Only a few weeks after the publication of Over The Line, three teenage rugby players from the same school were suspended from the game after being found using anabolic steroids.
It gives me no comfort that real life should tie in so closely with the plot of my novel in which an Olympic poster girl is tainted by her association with a talented school rugby player who has been given a two-year drugs ban.
And it is hardly surprising either to anyone close to the world of rugby. For, while Lance Armstrong and Justin Gatlin tend to grab the headlines, there is mounting evidence to show that rugby has an even bigger problem than either cycling or athletics.
The current UK anti-doping agency list of sportspeople banned within the last 12 months shows that of a total of 48 there were 18 from rugby union and a further nine from rugby league – 56% from the two codes.
The next highest on the list is boxing with five followed by athletics with four and cycling and weightlifting with three apiece.
From a cheating point of view, you could argue that steroid use matters less in team sports than it does in individual events where fractions of a second separate the competitors and steroids therefore can be decisive.
It is perfectly understandable from an ethical point of view that so much attention should be given to sprinting when 16 of the top 17 times ever recorded for the men’s 100m are tainted because they were run by people who’ve committed doping offences.
But this debate is not only about ethics. We also need to consider the health risks sportspeople are taking when they use steroids.
When Over The Line was published it earned the dubious distinction of a review by a steroid-pedalling website.
Steroid.com accused me of being ‘sensationalistic’ and of using ‘questionable scare tactics’. They argue that steroids ‘can prolong a (sports) career or stave off injury’ and insist there have been no deaths ‘directly’ from their use.
They admit steroid users could get ‘horrible’ infections by injecting themselves with dirty needles but say: “This is not the fault of anabolic steroids; it’s your fault for being an idiot”.
So what is the health position? The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) acknowledges the need for more research but the official advice is very clear: “both men and women who take anabolic steroids can develop medical conditions such as heart attack or stroke, liver and kidney tumours, high blood pressure, blood clots, fluid retention and high cholesterol.” (NHS Choices)
This is on top of the non-life-threatening side-effects for men such as infertility, shrunken testicles, baldness, breast development, splayed teeth and overgrowth of the forehead, severe acne and mood swings (‘roid rage).
For young people, there is concern that steroids can cause premature ageing of the bones and restricted growth if used prior to the adolescent growth spurt. (NHS Choices)
My own anecdotal evidence – gathered from bereaved parents, sports experts and doctors while researching Over The Line – has left me in no doubt that there is a connection between steroid use and premature health problems and deaths among former rugby players and bodybuilders.
And I don’t think we’ve seen the half of it yet. With steroid use now so widespread among teenage boys and in rugby, it is only a matter of time before we see their deadly long-term consequences surfacing on a much larger scale.
Laurent Benezech, the former France and Harlequins prop, said recently that drug-taking in rugby has become ‘institutionalised’ since the sport turned professional in 1995.
“Players are being told to bulk up, and it’s being spelled out to them in no uncertain terms that the way to bulk up is to take drugs,” he alleged.
“You can’t become as big as the players are becoming without a serious amount of drug-taking. Once a core of players take drugs, get bigger and win places, the only way other players can compete is by taking drugs too. It’s a problem that has engulfed the sport.”
Benezech was sued by the French players’ union representing their 134 members but was cleared of defamation in September.
Paradoxically, in the United States it’s the other way round. The National Football League (NFL) is facing legal action from more than 4,500 retired players looking for $765m in compensation for lack of care for their health, including strokes arising from the misuse of pain killers and brain damage.
One of the questions being asked in the US is: what did the NFL know and when? And the same could be asked here with steroids. If drug taking is ‘institutionalised’, could we one day see former players suing the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union on the grounds they knew and didn’t do enough to stamp it out?
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