Tuesday, 7 April 2020

If I was an athlete...

If I was an athlete…

… I’d be getting ahead by putting my feet up!

It seems that, at every turn, I’ve been the big bad reality wolf recently, quashing people’s hopes that they’re going to finally get to play that promotion game, reminding them that even a truncated or delayed season was a faint reality.

But, finally, the sports world seems to be coming to the realisation that 2020 just isn’t going to happen.

And while every man and his training-partner dog has been busy demonstrating that they are tougher and more resilient than the next, devising a mega weights workout for their back garden, or calculating just how many miles they can tot up within a two kilometres of their house, the clever ones have been saying nothing.

In a competitive world, becoming ever more professionalised, sportspeople have been conditioned to prove that they want it more than the next, to fight against all the odds, to not, for one second, give up hope. It’s as though they must always fight to the bitter end, or to die trying, only stopping when they’ve been dragged kicking and screaming from the battlefield.

And that’s part of what makes sportspeople so special.

There’s little room, then, in that world for the ones who’ve played this smart. The ones who walked away as soon as the going got tough. The ones who figured that life itself was the only thing we’d be battling for this year. The ones who realised that being sensible, saving the strain for a later date, would yield greater results.

So often sportspeople talk about the sacrifices they make. The time they miss with their children. The lives put on hold. The constant effort. The pain.

And while not all alternatives are possible right now, there are still many opportunities to catch up on some of those missed life experiences. To give the body a break and let it fully recover for once. To do new things. To prepare for life after sport. To, perhaps, extend a career at the other end.

Whether you’re currently uncovering mental resolve you never know you had as you sprint up the stairs for the 400th time today, or you’re giving the body the first holiday it has had in years as you finally crack on with that online course you’d put on the long finger, 2020 will certainly be a year to remember.

But if you're not rolling around the garden in tears of laughter after doing wheelbarrow races with those unluckly enough to share your space, you're probably doing this wrong!

Thursday, 2 January 2020

What would I do?

Imagine you're a coach.

Maybe you already are.

Your star female athlete, after months of concern, has finally plucked up the confidence to speak to you. She’s heard and read much about the consequences of amenorrhoea, and feels that it’s time she shared with you the things that have been bothering her.

She hasn’t had a period since she upped her mileage and became more disciplined (read: “obsessive”) about her diet, eighteen months ago. The nagging pain in her foot, which gets worse the further she runs, is also a concern.

How, as a coach, do you respond?

Is your first reaction: “Oh no, the ‘P’ word! Periods are too embarrassing for me to talk about!”

Now, just imagine you’ve got past the initial discomfort, and accepted that it’s probably more awkward for the athlete to talk about periods than it is for you. Do you then question why you need to know?

Are you unaware of the risks of amenorrhoea (i.e. the absences of a regular period), under-eating, increased training and the resultant energy imbalance? And that the persistent, nagging pain might indicate a stress fracture?

Or maybe you know a bit about the issues (or have quickly educated yourself via your search engine of choice), but still question how this is relevant to you? Afterall, you’re a coach, not a doctor!

And it can’t be that bad, can it? Your athlete doesn’t have an eating disorder. If she had an eating disorder you’d know about it, wouldn’t you? She’s not even that thin, you think. If she’s not that thin, there can’t be a problem, right?


Now, let’s just suppose that your athlete is excessively thin. Everyone has been remarking about how ‘in shape’ she looks. She is lean and running well. Changes have happened since she’s upped her training and visited the nutritionist. And there’s been the big race wins, the personal bests and international call-ups.

Long may the good-times roll!

Then someone suggests that her thinness may be becoming excessive. Having been away at university all term, her parents haven’t seen her in a few months. When they do see her, they barely recognise her, and express their concern.

Do you try to reassure them by saying that’s all part of the bigger plan? She’s turning into a real athlete now, and being thin is all part of that.

Are you too close to notice just how excessive, dramatic and damaging the changes have been?

