In 1997 a man was jailed for six months for peddling steroids in south Wales. Hardly a headline grabber, you might think, but this was no backstreet drug pusher: the man was Michael Thear-Graham, a GP in Newport who was running an industrial-scale racket.
At the time the media described him as supplying “bodybuilders”, but many of us in sport knew he also had a large and growing market in rugby, which had just turned professional.
The bodybuilder line was symptomatic of a culture of denial that meant the problem of steroids in Wales’s national sport would go completely untackled for many years.
About a decade after Thear-Graham’s incarceration, while doing research for Over The Line, I asked a very senior official in Welsh sport how many rugby players he thought were using steroids. He put it simply: “How many aren’t?”
I continued to dig. Doctors told me they had seen former players struggling with heart conditions after years of steroid abuse. People in rugby spoke privately about coaches telling young wannabes to “bulk up” and even sometimes handing out the tablets.
My then teenage son would come home from gyms around Newport with tales of ’roiders – both rugby players and boys “getting ripped” to look good. Yet there was generally a reluctance to go on the record, which didn’t matter to me because I had decided at the outset that the best way to tell the truth was through fiction.
Now, thanks to a banned rugby player whose brave revelations may help to save his sport, we are seeing some light being shone on the reality that steroids are almost as much a part of rugby’s culture as tying your laces. And that isn’t just in Wales. The whistleblower, 20-year-old Daniel Spencer-Tonks, who was interviewed as part of a documentary this week on Welsh rugby, is actually a former England under-16 rugby union international who was playing rugby league for the University of Gloucestershire All Golds when he failed a drug test in February. He says steroid use is “hugely widespread” at all levels because of a pressure on players to be “bigger, faster and stronger”.
Of the 52 sportspeople on the UK anti-doping agency’s list of current sanctions, 16 are from rugby union and 13 are from rugby league. This is not a sign of more testing. The England Rugby Football Union, for instance, did not introduce testing for 17- and 18-year-old academy players until 2013-14, and even then carried out only 100 tests. To beat the problem, testing should start at 14 or 15 and be much more extensive.
Doping in sports such as athletics and cycling has had far more media attention because success or failure is measured in fractions of a second, and performance-enhancing drugs can directly affect the outcome. In team sports it is harder to trace the relationship between cheating and results, and there is less of a sense among the public that we are being duped.
If cheating were the only concern, you could argue that there is a level playing field in rugby because so many players are using or have used steroids. But the much bigger issues are the deadly long-term health dangers of steroid abuse and the need to protect children from the pressure to do anything to “make it” – especially in austerity-hit working-class communities.
In academic circles there is a continuing debate about whether there is enough evidence to say conclusively that steroid abuse causes heart and kidney problems and increases the risk of some types of cancer. The difficulty, as ever, is in separating cause and effect. Many steroid users also take other drugs, and there are mixed views on the dangers of excessive bodybuilding. But the risks are clear from numerous tragic cases, and my view is that we can’t afford to wait for definitive research.
In the US, the Taylor Hooton Foundation (THF) is effective because it does not hesitate to use hard-hitting examples to make the case against both appearance and performance enhancing drugs (APEDs). Baseball was a sport mired in doping scandals only a few years ago, but THF has now signed up every one of the 30 major league baseball teams for its All Me APED Free campaign.
If admitting a problem is the first step towards solving it, I don’t yet feel overwhelmed with optimism about either code of rugby. Leading voices from both tend to shrug and say “all sports have their problems”. But we would not accept that from Russian athletics – and nor should we accept it on our own doorstep.
And there’s the rub: a precedent has been set by the decision to suspend Russia that may preclude their participation in next summer’s Olympics Games in Rio. Rugby – now an Olympic sport – may not have long to put its own house in order.
This article was first published by The Guardian.
Steve, a former sports journalist, is author of Over The Line, a novel telling the story of an athlete whose Olympic ambitions are threatened by an affair with a banned rugby player and the reopening of an police investigation into the steroid-linked death of an old school friend
Follow him on Twitter @fromstevehowell
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