Going to the extremes to compete at the Sevens
What does it take to succeed as a sports person? With the constant pressure of only having a short-term career, 10 years if you are lucky, and renewing a contract every couple of years, isn’t it only reasonable for professional athletes to look at ways to help give them the extra 1 per cent that may be needed to stay on the field a little bit longer?
This is one of the most demanding sporting weekends any athlete – and fan – could to face. To what extremes are players willing to go to compete on the Sunday of the Sevens? As a spectator, a Panadol for the pounding headache and a pair of sunglasses might be all that is needed to back up from the Saturday. But for a player, the wrong vitamin supplement could equal a lengthy ban or worse.
With the recent doping allegations coming out of Australia and the Lance Armstrong saga, I began to think about how prevalent performance-enhancing drugs in rugby might be. Having grown up on a culture of sport and winning, it can be hard for a highly motivated athlete to not be the best or be involved with the best.
I moved to Sydney on a sporting scholarship at the age of 18 and was quickly thrust into an environment where you sank or swam. While not yete-like sportsmen, we were expected to perform and it was a cruel system, with many guys losing out to injury and never getting back.
I never saw performance-enhancing drugs, but you always hear rumours of guys coming back from ‘12-month injuries’ within three months, or hearing of an amazing new supplement.
But at what detriment to your body, long-term, were these practices? For me a protein supplement and the muscle builder creatine (both perfectly legal) were the only things I took, and even then I had my concerns about creatine.
Over the past six weeks I have tried to keep up to date with the drug scandal in Australia – from what I gather rugby union is one of the few mainstream sports not under investigation.
That’s not to say rugby hasn’t had its own cases. A quick look at the IRB website and you can see that in 2012 there were 12 positive dope tests out of a possible 1,500 tests. One of which was cannabis, which I’m not sure would be much of an asset (on the sporting field) over a weekend like the Sevens.
From the other 11 cases I’m curious how many were due to the pressure from coaches, managers, and family to perform and how much of it was players’ naivety. At last year’s HK Sevens there were 48 drug tests with no positive results. This year the IRB has brought in out-of-tournament testing, which means players coming into the tournament can be tested before they even arrive. The chances of getting caught are greater, but I’m guessing the number of positives will remain the same.
As a player, you need to take control of your actions, and of what you are putting into your body. But as in all professions, sometimes the pressures of life are too great and the need to succeed overrides the desire to perform fairly to your maximum (unassisted) potential.
For myself, and 99 per cent of the rugby community, the game is still bigger than the individual, and although the desire to win at all costs is the reason you give it everything, the line is drawn at illegal activities and practices.
I watch rugby sevens with such admiration of the players because I know what its like to wake up the morning following a game of rugby, let alone having to play three games in one day and then repeat it the next. Which leads me back to my opening question, what does it take to succeed at this level?
My dad always told me, the harder you work the luckier you get. I believe this rings true for all top level rugby players. The hours spent in the gym, perfecting their skills on the training paddock and the extra hours spent outside of the training environment are the difference between the journeyman and the elite sportsman. Someone injecting himself or herself, or taking a supplement to increase their growth is looking for a quick fix, and will continually be looking for short cuts out on the field too.
Expect fireworks out on the field this weekend, as some of the world’s best athletes face off against each other in one of the cleanest sporting environments.
Just make sure you have taken your Panadol and had your hit of caffeine to get you into the ground early on Sunday.