When the parents suggest that her absent periods may also be an issue, do you explain that away too as a normal by-product of training harder. Do you remind them that this happens to many female athletes? Do you suggest that it’s more difficult to find an endurance athlete with a regular period than it is to find one that doesn’t?

Are you naive enough to question if she’s better off without them anyway?

Or do you know and understand the risks, and the devastating long-term affect on an athlete’s health, but either consciously, or unconsciously, feel that this is something that just happens to athletes in other training groups?

Or do you know and care, and want to help, but just don’t know where to start, or who can help? Afterall there’s lots of information out there on the dangers, but very little advice on what to do next!

Have you tried seeking assistance for cases like this in the past, and struggled to get the assistance and advice you needed?

Are you being told by the ‘professionals’ that this is ‘normal’, or that issues with your athlete are not yet bad enough to warrant intervention?

Or, do you fall into the most dangerous category of all? Do you see all the warning signs, and say nothing? Do you simply hope that your athlete will be the one athlete that gets away with it?

Long may the good times roll, eh?

But they don’t, do they? The bad times roll much longer.


Amenorrhoea: the next steps

Much has been written about RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport) and the Female Athlete Triad - the causes and consequences in particular – but considerably less information has been provided on what to do next and where someone who is experiencing amenorrhoea can seek help.

Unfortunately, delayed menarche (primary amenorrhoea), and the absence of periods (secondary amenorrhoea) have all too often become accepted consequences of endurance training. While common, these hormonal imbalances, which have severe long-term consequences, should never be considered normal, or even an expected side-effect of training for endurance events.

RED-S and the Female Athlete Triad

The Female Athlete Triad – the co-existence of disordered eating, menstrual irregularities and sub-optimal bone health among female sportspeople – has been expanded over the years.  RED-S recognises that poor bone health isn’t the only consequence of energy imbalance; that males can be affected too; and that the energy imbalance resulting in menstrual disruption isn’t always due to an eating disorder, or even intentional energy restriction.

And while the shift in terminology removes the blame and has helped break down the taboo around the subject, there are some potential pitfalls. While not all energy deficit is the result of an eating disorder, the softer terminology associated with RED-S means that eating disorders are sometimes overlooked.

Eating disorders are a group of complex and serious mental illness, with potentially fatal consequences, which will not be cured by simply increasing energy intake. They must be treated with specialist support, including psychotherapy.

Amenorrhoea: a major warning

Another potential downfall of the softer language of RED-S is that we lose how big a red flag the absence of menstrual bleeding is.

Yes, in some cases, hormone levels can be reduced, and bone health compromised, long before menstrual function disappears. But amenorrhoea is the best single warning sign we have that something is not quite right, and should always be followed up.

As with eating disorders, the GP is the best first port-of-call, but, as with eating disorders, a GP may well explain amenorrhoea away as a normal response to endurance training.

Common? Yes. Normal? No. Serious? Absolutely!

Get your bone mineral density checked

Osteopenia - reduced bone mineral density - is the most common, significant, and long-lasting side-effect of reduced energy intake and low hormone levels. Low body mass, low body fat, and a limited variety of impact forces can add to osteopenia risk in distance runners.

Distance runners, particularly females, should have their BMD checked every few years. The short, pain-less DEXA scan can give you a good indication of your current bone mineral health, and relevant populations can often have these scans done free as part of research studies.


Amenorrhoea can be caused by things other than energy deficiency, including genetics, and the first step a GP should take is to rule out underlying medical causes, such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and hypothalamus or pituitary gland issues.

Athletes experiencing RED-S, or the components of the Female Athlete Triad, are likely to be treated in a variety of ways. In the past individuals would have routinely been prescribed oral hormonal contraceptives and sent away, hoping for the best, and while this may often still be the case, it is not current best practice.

The best treatment is a return of regular menses. This may involve increasing energy intake, gaining weight and/or reducing exercise volume. For already obsessed athletes, missing training and increasing weight may be daunting, and this is where coach, family and peer group support is crucial, and long-term development must be emphasised.

