Calls to gauge teen drug use


It will be a sad day in New Zealand sport when drug testing of high school athletes is required, according to college leaders, though some principals believe it would be "naive" to dismiss the possibility that performance-enhancing drugs are being used in secondary schools.

Authorities are considering whether high-school athletes need to be drug tested, given overseas evidence that performance-enhancing drugs are being used by that age group. However, Parliament is weighing whether schools should still have the right to act on any suspicions.

Drug Free Sport NZ chief executive Graeme Steel said he had received research recently looking at how to assess whether there was a problem with performance-enhancing drugs at high school level.

"So we're looking at the methodology to try to work our way into that, not jump in and just test, but really how can we approach that in a measured way that gives us a sense of what's happening," he told a government administration committee. "Then if we need to test we know with our eyes wide open what's likely to be there."

In South African high schools, good evidence had been found of a serious problem with steroid use, Steel said.

"It's a pretty sad situation if this is where we have got to," Waimea College principal Larry Ching said. However, he said trends across the rest of the world would indicate this is something New Zealand might have to contend with in the near future.

South Africa's The Times Live reported that tests conducted on pupils at 18 of the country's top schools in 2011 resulted in 21 out of 130 pupils, or roughly one in six, testing positive for a variety of illegal steroids.

"I'm not surprised in the sense that it is what has been indicated in other parts of the world," Ching said. "I would be surprised if we uncovered any, let alone any significant use of drugs by secondary school students in the country. If we did, I would be horrendously disappointed about that."

Conversely, Nayland College principal Rex Smith said he imagined there would likely be a "small element" of performance-enhancing drug use in New Zealand.

"I think we would be naive to think there wasn't some degree of that sort of drug-taking in secondary schools," said Smith.

"You've got young men wanting to develop physically, quickly, and inevitably some of them will look for such to be able to do that."

Smith said young people who were in the gym were exposed to the market.

"I would imagine there are people trying to sell products. If you talk to people in gyms, if you wanted to access steroids or something like that, it is not actually that difficult to find at all."

Tim Tucker, acting headmaster of Nelson College, a leading South Island rugby school, said he hoped traditional Kiwi attitudes would help to preclude the use of illegal drugs to gain an edge over opposition.

"I would like to think the attitude of amateur sport in New Zealand, and the motivation of our coaches and parents is sufficiently strong that it's not an issue."

Tucker also said that decision makers and those in the secondary school sport arena needed to be careful about being "unduly naive".

"I'll go out on a limb and say, particularly in rugby in the North Island, the degree of competition and investment in the sport is getting stronger and stronger. So possibly it [drug testing] is an outcome we may see in the future."

All the secondary school leaders believed more research and discussion was needed before any form of testing regime was proposed.

"Someone like Sport New Zealand needs to lead some pretty rigorous debate," said Tucker.

"We need to get an accurate picture before we start talking about such incredibly serious things."

However, there is one significant roadblock that might hamstring the debate, and the ability of schools to have drug testing athletes as a option.

Parliament is reviewing submissions on the Education Amendment Bill in which a proposal to ban enforced drug testing in schools is included. The bill makes it clear that teachers and school contractors are unable to require bodily samples from students.

A report on the bill is due to be released in April.