Hawkeye Sidekick

Ray Walker doping case – a wake up call for the GAA?

GAA doping violations in the spotlight

A week ago, not many GAA fans outside of County Carlow would have known the name Ray Walker. A routine out of competition test in February from Walker then found an adverse result and national media attention drew to the story to the extent that Walker went to social media to confirm that he was the intercounty footballer in question. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the case, the Meldonium substance involved and how the GAA family can learn from this case.

Ray Walker: Four year ban

Ray Walker’s statement on social media was quite inconclusive and no real information as to how the banned substance which prompted his failed test was ingested. The statement left many questions. Why did the player not appeal the four year ban? What was the banned substance in question? What was the Carlow GAA’s policy in educating club player to the use of substances (over the counter or banned)? A lot of questions to answer.

In the aftermath of this statement, Dr. Una May entered the fray. Dr. May is the head of Sporting Ireland’s anti-doping unit and her statement and comments left people in no doubt on the specifics of the case. Meldonium was the banned substance found in Walker’s sample and significantly the first Irish sportsperson to go down with this substance. It was quite the revelation. The rationale behind Walker’s decision not to appeal the extent of the ban perhaps starting to emerge.

Ray Walker’s playing career has seen various stints with the Carlow senior county side.

Last season, Walker was not on the panel but given this excellent club form with his club O’Hanrahan’s who won the intermediate title last year, he received a call up from manager Turlough O’Brien.

The failed doping test a sad way for the player to exit intercounty and also probably his club career. The ban will expire when the player is thirty-nine years of age.

Meldonium

The drug was first developed in 1970 by Ivars Kalviņš at the USSR Latvia Institute of Organic Synthesis. It is now manufactured by the Latvian pharmaceutical company Grindeks and several generic manufacturers.

The drug was used by Russian soldiers during the Afghanistan conflict in late 70’s and into the 80’s. This was because of the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, Soviet soldiers would take meldonium to increase their endurance in the oxygen-reduced air while carrying large backpacks.

The medical uses of Meldonium are interesting to note — several Eastern bloc countries use it to treat problems with circulation in the brain. Some people report that the drug elevates mood and improves motor symptoms, dizziness, and nausea.

It also used to assist people’s withdrawal symptoms of alcohol dependency. Other uses include apparently treating stomach ulcers, treating eye trauma and infections of the lungs and upper respiratory tract. The drug is banned in the USA and is in the prohibited banned substance list of WADA in 2016.

Meldonium doping cases have focused on Eastern European athletes. The most prominent cases were Maria Sharapova. She tested positive for the substance on March 7, 2016.

Although Ms. Sharapova contested that she had been taking meldonium for 10 years to treat an on-going medical issue, she received a provisional suspension. Russia, Ethiopia, Sweden, Germany, and Ukraine have had failed doping tests for Meldonium particularly long distance winter (biathlon, cross country skiing) and summer sporting (long distance running, cycling) events.

Ireland: Meldonium doping wake-up call

This first doping Meldonium case in Ireland is sure to have a rippled effect throughout Irish sporting circles and may prompt Sport Ireland to increase their testing of GAA players.

In 2019, Sport Ireland carried out only 135 drug tests on GAA players – the fourth highest testing rate by sport. This rate of testing represents a cohort of approximately 0.06 % of inter county players

The question has to be asked, given how low the testing is currently — are players taking the risk and gamble to ingest banned supplements for performance gain. Is Ray Walker’s case an unique case or is there more to this? You have to wonder.

The main point on Ray Walker’s statement was the lack of communication and awareness in this area. Zero consultation between the player and county team medical team on the use of the substance. The player went on a solo run and paid the ultimate consequences.

It should hopefully provide a timely reminder for GAA county boards and even clubs to look at the drugs policy procedures; time to refresh this to playing members and to emphasize the need to consult club or county medical officials before taking medication.

The James Cronin case for Munster Rugby is one which has perhaps some legs left in the story given this verdict. An errand pharmacist prescription and the player ingested the medication thinking everything was fine. The player and the Munster Rugby medical team were in constant communication but does this case get reexamined by Sport Ireland after this Walker case? One month vs. four year ban is quite a difference.

There is a need to review the testing numbers across all sporting Irish organizations. GAA testing will need to increase but where does the testing start from? Underage minors, does the club player get added to the mix? GAA and GPA need to sit down with Sport Ireland to discuss the Walker case urgently and determine what next to this question. Other sporting bodies will need to ask the same questions.

Sport Ireland tested a Carlow footballer but is that happening for players in the bigger successful teams? Some may accuse this doping test finding as an easy win on a player playing for a perceived weaker county but Sport Ireland need to be far more stringent on testing across all GAA intercounty teams. GAA HQ are in agreement with the Sport Ireland doping policy but the lack of intercounty players testing is a source of great concern for the credibility of the sport.

The GPA as well need to provide direction and leadership to their membership on this failed test case. It is a wake up call to the responsibilities of the player, the individual and what they put into their bodies. GAA is not professional but given the county preparations now going on, it has gone full blown professional in certain counties in the resources at the disposal of players (certain counties).

Players need to be educated / refresher courses scheduled on supplement and medical prescription do’s and don’ts. Otherwise, we may have more cases undermining the sport and it would be a shame if the player that was prosecuted (young player) was because of a lack of knowledge in the area. The Ray Walker case should be the defining discussion point for improvements in this area of sport in this country. Let’s see what transpires.

References:

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/309165

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meldonium

https://www.rte.ie/sport/gaa/2020/0502/1136227-ignorance-and-amateurism-no-defence-in-doping-battle/