Other dietary interventions, including increased calcium and vitamin D intake (or supplementation), are likely to also be recommended. As is some form of hormonal replacement therapy, particularly if bone mineral density is already impaired.

The sooner the issues are resolved, the better the outcome. Athletes experiencing primary and secondary amenorrhoea should seek medical help as early as possible. If your GP is reluctant to intervene, see the help of a specialist sports doctor.

Get involved in research

Research continues to be an important component in expanding our current knowledge and treatment of amenorrhoea and osteopenia. DEXA scans, while great for picking up osteopenia, are poor at predicting osteopenia in the future. Bone marker tests may be better.

Similarly, there may be better prevention and treatment methods than those currently applied. And if we enhance our understanding of why some athletes are more susceptible to menstrual dysfunction than others, then we can become better at prevention.

It is important, therefore, that athletic individuals donate their body to science as and when the opportunity arises.

What coaches, parents and other support staff can do

Coaches shouldn’t be afraid to ask female athletes about their current menstrual status. While this shouldn’t be a public conversation, the topic should be one that is openly discussed.

Stress fractures – particularly recurrent or slow healing ones – are often an indication of underlying low bone mineral density and hormonal or dietary issues. They can be used as a conversation starter, and a prompt to encourage an athlete to discuss RED-S with their GP.

Always encourage athletes to seek professional advice and treatment when they are experiencing some or all of the elements of the female athlete triad.

Be prepared to provide support around the treatment that they are receiving and any training adjustments that are required. As previously mentioned, reducing training volume or increasing weight may be a difficult proposition for some athletes.

Always take a long-term approach to training and development, and encourage athletes to do the same. Advising against dieting, sudden weight loss, and an obsession with being thin can help, and positive body image, no matter what an individual’s current shape or size, should always be encouraged.

Prevention is always better than cure, and we all play a role. Too many athletics careers are prematurely derailed by stress-fractures and other injuries resulting from RED-S.

Eating disorders: what we can do to help

I turn away in tears, no longer able to watch the near-skeletal figure on the treadmill across the gym pounding out mile after joyless mile.

I am upset not just because of how thin this individual is, and the potentially-fatal strain their body is under, but also because I am aware how much someone is inevitably hurting, emotionally, by the time they reach this point.

Most of all, I am upset because I feel unable to help.

How many of us have been in similar situations, where we’ve encountered someone clearly suffering from an eating disorder, with or without exercise addition or other mental health issues, and felt that we could not intervene?

Is it a lack of expertise that is holding us back? Or the feeling that it is not our place to say something? With denial a major feature of eating disorders, are we simply afraid that the individual will turn down our offer of help?

We can’t force a grown adult to seek treatment against their will. At least not unless they are an immediate harm to themselves or others. But we can certainly offer help.

And while we’re considering whether or not it’s our place to say something, or our responsibility to intervene, we should take a moment to put the taboo of eating disorders aside.

If this was an individual standing on a bridge, ready to jump, I wouldn’t be concerned that my offer of help was untimely or out of place. Nor would I worry that I might make matters worse. I probably wouldn’t even think twice before dialling 999.

If I was a barman and a customer was clearly over-indulging in my goods, to the point that their health and wellbeing were clearly in danger, I would be legally obliged to stop serving them.

Why does the same not apply to those exercising to the point of self-destruction?

Why are eating disorders so different?

Not all eating disorders are visible

And this is just with anorexia that has progressed to the point that it is physically obvious! If we can’t support with these, how can we even consider supporting the large number of individuals who are engaging in destructive eating behaviours that have no obvious physical signs.

Most individuals suffering from Bulamia, for example, maintain a constant weight, but the binging and purging practices which characterise the illness also have severe physical and mental consequences for the individual.

Those with early stage anorexia may also not display any excessive weight loss or physical changes. Particularly in a distance running environment, where thinness is common, the individual’s health may already be severely compromised by the time their illness becomes physically evident.

