Steroid use in South African rugby: A stand-alone case in rugby?

South African rugby steroids

In the weeks after the Springboks winning the Rugby World Cup, allegations of systematic steroid use in South African rugby started to surface.

There is a case to be heard as there have been high profile cases of senior-level players being caught using banned performance enhancers. Both Chiliboy Ralepelle (a second offense) and Aphiwe Dyantyi have recently fallen foul of the testing process. Added to this, 6 players in South Africa’s national schoolboy competition, Craven Week, tested positive. The offenders have not been named as they are minors in the eyes of the law.

South African rugby steroid use

What we have established is that there are confirmed cases of steroid use in South African rugby. The counter to that is that there is a maturing and ever-evolving testing process in place to catch those who offend. The more this happens, the more it becomes a disincentive to take the risk.

Springbok testing at RWC2019

Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus is on record stating that his squad was tested daily at the Rugby World Cup to ensure that their tournament victory can be regarded as clean. This makes a mockery of Neil Francis‘ claim that the Springboks win was tainted by steroids and should be marked with an asterisk. That statement is grossly unfair to a group of players who have no history of drug offenses and have passed the available tests that the rest of the rugby world is subjected to. The only thing this writer can agree with Francis on is the following statement:

“Is Dyantyi, a poster boy for the World Cup and winner of World Rugby’s young player of the year, the only one? Or the only one to be caught?”

The reality within this statement is that it applies to every single rugby playing nation in the world. If South African players are getting away with using prohibited substances, you can be certain that the problem would not be limited to them. The issue for the South African setup is that senior players have let themselves and the nation they represent down. Other rugby playing nations do have players being caught using performance enhancers. There are published lists of sporting competitors currently serving bans from Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. All include rugby players. This is by no means a defense of South Africa’s record (page 43 onwards). The message in this is that doping offenses can and will happen anywhere in the world.

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A murky underworld

The use of performance-enhancing substances is by its nature illegal and contrary to fair play. There are many tricks to try to circumvent the testing process, none more so than the organized attempts by Russia. It has also been reported that a total of 43 Kenyan long-distance runners have been handed bans for doping offenses in 2019 alone. This is a scourge that needs to be eliminated from all forms of sport. All sports have their own form of doping and plenty of allegations around the use of banned substances. Cycling, weight lifting, athletics. You name it. If you need your body to be in peak physical condition, there will be someone around willing to “help you with that”.

Some informed opinion

In a social media conversation between the author and Ross Tucker, he stated the following, which does not bode well for any sporting code.

“I think we are at the point in anti-doping where we have to say “testing has confirmed that none of the athletes are totally incompetent at doping”, but can’t use it to say “testing proves no athletes have doped”. This is universally true across all sports now. Unless they test basically every second day, with the resolution to detect methods and doses that have a half-life of say, a day, this will be true. Testing is certainly a disincentive, but unless allied to investigations, it’s a failed model.”

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Understanding the fight against doping

There are warning signs from all over that doping could be taking place and is not being detected. To get a better understanding of how the process of testing works in South Africa, Ryan Jordan had a chat with the CEO of the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport, Mr. Khalid Galant.

How often can an elite player in South Africa expect to be tested in a year?

An elite player can be tested any number of times.  The testing of players is not random. The testing strategy which makes up our Test Distribution Plan is determined by a few variables (intelligence information, unusual spike in performances, injury layoffs, major competitions, etc.)

Does testing extend to club level and if so, how often?

Testing is not routine at club level as our resources do not really permit testing “deep down” into amateur competition levels.  We have however tested during the play-off rounds of the Gold Cup, the national club competition.

What other levels of players are subjected to testing and how often?

Rugby players are tested from the Craven Week Tournament, u19 Provincial teams, Varsity Cup, Senior Provincial, sevens and international level. Female players are also subject to testing under our anti-doping rules.

Is “masking” still possible or has testing been improved to detect that

Masking has always been detectable, it is micro-dosing that is a bit more difficult to detect especially in the off-season.

Is random out of competition testing of rugby players conducted in South Africa?

Our testing is not random like a lottery.  Testing conforms to a National Test Distribution Plan which is built around risk profiles of sport codes, teams and individual athletes.

To conclude

The use of banned substances in sport is nothing new. Fighting against doping is critical. As Tucker stated, testing for doping is one thing. Following that up with investigation is critical to reaching further than just the sportsperson. The unscrupulous individuals that help them to cheat should be included in the process of determining guilt and ultimately punishment.

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