Top sports waking up to players' pills abuse

The dubious practice of mixing prescription drugs with energy drinks is rife in New Zealand professional sport.

Fairfax Media investigations into New Zealand sport's hidden prescription-pills problem reveal it is a spreading plague that administrators from several sports admit they are only now beginning to understand, and which requires increased and urgent attention.

Since breaking the story on December 29 last year, that the New Zealand Rugby League was investigating whether the Kiwis' dismal world cup final last November was influenced by misuse of prescription drugs, Fairfax Media has learned:

■ The New Zealand Rugby Union has established an "Integrity Unit" to look at the practice.

■ That players from Kiwi Super Rugby franchises are mixing sleeping pills and energy drinks in pursuit of a "legal high".

■ That the New Zealand Rugby Players Association boss believes the problem is more widespread than just in rugby and league.

Less than a fortnight ago and after seeking a copy of the NZRL's investigation, the National Rugby League in Australia announced it would begin drug-testing for abuse of prescription pills. The NZRL has since confirmed some players were abusing prescription pills during the failed world cup campaign.

NZRU bosses admitted it would be "naïve" to claim players in their sport were not mixing sleeping pills and energy drinks. General manager of professional rugby, Neil Sorensen, revealed the union was launching an integrity unit to grasp the scale of rugby's involvement in the scandal.

Two prominent player managers, who spoke to Fairfax Media on condition of anonymity, confirmed the practice was commonplace and increasing.

They revealed the use of prescription medication, including mixing sleeping pills with energy drinks, is widespread among professional New Zealand rugby players as a means of unwinding without triggering doping or alcohol tests.

"Yes, I've heard of players doing it and it's not uncommon," one said.

"Players do it after Super Rugby games as a way to unwind in the evening. By doing that it ensures they won't fail any alcohol or drugs tests the next day.

"Although it goes on, it's not something that players would openly speak about, but they don't think it's anything that's too serious. They think it's a way to get a bit of a buzz without needing to get drunk."

Another manager also confirmed the practice.

"I know it goes on in Super Rugby, but I wouldn't go as far as to say it happens when players are with the All Blacks, I just don't know about that," he said.

Sorensen says the issue is firmly on the NZRU's radar, and the organisation has a responsibility to be realistic about whether it's going on in its own backyard.

"We don't have a policy as such around prescription drugs and energy drinks," Sorensen said.

"We do heaps of education around supplements and alcohol and procedures around that sort of stuff. But in terms of this new trend which has emerged over the last 12 months or so, energy drinks and prescription drugs, particularly sleeping pills, we're very much at the front door.

"We're trying to find out as much as we can about it, we're talking to other sporting authorities [in New Zealand]. We've not caught anyone red-handed, but there's certainly a lot of noise.

"I'm not going to say 'it's not in rugby' because that would just be naive. We're trying to educate ourselves, talking to agents, talking to players, team managers, doctors and others in and around the teams.

"We're not going to be threatening, we just need them to tell us about it. If they do take it, why? How do you stockpile the sleeping pills? What effect does it have? How do you feel the next day? Tell us about memory loss. What does it do to your body? We're trying to find all this stuff out."

Sorensen wondered if the problem was societal and stressed the need to establish education processes.

"It's certainly very high on the agenda over the next six months," he said, revealing that the NZRU's integrity unit would look at the subject as well as issues such as misuse of supplements, corruption and match-fixing.

Players' association boss Rob Nichol said the prescription medicine issue is also on his agenda and suggested that many other codes, including Olympic sports, could also be implicated.

"The [recent] headlines you read around rugby league could be around any sport, particularly on the Olympic side of things from what we understand," Nichol said.

"We are across it. There's been a significant focus this year at Super Rugby around prescription medication, team environment and education for the medical teams associated with those teams, specifically around the dangers of mixing sleeping pills with energy drinks.

"Athletes are subject to a strict lifestyle. You add travel on top of that and sleeping pills are recognised as a safe and effective way to manage crossing time zones. All of a sudden some athletes have found themselves where they can't drink to excess like everyone else does, we certainly can't do illicit drugs but, ‘hey, we've heard about this'.

"If you put it together it's not surprising some athletes around the world have stumbled across this means where they can relax and feel they're having a good time like other people their age.

"In rugby we are not naive. Our guys don't keep their eyes closed to the world. Rather than waiting until we have a major blowout we're getting on top of it and learning from other sports. We're not going to shy away from it."

Australian Olympic champion swimmer Grant Hackett was last week admitted to rehabilitation for addiction to prescription medication.

Sunday Star Times