Changes in mood, feelings and behaviours may be better early warning signs in these cases.

A comprehensive list of warning signs can be found on the website of Beat (the British Eating Disorder Charity).

Intervention is not easy, but it’s unquestionably necessary

Did you know that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate among all mental illnesses and psychiatric disorders? People aged 15-24 years with anorexia have 10 times the risk of dying compared to their age-matched peers. Approximately half of these deaths are sudden cardiac deaths.

In the US, one person dies as the direct result of their eating disorder every 62 minutes! We don’t have similar figures for the UK or Ireland, but death rates are high and sudden death is a real possibility!

Add to that the fact that the earlier an eating disorder is treated, the greater the chance of recovery. Oh, and that many individuals suffering for an eating disorder often do not realise the extent of their destructive behaviour, and the importance of intervening becomes a little bit more obvious.

Many athletes, when sharing their eating disorder stories, will mention a trigger point to them seeking help – often somebody else intervening – or a wish that someone had said something sooner.

Eating disorders are mental illnesses. They very, very rarely improve without professional treatment, and early treatment significantly increases the chance of recovery!

So, while we’re worrying whether now is the best time, or wondering what the right thing to say is, there’s someone who just needs us to say something.

Denial an issue

Denial is a major characteristic of eating disorders. If you suggest to an individual that you think they aren’t eating enough or are too thin, then the chances are that they have an answer for that. They are likely to explain it away.

In a distance running context this is even more likely, where extremely low body weight is not only highly accepted, but often expected.

The general advice when offering support to someone with an eating disorders is to approach in a place which is private, quiet and comfortable for them. Avoid approaching at meal times, or in any other environment in which they may be more uncomfortable or anxious that they normally are.

You should listen and communicate non-judgementally. Ask the individual about how they are feeling, and care about their answers. The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) manual recommends that you focus on specific behaviours that concern you and the underlying emotional distress they may be feeling, rather than weight, food or appearance.

There is the possibility that your sensitive, non-judgemental approach is brushed off, or treated with defensiveness or even anger. But that doesn’t mean that your conversation has not been worth the effort. The individual may need time before accepting help.

There is even a chance that they are relieved to have the opportunity to talk about their feelings. They may even have been waiting for someone to reach out. It’s just as important to be prepared for a positive response to your offer of help.

First steps

Both Beat and Bodywhys, the Irish Eating Disorders Association, recommend that visiting the GP is the first step on the road to treatment. However, with stretched healthcare resources, it is not without its drawbacks!

B-eat has an excellent resource on their website to prepare individuals for the reluctance to refer they may experience. It has advice and prepared answers to possible misunderstandings they may encounter.

No individual who feels they have an issue should come away from a GP appointment without a referral for a specialist eating disorder assessment. They especially shouldn’t be told that their eating disorder is not yet severe enough.

It is also worth noting that while many dietitians will have some awareness of and training in eating disorders, anorexia and bulimia are mental illnesses, and will not be resolved by dietary intervention alone.


Once an individual has been assessed, depending on the stage of the eating disorder and the severity of the weight loss, inpatient treatment may be required.

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines recommend outpatient psychological support involving Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), psychotherapy or other appropriate therapy or counselling delivered by an eating-disorder specialist.

For those under 18, family therapy should also be recommended. Exercise may be contraindicated, particularly in the early stages of treatment.

The Beat and Bodywhy helplines both give advice not just for those suffering with an eating disorder, but also for those supporting them. Parents, friends and, potentially, coaches will play an important role in recovery, which may take some time.

In summary

If you know someone who may be suffering from an eating disorder, approach them in an empathetic and non-judgemental way. Yes, it will be a difficult conversation, but it may just be the one that enables them to seek the support that they need.

The Beat and Bodywhys helplines can provide advice on how to raise the issue with an individual, who may or may not respond in a receptive way. But don’t give up hope.

The GP is the first port-of-call on a long road to recovery. No individual should be turned away because they are “not yet thin enough”, or that they are “just going through a phase”.

