‘There’ll be a three-month ban’

GARETH DUNCAN talks to Prof Tim Noakes about the Springbok ‘doping’ saga, and the precautions players should take to avoid testing positive.

Were you surprised to hear about Bjorn Basson and Chiliboy Ralepelle’s failed drugs tests?
I didn’t expect it and I don’t think it was intentional. The banned stimulant, methylhexanamine, does not enhance performance in a meaningful way and it could have entered their systems in a number of ways. Certain medication and foods contain methylhexanamine, and modern drugs tests are so advanced that it will take a nanogram of that substance for the stimulant to be traced. I also suspect it could have been in the supplements they were using. While some manufacturers certify that their supplements don’t contain banned substances, their equipment often produces different batches of supplements, so not all batches are always clean. If it was in the supplements, it could have happened to any of the players. Imagine if key players like Victor Matfield or Bakkies Botha had to fail the drugs tests. There would have been chaos in the media.

So the ‘doping’ calls were unfair?
I couldn’t believe the media and people were calling the players ‘dopers’ and ‘cheats’ for what appears to have been an innocent mistake. They weren’t intentionally taking drugs to enhance their performance. Normally sportsmen who can win millions in prize money are the ones who dope to win, like in the Tour de France, but South African rugby players don’t earn that kind of money. The cost of proper doping that will escape detection is expensive – it can cost up to R200 000 or R300 000 per year. Most rugby players will bow down to these economical pressures.

What is methylhexanamine?
It’s a pretty ineffective stimulant and it may be reclassified by the World Anti-Doping Agency [Wada] in 2011. The bad thing about its prohibited list is that most stimulants are banned without proper testing. Stimulants are banned simply because they are believed to aid performance in some sports. Some years ago we tested isoprenaline, also a banned stimulant which is similar to methylhexanamine, and found that it doesn’t enhance performance. If methylhexanamine is taken off the banned list in the future, it will confirm my opinion that this is all a storm in a teacup.

What will be the consequences of the Bok ‘doping’ incident?
I think there will be a three-month ban because the ‘doping’ was unintentional and didn’t involve a real doping drug like steroids. Chiliboy and Bjorn should be able to play Super Rugby in 2011.

Should the Springbok management monitor what supplements the players take?
They do, but it’s a tough situation to be in because you can’t guarantee that every batch of supplements the team uses will be 100% clean and it will cost a lot to test each tin of supplements. Players also receive free supplements from their sponsors and unions, and because they train for four or more hours a day, they take the supplements instead of eating. I don’t understand why players continue to use supplements instead of just eating properly. It’s not proven that supplements offer anything that you can’t get just from eating better. And if you use the supplements, you run the risk of failing a drugs test. Players should rather eat properly or take meal replacements produced by ethical companies.

What’s your take on Craven Week Player of the Year Johan Goosen also getting banned after traces of methylhexanamine were found in his system?
I don’t know the details but the fact that he only received a three-month ban indicates it wasn’t a serious offence and more likely an unintentional mistake. The sad thing is that junior players, especially schoolboys, see rugby professionals taking supplements, so they also take them, thinking they will help. So they also risk testing positive. There’s also the view that schoolboys are more likely to dope because of the pressures of establishing a rugby career after school and the risk of detection is low since little testing is performed on junior rugby players.

This article first appeared in SA Rugby magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print or digital editions.

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