Doping in football?

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By James Pieslak

The reputations of many sports have been repeatedly dirtied by the scourge of doping.

We all know which ones. Sports that rely on the need to retain stamina over long periods, for example cycling and long-distance running, as well as sports that require short intense bursts of power, such as sprinting and weightlifting. These sports have a long and sorry history of drug abuse associated with them. The list of high profile names that have been caught or exposed is there for all to see.

Each new case is a depressing blot on the name of whichever sport is embroiled. You could argue that each positive test is another cheat caught and another step in the right direction in terms of cleaning things up, but is it enough? When you look at Justin Gatlin, a repeat offender who has been caught twice, and yet is still allowed to compete, you could probably say there is an awfully long way to go.

The subject of drugs has come to the fore again in recent days. The treatment of Chris Froome at the Tour de France shows how deep the stain of doping has ingrained itself into the sport of cycling.

Even with absolutely no evidence and with David Walsh of the Sunday Times (the journalist who led the campaign to expose Lance Armstrong) saying Froome is probably clean based on his observations and conversations in and around the peloton, a number of people still shout that Froome is cheating. Declarations have been made in public about him with no substantiation, above and beyond other riders doping in the past. A lynch mob has formed. Some have even gone as far as to throw urine and spit at the Tour de France winner. It has been a shameful and sorry sight.

Now WADA have waded in, as is their right. The World Anti-Doping Agency have come out to say that more than one in ten athletes could be doping. If that is true, then doping in sport is rife.

This got me thinking. Doping and football isn’t something you hear about too often. Every now and then you hear about a player getting caught using recreational drugs or another banned substance, but the cases are isolated. Good for football… or is it?

Let’s look more closely. Football is a game that relies on stamina, with many players covering over 10k during a game. The modern player also requires power, particularly in the top echelons where speed is seen as a huge asset. Professional footballers must remain fresh for an hour and a half, and be able to chase down, press and make quick repeated explosive bursts throughout that timespan. Fatigue causes mistakes, so peak fitness is critical. This makes the modern footballer a delicately-tuned machine.

Football is a global phenomenon. Love it or hate it, it’s a behemoth. The gaps between the haves and have nots is huge. Deloitte published a report recently which showed that the total revenue of the 20 Premier league clubs is £3.26bn. The sums are huge. It pays to be best, and it pays well.

Against this physical and economic background, you could argue that football is a fertile breeding ground for cheating.  You only have to look at the giant sewer that is FIFA, the betting and match fixing scandals, or the Italian league and its various indignities, to understand how easily the game can be corrupted.

On the theme of money, WADA’s director general David Howman has said sport’s increasing profitability had led to young athletes becoming more “vulnerable”. So how clean is one of the richest of all games – football – and how well policed is it?

Looking at the FA’s latest available stats, four footballers fell foul of anti-doping rule violations in the 2013/14 season. Any doper that is caught red-handed is good news and the FA is to be applauded for identifying those individuals.

The same stats from the FA show that 1,604 tests were carried out during that season at all levels of professional football. That means one in 400 tests resulted in a violation. These tests occur both in competition (post match) and out of competition (at training sessions and player’s home addresses).

One in 400 tests showing up as a violation is encouraging. When you consider that recreational drug use accounts for a good proportion of failed tests, it suggests there isn’t an endemic problem in the game. This, along with the FA’s efforts is assuring.

However, more can and should be done though. One doper is one too many. Imagine finding out that the one doper had been a player who’d scored or been involved in a last minute goal last season against Bradford City? That their ability to react quicker in the final seconds had perhaps been down to a physical advantage caused by cheating? We’d be apoplectic with rage.

At a glance, 1,604 tests seems a lot of testing. Broken down, it actually means that there is less than one drug test for every one of the 1,760 league games played in England during a season. With 22 players starting each game, it means there is a one in 24 chance that a player on either starting line-up will be tested on game day – although the chances are probably higher than that – as the FA do not publish how many tests were conducted post match and out of competition (ie at home or training).

The FA has said that it plans to increase the amount of tests to more than 2,000 which is good news, but it surely means that there is still a very reasonable chance of avoidance based on the odds. Only if they doubled that figure and then doubled it again do they start to reach the point of seriously, I mean seriously, going about detecting and deterring drug use within the game.  Reaching 8,000 tests means testing a couple of players from each side at least every game. It might yield nothing – brilliant – because it would make the claim ‘football against doping’ a much stronger one.

Is doping happening in football? As long as the tests show violations then the simple answer is yes. As long as that is the case, then more has to be done to detect,deter and educate. And, crucially, every effort has to be made to keep up with those who wish to dope. In this regard, more testing means better testing.

A recent programme by BBC’s Panorama demonstrated not only how easy it is to dope, but how easy it is to dope and not get caught. They did this by doping themselves. The journalist, Mark Daly, took a banned substance, EPO, in enough quantities to noticeably increase his performance and VO2 max – the measure of the maximum volume of oxygen that an athlete can use.

Over a 14 week period Daly first established his normal blood level, before spending seven weeks taking EPO, and then stopping for four weeks.

Incredibly, in the seven weeks taking EPO, he increased his VO2 max by 7%. When you consider that half a percentage point can make the difference in elite sport, 7% is a mammoth change. Even at my relatively sluggish levels, that would mean shaving six minutes of my half marathon PB of 1:32 – finishing almost one mile ahead of myself. It would make a football player a lot fresher.

About this, Daly wrote: “I kept a video diary during this period and one entry tells of a three-hour ride on a dark, cold night, when my legs were sore. It should have been deeply unpleasant, except it wasn’t. By the end of the ride, when I should have been wasted, I was as fresh as a daisy.”