Early intervention is crucial! With the right support recovery is not only possible, but likely.

If that was me on the treadmill, slogging through my third gym session of the day, I might not fully appreciate the offer of help from a caring, non-judgemental stranger. It might not be what I want. 

But it might just be what I need.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Doping: Ireland excelling at both hypocrisy and apathy

The date: 1st March 2008.

The venue: Queen’s University Playing Fields in Belfast.

The mood: sombre, yet defiant.

A portion of the sizable crowd that have gathered to watch the final stages of Senior Men’s race at the Irish inter-club Cross Country Championships boo as Leevale’s Cathal Lombard wins the title ahead of South-African born Alistair Cragg. The remainder watch quietly in disappointment.

Lombard is making his first appearance at a national level following a two-year doping ban for EPO use. The message the Belfast crowd deliver is loud and clear: Lombard is not welcome. He may have served his time in the eyes of anti-doping bodies, but not in the eyes of Irish athletics fans. They are a much tougher crowd to win around.

Lombard announced his retirement from athletics that afternoon. We’ll never really know if that was always his intention, or if the cold reception he received in Belfast (and at lower key races over the previous months) expediated his decision to walk away. Either way, he never ran competitively again. And few were disappointed to see the back of him.


Fast forward to November 2009 and news has just broken in Ireland that Spanish racewalker Francisco (Paquillo) Fernandez has committed an anti-doping rule violation. Over the coming months various versions of the story emerge. By the time the case is heard before the Court of Arbitration for Sport the fact that the Olympic and three-time world silver medallist was found in possession of multiple doping products, including EPO, previously purchased with intent to use, was no longer contested. Ban dates are the only thing debated in a case which we were originally led to believe was a set-up.

As the original news emerged in Ireland, national governing body officials were quick to distance themselves from the then shamed Spaniard, despite his close ties with Rob Heffernan and Olive Loughnane. Perhaps fearful of a backlash from the fans who were so vocally unforgiving in Lombard’s case, Patsy McGonagle, the then Athletics Ireland High Performance Committee Chairman, tried to reassure the Irish public whose taxes help fund high performance athletes, by stating that Heffernan and Loughnane were both largely based in Ireland and only had occasional contact with Fernandez. He added that "in the circumstances we must reassess that arrangement and we will definitely be making alternative technical coaching arrangements for our athletes".

Whatever those “alternative technical coaching arrangements” were, they never seemed to hinder Heffernan’s continued contact with the Spaniard, despite much denial along the way.

McGonagle, the Irish Olympic team manager, was again quoted in national newspapers in July 2012, playing down the link, following reports the continued association between Heffernan and the then-banned Spaniard when the Irish team had a training camp in Fernandez’s home town of Guadix. “There is no question and there never has been of Fernandez coaching Robert Heffernan - or any of the Irish walkers”, McGonagle states.

The same article also contains strong words from Liam O’Reilly, an Irish Olympic team coach and the camp leader during that Guadix trip. “I think what appeared was a terrible reflection on journalistic standards. All the positive effort and hard work has been ignored simply because he [Heffernan] knows somebody who has done something wrong…Then somebody comes along and tries to insinuate or imply that he is doing something wrong. I think that is unacceptable.”

Heffernan himself initially played down the link, despite much evidence to the contrary. As time passed, however, and perhaps sensing the changing mood of Irish athletics fans – a World title and an Olympic medal can work wonders – Heffernan and his cronies became less concerned about how the links were perceived, with regular social media posts of them training together. Fernandez, it appears, had fully morphed into Heffernan’s coach, even if his wife Marian was still being used as a cover – Athletics Ireland, perhaps, wouldn’t tolerate the name of a drug cheat next to one of their athletes.

Fellow Irish racewalkers Alex Wright, Brendan Boyce and Cian McManamon were also benefiting from the training opportunities that Fernandez was providing in Spain, and elsewhere, with Heffernan being credited as their coach.

