Big Ben's alarm bells take toll on clean athletes

RICHARD BOOCK
Last updated 05:00 17/02/2013
Ben Franks
KIRK HARGREAVES/Fairfax NZ
BETTER MANAGEMENT: Ben Franks says Drug Free Sport NZ needs to specifically outline which products can be used.

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OPINION: That knocking noise? The sound of anti-doping authorities banging their heads against the wall following Ben Franks' complaints about risky supplements.

According to the All Blacks frontrower, it's time Drug Free Sport New Zealand guaranteed an approved line of nutritional products, so he and others could tuck in with impunity.

That way, if anyone tested positive as a result, they could simply point the finger at DFSNZ. Problem solved.

It explains a lot, really. Not least, why so many elite athletes continue to make dumb mistakes with their careers via doping.

Talk about not getting it. Despite being told repeatedly by drug-testing agencies that supplements can never be guaranteed, which is why WADA-monitored athletes shouldn't take them, some are still squealing for protection in case they make a mistake. In effect, Franks is saying it should be all right to cheat by accident.

There are some good reasons why drug-testers refuse to sanction supplements. Different manufacturers often use different locations and methods to produce products that, while looking outwardly similar, can cause dramatically different testing results.

Elements can be added, strengths can vary due to concentrations and synthesising; contamination can occur on site. As DFSNZ insists, it's better to be safe than sorry.

Franks' proposal of an amnesty for anyone who tests positive for "approved" supplements is an embarrassing indictment on his understanding of the problem.

Is he really calling for a situation in which athletes could blame the use of a "sanctioned" nutritional aid for pretty much any prohibited substance found in their system? If so, here's a news flash: It would be welcomed by the cheaters far more than anyone else.

Was interesting also, to hear Franks' justification for wanting a different approach to supplements. Reckoned it was "unrealistic" for DFSNZ to warn athletes against their use; that 90 per cent of pro rugby players took them.

Wasn't far from the excuses we've been hearing with the Lance Armstrong scandal. Everyone was doing it, apparently. Well, that may be the case but a banned substance is a banned substance. Can't have drug cheats hiding behind supplements.

Sadly, far too many athletes are learning the hard way about the risks of supplements. Some who took the appetite suppressant bitter orange found they were also ingesting the banned stimulant octopamine.

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Others who opted for geranium oil extract found it was being laced with party pill ingredient, methylhexaneamine - another banned stimulant. More bad news beckons from Australia, and New Zealand-based deer velvet products are also raising flags.

Yes, manufacturers, promoters and retailers of supplements will always vouch for the purity of their products. But they're not the ones who have to pay with their career if it all turns into a positive drugs test. The deer velvet episode is a case in point. Not even the providers could offer an absolute guarantee it wouldn't trip a positive test; the best they could say was they were "95-99 per cent" sure it was okay. Cold comfort if you're one of the unlucky ones.

If Franks is as careless about what goes into his gob as what comes out of it, he's right to be worried. His are reckless words. It's not only DFSNZ which warns athletes against taking supplements, so does the International Olympic Committee.

"At present, there can be no guarantee of the purity of any commercial supplement," it cautions on its website. "The only way to be sure is to avoid supplements altogether." That's a message Franks should be spreading.

There's another problem with this, too. Talk to independent doctors about supplements and most will tell you the benefits are wildly over-stated.

Celebrated sports doctor Dave Gerrard was on the radio only last week discussing the "unsubstantiated scientific garbage" used to promote many of the products.

Massey University nutritional expert, Dr Steve Stannard, is of a similar mind. Most of what goes in at one end is simply flushed out at the other.

Fair enough, athletes are welcome to ignore the express advice of national and international doping agencies and the IOC if they so wish. No-one can stop them having their supplementary cake, and eating it. It's their choice.

What they can't expect, though, is a get-out-of-jail-free card if it all ends in tears. The warnings have been unambiguous; the risks spelt out clearly. If they gamble and lose there can be no safety net.

- Sunday Star Times

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