Testing times

SIMON BORCHARDT discovers that schoolboy rugby players who take performance-enhancing drugs are playing a dangerous game.

The days of South African schoolboy rugby players taking steroids and getting away with it are numbered. Not only have top rugby schools in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal come together to prevent sports doping but government is also looking to change the law regarding drug testing at schools.

As it stands, the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport (Saids) can only test schoolboy rugby players at Saru-sanctioned events like Craven Week, where players give consent to be tested when signing up. Saids cannot just arrive at a school and test players, because there are issues like access to pupils, parental consent and the lack of a code under which they can prosecute.

Saids chairman Dr Shuaib Manjra says he is happy for schools to self-regulate when it comes to drug testing as long as the testing is independent, unannounced and done according to Saids’ rules. However, he adds that tightening legislation would not only allow Saids to go into schools and do testing of its own but would also help it to target the manufacturers of sports drugs.

‘We would not encourage giving schoolboys who test positive a two-year ban like we do for professional rugby players because it would end their school sports career. We want to emphasise the educational value of what they did and attempt to prevent such behaviour through deterrence. We also want to know where they got the drugs from, so that we can target the supply chain. Steroids either come through internet purchases and pass through South African customs or are produced in South Africa, and can be obtained from almost any gym.

‘Testing at schools should not be the top priority – awareness, education and deterrence are more important [Saids launched its ‘I Play Fair – Say No! To Doping’ awareness campaign in June]. You want kids to choose not to dope.’

But Saids wants to catch those who do, and has recently significantly increased its ‘positive rate’ by changing its testing method.

‘In the past we used to develop our testing programme by creating a matrix of high-risk sports and high-risk athletes,’ Manjra explains. ‘We’d come and collect a urine sample and send it to the laboratory to test it for substances like steroids and EPO [erythropoietin]. But the problem with this method is that if you took EPO last night and I test you this morning, it’s already out of your system. The injectable steroids that the guys used to take stayed in the body for weeks, but the oral steroids available now have a shorter half life and exit the body much quicker. All this explains why the average worldwide positive rate for target testing is 1%, even though an estimated 10% of athletes use sports drugs.’

Manjra says that Saids, which spends a fortune on drug testing, had to find out what it could do differently in order to increase its positive rate. The answer was intelligent testing.

‘Firstly, we do 10 tests on the athlete and create a biological passport, which is like a fingerprint, and say this is where they physiologically reside. Any test that falls above or below that framework, using sophisticated statistical programmes, indicates they’ve been doping. In other words, we’re no longer looking for a substance in your body, we’re looking for the effect it’s had on your body.

‘Secondly, we’re using the intelligence we receive about doping. People tell us that this or that person is taking drugs, but we’ve got limited capabilities in terms of processing that information in a way that will allow us to prosecute. So we’re putting together an intelligence surveillance system that allows us to use that information to target test more effectively.

‘Thirdly, we look for where the greatest risk of doping is and at what point athletes will use certain drugs. For example, cyclists who use EPO will probably stop taking it 48 hours before an event, so drug testers need to have a calendar of these events and plan their testing around them. Rugby players will probably take drugs during pre-season to bulk up and then a couple of times during the season. We also look at sudden improvements in performance or increase in size and target those athletes.’

The results speak for themselves. In 2010, Saids did 2 000 tests using target testing and had 19 positives. In 2010, they did roughly the same number of tests using intelligent testing and had 50 positives.

Manjra says there’s no way to tell if those who test positive took the drugs intentionally or inadvertently through supplements, like Chiliboy Ralepelle and Bjorn Basson, who tested positive last November after using a contaminated USN supplement. If the player insists it’s the latter, he has to prove it to the medical tribunal.

‘That’s why we tell athletes to stay away from supplements,’ says Manjra. ‘There’s no quality control with supplements like there is with pharmaceutical products – you don’t know what’s in them.

‘I believe supplements are the gateway to steroids – when an athlete starts taking artificial substances and they don’t have the desired effect, they often cross that boundary to steroids. In fact, there’s a study that shows that athletes who take weight-gain or weight-loss supplements are more likely to end up using steroids than those who don’t.’

Riaan de Vries started his company Drug Detection International (DDI) after a personal experience with drugs. His girlfriend was addicted to crystal meth and it took him a long time to break out of denial and recover emotionally. He is still recovering financially.

‘When I moved on from that relationship, I decided to start a company that helps organisations, people and their loved ones with drug addiction,’ says De Vries. ‘At the beginning of 2011 we looked at how we could help schools test for performance-enhancing drugs. We formed a relationship with an American lab, Quest Diagnostics, and adopted the American model of testing at school level. Because of current legislation, we had to go about our work without interfering with the work being done by Saids. We did a trial with a couple of schools and found that there was a major problem.’

DDI approached schools to do testing, but also received referrals from Jon Patricios, who was the Lions’ doctor for 10 years, and Glen Hagemann, the managing director of Sharks Medical and SharkSmart.

‘A few years ago, I began noticing how much bigger the schoolboys who came to see me looked,’ says Patricios. ‘The questions that they, and in some cases, their parents asked also set off alarm bells. I can’t call a parent or a headmaster to tell them that I think their son or pupil is taking steroids, because of doctor-patient confidentiality, so I decided to write an article, published in the Sunday Times in January 2010, in which I expressed concerns about schoolboys taking steroids for performance-enhancing and image reasons. After reading that article, some schools decided to do something about it.’

