Premier League survey: Silence, do we dope?

An investigation by journalist Edmund Willison for the Mail On Sunday, published on Sunday, found that at least 15 Premier League footballers had tested positive by UKAD, Britain’s anti-doping agency, between 2015 and 2020. Their names? We ignore them. But what we do know is that none of them has yet been the target of the slightest sanction. Not the slightest fine, not the slightest suspension hit them. As usual when it comes to doping, football looked the other way.

With the exception of one of the fifteen players concerned (who had taken cocaine), the prohibited substances they had used had nothing to do with the « recreational drugs« which had resulted in suspensions to some Premier League footballers in the past

. We were talking about doping products intended to improve performance on the training ground or the playing field: amphetamines, triamcinolone, the stimulant Ritalin, the testosterone booster HCG, indapamide (a diuretic sometimes used as a masking agent) and prednisolone (another steroid). A nice pharmacy.

Although pressed by the Mail on Sunday reporter, UKAD declined to elaborate on why any of the players who had used the substances had been disciplined, other than to say that they would disclose more details could jeopardize ongoing investigations. It is also possible, even likely, that several of these footballers benefited from therapeutic exemptions, a sleight of hand which many cyclists have used to justify their use of anti-inflammatories or stimulants whose use is permitted to treat an allergy, a respiratory condition such as asthma.

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2,000 samples taken in the Premier League

Football, however, prides itself on being among the sports that do the most to unmask cheaters in England. In 2019 (the last year for which we have reliable statistics, the pandemic having then complicated the task of the testers until making it almost impossible), the UKAD had analyzed nearly 2,000 samples taken from PL players, which was a marked improvement over the previous decade, when most players could go an entire season without a visit from a tester.

Today, those forgotten by anti-doping are only ‘about’ 25%. It is also true that in the United Kingdom, football is more rigorous in its fight against doping than, for example, basketball or ice hockey, two professional sports in which UKAD had carried out a identical number of tests three years ago: zero. But that’s the kind of comparison no one can be proud of.

A corner in the Premier League

Credit: Getty Images

2,000 annual tests, most of which are urine tests, and therefore not necessarily the most effective for detecting increasingly sophisticated doping products, cannot be enough to dispel the doubts that exist about the real extent of doping in English football, especially when the culprits remain anonymous – and seem to be able to escape banishment. University of Chester Professor Ivan Waddington is one of the few researchers to have conducted studies on the prevalence of doping products in English professional football, in collaboration with the PFA, the players’ union. Its conclusions are much less encouraging than the altogether limited number of positive cases might lead one to hope. A quarter of the footballers who answered his questions on condition of anonymity confirmed that they knew at least one other pro who they knew used prohibited substances.

Why is football veiling its face?Why then does football choose to hide its face and choose silence when it comes to doping? One reason, inherited from a time when players were not asked to repeat high-intensity sprints while running seven miles a game, is that « there is no pill that gives talent

« . This truism was however already false in 1954, when syringes were discovered in the locker room of the players of the FRG who had just beaten Hungary in the final of the 1954 World Cup, syringes which would have been used to inject not ‘vitamins’, as the golden legend of the ‘miracle of Bern’ would have it, but amphetamines. We know the doubts that surround the great Ajax of Johan Cruyff and some other clubs who were also European champions. We speak halfway -words of a Ballon d’Or who would have loved blood transfusions.And in the end, we choose to ignore the elephant which takes up almost all the space in the room.

One also has to wonder if football, and not just English football, is tough enough when it punishes breaches of its anti-doping code. Sometimes he hits hard, as was the case for Rio Ferdinand, banned for eight months in 2003 for not producing a sample when he was visited by testers.

It happens, more often, that he is content with a tap on the wrist, but not with a ruler, with a gloved hand. How to explain or justify, for example, that Manchester City which, in 2016, three times – three times, in twelve months! – failed to provide correct whereabouts information to the testers, was only fined £35,000, when the same failure, if attributed to an individual athlete, might have be worth a lifetime suspension?

Manchester City shirt with official Premier League ball 2019/2020

Credit: Getty Images

Because it can be explained why UKAD, despite its efforts, still does not test enough – what is 2000 tests, when they are distributed among 800 players over a year? Testing is expensive, and the means are lacking for the agency to do its screening and analysis work as rigorously as it would like.

This is understandable. What is less understandable is the silence in which English football is walled up when it comes to doping; it’s true that it’s not often, and that apart from a few mavericks, the English media stand out more for their complacency vis-à-vis the most popular championship in the world than for their curiosity; and it is also true that this complacency is even more marked in many countries. Again, that’s not the kind of comparison anyone can take any pride in.

Including Mark Bosnich, the former Aston Villa and Manchester United goalkeeper, who was suspended for nine months and had his contract terminated by Chelsea when he tested positive for cocaine.

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