Australian Rugby’s Anti-Doping Code

It is over a year after ‘blackest day in Australian sport’ (08 February 2013) and the fallout has yet to finish with the Essendon players still waiting to know their fate. With the Cronulla Sharks also having some issues and a report that a South African Rugby Union player recently tested positive to steroids, I have had some discussions with people relating to doping and banned substances.

Some of the discussions raised some questions that I could not answer so I decided I would educate myself. To that end I had a look at the how the ARU Anti-Doping Code addresses performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and found some, if not entirely interesting, pertinent facts. 

What is the reason for the code?

The very first paragraph of the code states:

1.1  The ARU condemns the use of performance enhancing drugs and doping practices in sport. The use of performance enhancing drugs & doping practices is contrary to the ethical concepts of sportsmanship, fair play, good medical practice and is potentially harmful to the health of Persons.

So, not only are we trying to prevent ‘cheating’, there is a large degree on emphasis on protecting the health of the ‘Persons’, including the players. This is a fact, I think, that gets lost in the outrage of finding out that someone has obtained a perceived unfair advantage. Some of the substances are on the banned list, not because they have been proven to provide a definite competitive advantage, but because the danger they pose outweighs any benefits they may provide.

Who is required to comply with the code?

In official speak:

‘any competitor in sport who is otherwise subject to the jurisdiction of any Signatory or other sports organisation accepting the WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] code’ and anyone who participates ‘under the authority of any Signatory…’.

In short, this means that since all rugby union clubs in Australia are affiliated with the ARU, who is a signatory to the WADA Code, all people involved in rugby are covered by this code. This includes by definition not only players, but also coaches, trainers, managers, agents, team staff, officials, medical & paramedical personnel, parents or ‘any other Person working with, treating or assisting Players participating in or preparing for Matches’.

Wow! So, if I run the water this week at training then I am responsible for adhering to the code? Technically, yes, but practically……what influence would I have?

Two of the players suspended for significant periods of time under the code in recent years have been club level players who have been ‘caught’ importing PEDs rather than through testing. Maybe there is more responsibility for people such as myself than we realise. As a player support person my responsibilities include, complying with the policies, assisting in conducting ‘Doping Control’ (testing) and influencing the players to ‘foster anti-doping attitudes’.

I spoke to Adam Ashley-Cooper a while ago on this topic as I wanted to get a player’s point of view and an understanding of how the code worked in practice. I started by asking him if he thought doping was happening in Rugby Union and was meet with an emphatic ‘No’.

“There is no chance. At our level the ASADA [Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority] guys turn up to training once or twice every week and are there after games. They are on us 24 hours a day and have the right to turn up anywhere at any time to test us.”

From my point of view (one reading and all) it must be, as a player, difficult to generally comply & get your head around what the requirements are. From AAC’s point of view it can be, but there is training and he sees it as a responsibility that comes with being a professional athlete. I am guessing that there are a lot of things that would be thrown at the players early in their careers that would be a struggle to understand. 

How do they know where the players are?

One of the responsibilities of the players is to maintain a ‘Whereabouts Filing’ that is required to be submitted to ASADA and the IRB each quarter. They have to notify them of where they will be available for testing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year (well 13 weeks a quarter). This is no exaggeration.

What has to be included in each quarterly filing is:

  • A postal address;
  • Residential address for each day;
  • Venue and time frames of training, work, and other activities, for each day; and
  • Competition schedule, locations & dates.

There are also special rules with regards to which testing pool you happen to fall into, if the period is in-competition or out of season, or if the player is injured or ill. These details then need to be kept up to date if they change during the quarter.

This all looked a bit bloody hard to me so I posed the question to AAC as to what the practical compliance to this particular aspect of the code involved and if it was as onerous in reality as it appeared in writing.

“It is something that you just get used to and do. It is the responsibility of the player and the result of not complying is a strike against your name. It can be annoying and frustrating, particularly for the loss of freedom, but it is part of the game and part of being a professional athlete. Sometimes you might forget, but it is about being aware of what is required and doing it. In practice it is as easy as sending an e-mail.”

It must be pointed out that the ARU is also named as specifically having some responsibility for ensuring that the player whereabouts information is correct and up to date. But, as always under the code, it is ultimately the player’s responsibility.

What is covered by the code?

Fairly simple – anything that is on the WADA Prohibited List. This of course includes substances, (e.g. drugs not approved for human use, steroids, peptides, hormones masking agents, stimulants, narcotics, some medications etc), and also ‘methods’ such as blood transfusions, IV infusions, gene doping and how some medications are given. There are differences for in-competition periods and out-of-competition periods.

Under the code it is the players responsibility ‘to ensure that: a) no Prohibited Substance is found to be present in his body and that Prohibited Methods are not used;..’.

In short, the buck stops with the player. So claiming that their Mum gave them a fluid tablet doesn’t excuse a positive test or avoid a ban.

This highlights the trust that the players have to place in their support network including doctors, physios, nutritionists, parents etc. Some of the allegations that have been publicised centre around substances supplied by sports scientists. Allegations at this point, but it does emphasise the influence that such people could, perhaps do, have on the players.

AAC’s perspective is that the trust is there, but all players are fully aware of what they can and cannot take. “All the supplements I take are approved by ASADA, therefore we are sure that what we are being given is fine. The people who are giving you these things are part of the team. It is not in their interests to have the players test positive.”

On the family and friends front it can be expected that not all have an understanding of what is allowed and what is not. Most Cold & Flu medications for example, cannot be taken as they contain pseudoephedrine which, in high enough quantities, will result in a violation of the code.

What if the ‘substances’ are required for the good health of the player?

One of the questions that arose was with regards to drugs that are required for the good of the player. There is such a thing as a Therapeutic use Exemption (TUE) which basically allows prohibited substances to be present in the tests of a player as long as they are not outside of therapeutic levels. This would explain the ability of, for example, Nathan Charles to play at the level he can despite suffering from Cystic Fibrosis and, I am assuming, taking some significant medications.

I then spoke to one of the team doctors to get his opinion of the effect the code has on the medical treatment of the players and his job in maintaining their health.

From his perspective the process allows for sufficient flexibility for required treatments. In his role he prefers to act as the players primary health carer both inside & outside of rugby so that he is fully aware of what medications the player is or could be taking. However the health of the player is the ultimate consideration and if this means that substances that appear on the banned list are required then there is a procedure to be followed to allow for the appropriate medical treatment to be given.

Is there a risk that this ‘loophole’ could be abused? Of course there is. From the doctor’s point of view – “I  have no doubt that there are some less than scrupulous practitioners out there that will fill in the forms for players so approval is given.”

It then comes down to ethics and ensuring that investigations are done in such a way to weed out the people who manipulate the system. We all know of examples in other sports where sportsmen have tested positive and then the ‘paperwork’ is made to fit the crime.

So, does this mean that the game we love is squeaky clean? From my point of view we would be naive to think that doping at some level by some individuals was not happening. However, after going through the ARU Anti-doping Code and talking to players & support personnel within the game I think that the structures and processes are there to hold the code to the standard expected.

There will always be people who want to push the boundaries and use the next biggest thing to get what they perceive to be a competitive advantage. Ultimately it is all of our responsibilities to ensure that these practices are not encouraged or used so that Rugby can truly remain as ‘the game they play in heaven’.

If you are interested the ARU Anti-Doping Code can be viewed in its entirety on the ARU website.




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