On 29 May 2011, the Sunday Times ran a story on tests conducted by DDI on pupils at 18 of South Africa’s top schools in which 21 out of 130 pupils – roughly one in six – tested positive for a variety of steroids. The newspaper revealed that three of the pupils who tested positive were from King Edward VII (KES) in Joburg, two were from St Alban’s College in Pretoria and that one boy from St John’s College in Joburg had twice the testosterone levels for a teenager his age.

‘Around 60% of the 130 pupils we tested play sport, while the other 40% just want to look good,’ says De Vries. ‘I can’t say how many of those 21 [who tested positive] play rugby, because we didn’t request that information, but I can say that there is a major problem in rugby.

‘It’s also important to note that we never revealed that KES, St Alban’s and St John’s had pupils who tested positive – the Sunday Times went to those schools and they divulged that information. We’ve never said how many schools we tested, or which schools we tested. DDI is bound by confidentiality agreements with our schools not to damage their reputations by disclosing information but instead assists them in eradicating the use of steroids and helps their pupils recover from this addiction.’

St Alban’s headmaster Tom Hamilton says the two pupils from his school who tested positive were targeted for testing because of how they had bulked up in a short period.

‘Both have been given sanctions that were managed in an educational manner internally,’ he adds. ‘Although they are not serious sportsmen at all, their sanctions carry a six-month ban on any type of participation in representative inter-school sports. Their families have been supportive and proactive throughout. We will be having at least one more round of tests for performance-enhancing drugs before the end of this year.’

St Alban’s, which is part of the Gauteng Heads of Boys’ Schools Group, has an annual budget of R100 000 for performance-enhancing drug testing. With DDI charging R1 500 per test, St Alban’s will be able to do two batches of 30 pupils every year (there is a statistical rule of thumb that a batch of less than 30 tests reveals little in terms of the actual underlying trends and proportions) as well as up to 10 more tests for pupils who raise suspicion. (The parents of those who test positive at St Alban’s have to pay for any additional tests that are required to prove that rehabilitation has been achieved.)

De Vries admits that the cost of testing is too high for most South African schools.

‘Unfortunately we can’t bring the price down, as we already only have a profit margin of 10%. We test for about 40 substances and masking agents – it’s a massive panel – and there are things like shipment costs that all add up. I wish we could make it more affordable, especially for government schools. We are looking to get sponsorship from companies, players and old boys so that we can make the service available to schools that can’t afford it.’

De Vries and Patricios echo Manjra in emphasising that while drug testing at schools is important, so is drug prevention.

‘We often give talks at schools and we do them for free,’ says De Vries. ‘We want to educate people and communities. We advocate that steroids will not ensure success in life, and that you need to achieve your goals through training hard and proper nutrition.’

‘I tell kids who are thinking of taking steroids that it’s cheating and goes against the ethos of rugby,’ says Patricios. ‘It’s physically harmful – many of the effects like high blood pressure, heart problems and elevated cholesterol only occur later on in life – and psychologically harmful as steroids cause extreme aggression and depression. I also remind them that it’s a criminal offence to have a schedule-five drug without a prescription and can result in a 10-year jail sentence.

‘Hopefully once they have all that information, they do the right thing.’

The Gauteng Heads of Boys’ Schools Group (GHBSG) is an informal and non-binding association of state and independent schools, including Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool (Affies), CBC Boksburg, Jeppe High School for Boys, King Edward VII School (KES), Parktown Boys’ High, Pretoria Boys’ High, St Alban’s College, St Benedict’s College, St David’s Marist Inanda, St John’s College and St Stithians Boys’ College. The group meets on a regular basis to discuss matters of common concern and those discussions are underpinned by common values and ethos. All GHBSG schools have amended policies, consulted or communicated with parents and other relevant bodies and are in a position to test for performance-enhancing drugs on a regular basis, which is happening. All these schools have undertaken to educate their boys on the dangers of such drugs and supplements, and have agreed on a minimum sanction of a six-month ban from all sport for boys who test positive. The gist of all such programmes is educational and preventative.

The Discovery SharkSmart Schools of Excellence Programme is overseen by Sharks Medical and empowers the participating high schools in KwaZulu-Natal to meet a number of pre-determined criteria related to playing rugby safely and fairly. From 1 January 2012, one of these criteria will require their pupils to be tested for performance-enhancing drugs. The programme was launched in 2010 and nine schools – Weston Agricultural College, Hilton College, Maritzburg College, Westville Boys’ High, Kearsney College, Hillcrest High, Glenwood High, Clifton College and Crawford College (La Lucia) – were successfully accredited as SharkSmart Schools of Excellence. Additional schools participating in the programme this year include Durban High School (DHS), Treverton College, Hoërskool Voortrekker, Hoërskool Port Natal, Northwood School, Michaelhouse, Kingsway High, South City College, Ohlanga High, Umlazi Commercial and Technical School, Kloof High and St Charles College.

– This article first appeared in the August issue of SA Rugby magazine. The September issue – a 260-page World Cup special – will be on sale from 24 August.