And then, once it became clear that, bar a handful of voices, the Irish population no longer had the zero-tolerance to doping cheats they once had, the stage was set for Fernandez to finally receive the credit he deserved. In early August 2017 the Athletics Ireland website listed Pacquillo Fernandez as Wright’s coach on the team announcement for the World Championships in London later that month.

“Alternative technical coaching arrangements”, it seems, had little to do with protecting the integrity of the sport and everything to do with fobbing off the journalists and saying the right things to protect reputations until the whole issue blew over.

And blow over it certainly appears to have done.


And in some ways, all of this is understandable. Heffernan and Fernandez were friends. Maybe Fernandez would never have used those products – he just fancied keeping them around, just in case he changed his mind again. And yes, he’s served his time. Maybe a two-year ban changes people. And maybe the reputations of Heffernan, Wright, et al., should not be tainted by who they choose to hang around with. I get all that. I even get that Fernandez may be a (mostly) good and nice guy.

And maybe, he is the best coach around.

I get all that. Even if I don't like it.

A post shared by Paquillo Frdez/Ex-atleta®️ (@paquillofernandez) on

What I don’t get is why we have to involve the children. And why Fernandez has to be turned into some sort of icon.


Just two weeks ago, Ray Flynn, who in 2016 stood for election as president of Athletics Ireland (a landslide defeat, incidentally), tweeted a photo of his group of young athletes from the ‘Sligo Academy of Racewalkers’ training with “the best coaches in Spain”; a photo in which Fernandez was, of course, front and centre.

To adapt an analogy Heffernan himself put forward: "You go to a nightclub in town, there’s going to be fellas in the cubicle next to you taking cocaine, but it doesn’t mean you do". But you wouldn’t parade your children (or worse still, someone else’s children) into that cubicle for selfies, and pin those fellas up as some sort of role models who your children should be privileged to meet.


Just over a decade on from that spring afternoon in Belfast, much has changed, it appears, in terms of attitudes to dopers in Ireland.

The Irish crowd have gone soft.

Maybe Lombard should have stuck around a little longer.

Maybe he should have offered to help coach some kids!

Yes, that might have changed the Irish public’s attitude towards him.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Things you need to know about supplements

Ever since a spate of nandrolone positives at the turn of the century were attributed to contaminated supplements, much has been written about the potential hazards of using sports supplements and the fact that – no matter what the label claims – there is no guarantee that any such product is free from banned substances.

Yet, the use of supplements has skyrocketed.

And contaminated nutrition supplements continue to be used as an excuse for failed dope tests!

Asafa Powell, Linford Christie, Yohan Blake, Brendan O’Sullivan… all innocent victims of contaminated nutritional supplements.

It seems that nobody intentionally dopes these days!

But they do intentionally take products which claim to improve their performance.  You can barely call yourself an athlete these days if your meals don’t come in powdered form, or your #gohardorgohome session isn’t fuelled by some form of stimulant.

So, just in case the message isn’t getting across, here’s a handy little reminder about sports supplements. Listen up Asafa et al., this may even learn something:

Manufacturers might not tell you the whole story

The main purpose of nutritional supplements is to make a shed load of cash for those who produce and sell them.


Many of them don’t work at all.

And some of them do, but not because of their listed ingredients.

Let’s be clear - contamination is a bit of a misnomer. ‘Contamination’ is often intentional (i.e. products included but not declared on the label); the result of being produced in the same factory as products which contain banned substances; or because the product contains ‘natural’ ingredients which could contain just about anything.

Afterall, a manufacturer is not going to say: ‘look at this product; it probably contains banned substances’.

That’s not to say that sort of sale doesn’t happen too, but it’s a little less likely to happen on the high street.

For now at least.

And if you feel like I’m being melodramatic, check out the 2008 review article by Geyer et al. which highlighted the extent to which sports supplements contain products (often steroids) which are not included on the label

Included within that report is a 2005 study which showed that Vitamin C, Multivatimin and Magnesium tablets produced by a German manufacturer for sale in German and Spanish grocery and drug stores, were found to be cross-contaminated with the steroids metandienone and stanozolol (the Ben Johnson drug). It turns out that the company in question - Senesco-Pharma – produced these products on the same production line and at the same time as steroid products.

