on to win gold in the 10km open-water swim at the London Olympics soon after, took home 16 medals – and a combined prize fund of US$148,000 (Dh543,000) – from Qatar.

But then there is the flip side. When the anti-doping committee for the event announced after 10 days of the event that 14 athletes had returned positive dope tests, the organisers had to work out a way of recovering ill-gotten prize money from the cheats.

Muse on those numbers for a moment: 14 failed tests out of 402 samples. It is the sort of evidence that suggests doping is endemic in sport in the region.

"I would not go as far as saying doping is prevalent in GCC sport – it is just as prevalent as anywhere in the world," said Dr Muhammad Al Sayrafi, the general manager of Anti-Doping Lab Qatar, the region's first laboratory.

"It is human nature. Some people want to win, no matter what it takes. Short-cuts are the preferable option for humans. Many people may not think it is cheating or deceiving."

Judged by that competition a little over a year ago, bodybuilding is a basket case.

At the Pan Arab Games 10 bodybuilders – from five different countries – tested positive.

By the end of it, the Men's 70kg category was no longer a medal event as all the competitors had tested positive.

Perhaps the mess is not surprising, given that until very recently many bodybuilding competitions did not involve drug testing at all.

One male bodybuilder recently underwent surgery to have a breast reduction, as his pectoral muscles had expanded alarmingly following steroid use.

But not all banned drug use is to enhance performance, sometimes it is a genuine mistake.

Elsewhere at the Pan Arab Games, Aisha Al Balooshi, a female UAE weightlifter, also tested positive for a banned substance.

She has now completed the suspension handed down by the International Weighlifting Federation, which was reduced on appeal.

"They realised what she took is for her health and does not enhance performance for a weightlifter," said Sultan bin Mejren, the president of the Emirates Weightlifting Federation.

"Her mistake was not realising she should apply for [a therapeutic use exemption, which is granted to athletes who have special medical requirements]."

Even though her ban is over, Al Balooshi will not return to competition on account of work commitments.

However, she remains highly regarded within UAE weightlifting, and could be offered an administrative role within the federation.

They hope her experience over the past year will help with their campaign to better educate their athletes on substance misuse.

Ignorance remains a significant part of the problem. While it must be assumed some sportsmen actively pursue doping programmes, many also fall foul of a lack of knowledge of the Word Anti-doping Authority list of banned substances.

For example, UAE sportsmen from fields as diverse as football, rugby and powerboating have tested positive for methylhexaneamine in recent times, then expressed shock when they were informed of it.

Each of the footballers – Yaser Al Junaibi, Jasem Mohammed and Shaheen Abdulrahman – and the rugby player Duncan Murray, traced their failed tests back to the same over-the-counter energy drink.

It remains on sale in a variety of nutrition shops in the Emirates, priced at Dh185 for a 250g tub. It still contains the banned substance, and carries no greater warning that to use according to a "strict dosing protocol".

"Negligence is no excuse, and I plead with all players to check what they are drinking," Murray said after he was informed of his failed test.

Nadir Bin Hendi, the former champion throttleman for Dubai's Victory powerboating team, is still in the midst of a two-year ban for the same stimulant. "I did not even know how to pronounce it," he said this week.

Other national sports, such as swimming, also lost athletes to failed dope tests last year.

"I think it is a regular problem for most sports," said Chris Tidey, the managing director of Hamilton Aquatics. "There are always going to be people who are willing to do it to win."

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