Daly sent away 14 samples taken over the 14 weeks to an anti-doping source, and these numbers were run through biological passport software. Despite the very clear improvement in his performance, his results came back as clean. Despite illegally boosting his haemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells carrying oxygen) and haematocrit (percentage of blood made up of red blood cells), and thereby gaining a huge performance benefit thanks to the extra oxygen, Daly had hoodwinked the authorities.

Increasing the number of tests in football will not only increase the chances of catching culprits, but with more testing comes better testing too. It casts the net wider and it fixes some of the holes in the net. The authorities don’t need to publish the performance and physiological data of footballers like has happened with Chris Froome, but more sophisticated testing means the game stands a better chance of keeping up with any cheats that are out there.

More testing means better education for players too – see the case of City old-boy Danny Cadamarteri below. Had Cadamarteri and the club been exposed to drug testing more often, the player may well have been advised at some point by someone not to take something as innocuous as Day Nurse for a cold.

Although a depressing spectacle, finding and exposing drug cheats is a necessary step to make sport a better place. Cycling is an example – the sport has had to go through a lot of blood-letting and pain to get to where it is today – one where the Yellow Jersey is clean and we can celebrate it for what it is – physiological and sporting excellence (in my opinion).

The issue of doping can raise its head anywhere. It has raised its head at Bradford City. The case in question shows just how complex things can be. Danny Cadamarteri, a City player at the time, was banned for six months after a banned substance – ephedrine – was found in his urine sample.

Had Cadamarteri been transfusing his own blood and keeping spare bags of blood in his fridge in order to increase his red blood cell count and perform better? No, he’d had a cold and had taken Day Nurse, an everyday medicine stocked in all chemists. What he didn’t know is that Day Nurse contains the banned substance, ephedrine, and before he knew what was happening, he had been sacked by the club and thrown out of football by the authorities. A sad case indeed.

There will always be cases such as Cadamarteri, where negligence rather than deceit plays a role, so educating players is critical. More exposure to drug testing, and the process and rationale for it will help players in this regard.

There will always be young lads caught up in recreational drug use.  Footballers awash with spare money and spare time will always be exposed to those risks. City old-boy Owen Morrison, who was charged with supplying cocaine years after leaving the club, is possibly the closest example I can think of to our club.

Deliberately doping to gain an unfair advantage. It is cheating and it is a scandal. Football is free of a major proven doping scandal. Sometimes I wonder how long for.

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1 reply

  1. What Froome’s detractors fail to acknowledge is the regime adopted by British Cycling negates the need for reliance on doping. Whether it has eliminated it altogether I don’t know, but I would genuinely be surprised if Team Sky were guilty of it. The Brailsford approach can be summarised as ‘the aggregate impact of many marginal gains’. In short Brailsford and his team have sought to improve a lot of things by the odd % and it has had a massive overall impact. It aligns physical improvement with a focus on technical ability. Apart from the advantage of being legal it is probably more effective and less risky by not relying on a single big shot impact on the body.

    Until fairly recently I was active in amateur cycle racing and managed to prolong my racing career through adopting a similar approach of focusing on marginal gains. Thirty years ago, when I was racing as a student, heart rate monitors were only just being introduced and the approach to training was that if it didn’t hurt it was no good. Looking back at my race preparation it is really quite astounding. As far as cycling is concerned there have been leaps and bounds in technology (carbon fibre bikes etc) but the real gain has been about training smarter. In my swansong season as a 50 year old I was knocking out PBs and consistently beating much younger riders to get credible results on a national basis – in 2013 for example I finished 13th in the British Best All Rounder which was open to all ages. Admittedly you can’t overcome ageing but it was eye opening to see what could be achieved from a fairly analytical approach to preparation. This meant a structured regime, measurement of performance (heart rate, power output and recovery) and being open minded to new techniques which included on one occasion riding a bike in the Mercedes Petronas wind tunnel at Brackley. (As regards VO improvement, try drinking a pint of beetroot juice and see the impact!!! It’s street legal albeit not nice.)

    The training regime at VP appears to have been similarly transformed in the last decade, as evidenced by quotes in the press as well as the little stuff like warming down after games and use of sports drinks and adequate hydration before and during games. The players have been generally fitter, in particular in the last ten minutes of a game and there has also been the focus on mental training and the psychological stuff. Everything suggests that BCAFC have adopted the Brailsford philosophy of aggregating minor gains.

    I saw no evidence of drug taking in amateur cycling but at our level there was no need because it was possible to get the gains without resort to the blood transfusions etc. English footballers have never been acclaimed as athletes and I suspect that the subtle changes introduced at VP and elsewhere have been sufficient to improve performance.

    Unlike cyclists riding the TdF or long distance events, footballers don’t need the same stamina support. Riding 12 hour events is as mentally draining as it is physically punishing and again, footballers don’t have the same challenge. A further problem faced by any athlete is that if you take drugs to improve one element of performance, it can create overload on the body and disturb the existing balance. A footballer sprinting at full pelt for 90 minutes for example will undoubtedly screw up his muscles, something which makes doping far less appealing. Ditto, there is no point in you being a fast sprinter if your team mates are incapable of distributing a ball to you much quicker.

    In general footballers seem more intelligent nowadays. Admittedly it’s all relative and the stories of the drinking binges persist but culturally I would imagine that players are more open to scientific training without the need to resort to the heavy stuff. As for Danny boy, I suspect he was the exception to the rule.

    Maybe in another decade when the gains of science are exhausted we might see more illicit behaviour but I’d be surprised if it was prevalent now.

    BTW Jamie Lawrence is active nowadays as a fitness coach – it would be interesting to get his perspective on this.

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