If it sounds performance enhancing, it may well be…

And not in a legal way!

Asafa Powell claimed, after he tested positive for the banned stimulant oxilofrine in 2013, that the source of the offending substance was a contaminated batch of the ‘legal’ supplement, Epiphany D1. Now, I’m not sure about you, but Epiphany doesn’t sound to me like it’s just an innocent whey power or a carbohydrate drink. It’s not just something that you take to ensure you’re meeting your daily requirements of vitamins and minerals.

Further inspection of the list of things Ephiphany D1 claims to improve (memory, learning ability, energy levels, verbal fluency, motor skills and oxygen supply to the brain, as well as protect brain cells against the effects of aging), and its long list of ingredients, would surely set alarm bells ringing. And at almost €60 for a 15 day supply, you’d almost expect there to be something banned in there.

Either way, with Powell claiming that he didn’t know it was his responsibility to check what his supplements contained and that all ingredients might not be listed on the label, perhaps it doesn’t even do what it claims, especially on the enhanced brain function side of things.

Last week Sport Ireland released details of boxer Michael O'Reilly’s adverse finding from 2016 and shock, horror, Falcon Lab’s Superdrive Testobooster Tech – the product O’Reilly blamed for the failed test – contained an anabolic steroid! Sometimes, when you least expect it, these things do exactly what they say on the tin.

Fat-burners and weight-loss supplements are best avoided

Superdrive Testobooster Tech was not the only Falcon Lab product blamed for a failed drugs test from 2016 – Kerry Gaelic footballer Brendan O’Sullivan claimed that fat-burning supplement Oxyburn Pro Superthermotech - produced by the US-based nutritional supplement company – was responsible for his anti-doping indiscretion.

And if Kolo Toure thought us anything, it’s that fat-burning supplements are best avoided. If they don’t contain banned amphetamines, stimulants or corticosteroids, they are likely to contain diuretics – banned masking agents – or just be a waste of money.

When did a few extra laps of the pitch become so unpopular!

No product is WADA or IOC or approved!

Yes, no matter what a manufacturer might claim, no produce has been approved as risk-free by any governing body. And what’s more, unlike medications, nutritional supplements aren’t even governed by… well, anybody really. They are, pretty much, a money-making free-for-all.

Informed-Sport is a risk-reduction initiative, whereby batches of products are independently batched tested for banned substances on the current WADA list. Athletes who feel the need to take supplements are strongly advised to ensure that anything they are taking is on the Informed Sport list.

But remember, there is still (and never will be) any guarantee that a product is completely safe to use.  Powell and Simpson may have managed to reach an out of court settlement with the manufactures of Epiphany D1 and get their bans reduced, but mere mortals are subject to strict liability and may get up to a four year ban for their stupidity. You are responsible for what’s in your body.

But, the good news is that, despite popular opinion, food doesn’t have to come in powder form

That doesn’t stop athletes tweeting photos of their protein recovery shake every five minutes. But don’t be fooled by the hype. They’re being paid by the manufacturers to advertise these products.

The athletes might even be eating proper meals away from the camera.

But yeah, if you want everything to be banana, strawberry or vanilla flavoured, with a slightly powdery texture, then sure, go ahead. Knock yourself out!

Saturday, 23 September 2017

International representation is an honour not a right

Athletes these days seem to think that representing a country on the international stage is a right, not an honour; something that they are entitled to do to the point that the country they represent is no longer important.

Dodgy selections by governing bodies, biases and the money associated with representation go some way to explain, if not justify, an individual seeking representation away from their country of birth, while centuries of migration, increased globalisation, marriage, and historical and geopolitical anomalies blur the lines of what exactly nationality is.

