Rugby

Pre-tournament drug testing sets international benchmark

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 October, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 October, 1999, 12:00am

Unlike most other sports, rugby at the top level can boast of being drug-free. Or so we believe.


Let's hope then that the case of New Zealand hooker Anton Oliver is an isolated one, stemming from 'a mistake', and that it is not the tip of a cheat-to-perform iceberg.


All Black Oliver became the first rugby union player to test positive for drugs at a Rugby World Cup.


Oliver was found to have taken the banned substance pseudoephedrine. A three-man World Cup judicial committee, however, let Oliver off with a serious reprimand after accepting his explanation that he had been taking the drug for a sinus and ear infection.


'I know it is a serious case and I regret what has happened. I hope people will realise it was a small mistake and made unwittingly,' said a chastened Oliver.


In a brave bid to prove that rugby at the highest level was free of any drug scourge - which has afflicted sports from athletics to swimming - Rugby World Cup officials had decided they would allow an independent drug-testing body in Britain, Sport UK, to carry out pre-competition tests.


And the organisers had specifically told Sport UK that the results of the tests be ready before the opening ceremony.


The organisers tested half of the 600 players from the 20 teams gathered in the UK and France for the World Cup. It was an unprecedented step, not taken by any other sport.


For one, no major sporting event tests its athletes before competition. It is usually done afterwards. The Sydney 2000 Olympic organisers are trying this time to have competitors tested before participation.


But it is a huge and costly exercise (the cost of testing 300 rugby players was more than $1.5 million).


Second, Rugby World Cup decided that every second player would be tested, a proportion unprecedented in a major sporting competition.


Previous rugby procedures saw two players per match being tested after the game had been played.


The high percentage of competitors being tested and that they were tested before competition combined to stress the fact that rugby was keen to show the world that the game was truly drug-free.


In the past, the game has produced few positive tests, although not one case in international rugby and none in the three previous World Cups. But this is the first World Cup being played since the game went professional four years ago.


With the stakes upped - high player salaries, win bonuses etc - the temptation to cheat is now there.


Apart from Oliver's 'small mistake', the game has emerged with its reputation intact. Rugby's gamble to test its players on this world stage paid off.


'It is a risk. But it is also a statement of the confidence that we have in the game, and the type of people who play it,' said Keith Rowlands, high-ranking RWC official.


Rugby can now boast that it is truly drug-free.


Let's hope this will be the case in the future, too.


A clean image and its hooligan-less crowds can only enhance the attraction of the game. Now all we need is some riveting action on the field.


 

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