Different rules for different sports also complicate matters, things differ from country to country, that's for sure, and each individual's unique set of circumstances mean that it's often difficult to distinguish the black from the white on such matters. The question of one's nationality definitely isn't always clear-cut.

World class athletes from certain countries or regions - distance runners from East Africa, sprint hurdlers from the USA, rugby players from New Zealand, footballers from Brazil, table tennis players from China, cricketers from the Indian Sub-Continent, will find it close to impossible to make their national team, and you can't but feel for them. But we also can't lose sight of the fact that part of their outstanding ability is due to their being a product of the system (formal or informal) which produces so many other world class performers in their chosen discipline; they benefit every day from the raised bar such high standards and competition for places produces.

So a Kenyan distance runner, born in Kenya and training all their lives in Kenya will always be Kenyan, irrespective of who pays their bills. (Kenyan-born Vivian Jemutai, now known as Yasemin Can, summed the whole farce up nicely when she said in an interview after winning a European title for Turkey, that she "would also be very happy if I could earn gold for my home country Kenya one day."  Turkey, Barain, etc. appear to be a stepping stone to proper international representation it seems - some slap in the face for the not insignificant investment the Turkish government have undoubtedly put into her 'development'.

The Turks and Bahrainis are not the first to exploit the lax rules surrounding nationality, nor indeed the first to exploit the Africans, but that's a whole other story. In 2003 Commonwealth steeplechase champion Stephen Cherono of Kenya became Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar. Cherono was, at the time, the fastest in the world and his place in the Kenyan team was not in question. While initial rumours that he and fellow countryman Albert Chepkurui, who became Ahmad Hassan Abdullah, received $1 million for the switch were denied by the athletes, they did say that they were to receive $1000 per month for the rest of their lives. Cherono went on to win the 2003 and 2005 World Championships and break the world record for his adopted country. And all this from the comfort of his home in Iten, Kenya.

The IAAF, at the time, made an attempt to clamp down on the widescale purchase of athletes but, while Turkey and Bahrain have replaced Qatar as the world's leading market for surplus athletes, the problem remains, more than a decade on.

And that's before we go anywhere near Rugby or Cricket where it seems that you can just pinpoint a point on a map and, subject to demand, sign up for their 'national' team.


This August I was seated in the upper tier of the Olympic Stadium in London when the British men's sprint relay team received their World Championship medals. The atmosphere around me was electric. Everyone was on their feet, and, as the Union Jack was raised, even my mum, sitting beside me and relishing her first experience of live athletics at this level, was singing 'God Save the Queen' at the top of her voice.

I could see how such an occasion could raise goose bumps, and could even bring a tear to the eye, how the young hearts of Adam, Chijindu, Danny and Nethaneel must have been bursting with pride, honour and glory. They will, no doubt, have dreamed of this moment. Imagined it in their minds thousands of times. Replayed it over and over.

I could see how this was a moment to be cherished.

If you are British.

I, meanwhile, felt nothing.

This wasn't my flag, my country, my national anthem.

As someone who has never so much as tasted Guinness, who struggles to put together a sentence as Gaeilge, who never went to an Irish dancing class and who has never been to a GAA match, some might argue that on the scale of Irish patriotism I sit somewhere between the late Ian Paisley and the aforementioned God-saved Queen herself.

But I can't pretend to be something that I'm not. And despite spending half of my adult life in the UK, I am not (and never will be) anything but Irish.

And in that moment, the whole argument of national representation seemed crystal clear for me. If you're standing on the top step of that rostrum, the anthem of the country who's colours you're wearing blaring out over the Tannoy, and your heart is not bursting with pride, honour and glory, the hairs on the back of your neck are not standing to dutiful attention, then should you even be there? If there's a flag you'd prefer to see raised, a different country you aspire to represent, a nation you one day want to be good enough to compete for, have you missed the whole point of international sport?

Of course it's not that simple; it never is.

But representing a country should never be a question of convenience. Or indeed, money.

And it should never, ever be about entitlement. Because representing your country, wherever that might be, is an honour, not a right.