Are student-athletes using drugs?

Random testing of university athletes found three violations this school year

Queen’s track and field coach Melody Torcolacci says she doesn’t think drug use is a problem among university athletes.
Queen’s track and field coach Melody Torcolacci says she doesn’t think drug use is a problem among university athletes.
Photo: 

Matt Baxter, a football player for this year’s Ontario champion Western Mustangs, received a two-year suspension Jan. 24. That day, Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) announced Baxter tested positive for Letrazole metabolite, a substance on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) prohibited list.

Letrozole blocks the production of estrogen and raises testosterone levels.

The minutes of the CIS Board of Directors Oct. 23 conference call stated Baxter claimed to have taken Letrozole inadvertently, as it was contained in one of the supplements he was taking.

Baxter’s positive result came from an out-of-competition test on Aug. 30, 2007, which the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES)—a non-profit organization that handles all drug testing of Canadian athletes—reported to CIS on Oct. 15.

The result was discussed at an Oct. 23 conference call of CIS’s Board of Directors, during which they decided to provisionally suspend Baxter. Because he was suffering from a concussion at the time, the suspension was to begin only after he was medically cleared to play again.

The conference call’s minutes say Baxter requested a hearing, which was originally scheduled to take place no later than Nov. 14—four days after Western’s victory over the Guelph Gryphons in the OUA finals. Baxter only played three games for the Mustangs this year due to his injury, including Western’s Sept. 3 26-20 overtime loss to Queen’s.

Western athletic director Chuck Mathies declined to discuss the situation with the Journal beyond issuing a brief statement.

“Western is disappointed by this incident involving a member of our football team,” the statement said. “While we are surprised by the findings on this senior student, we support the CIS doping control process.”

Queen’s co-ordinator of athletic therapy services Dave Ross—who’s also responsible for Queen’s steroid education program—said he was surprised it took so long for CIS to announce the positive result.

“Generally, you look at three to four weeks [from a positive test to the result’s announcement]. some are saying six now,” he said. “Why did it take so long for those [results] to come in? He got the test on Aug. 30, and it comes out at the end of the season. What’s the point of doing this on Aug. 30 if they’re going to play the whole season and make a difference to the win-loss column?”

Queen’s football coach Pat Sheahan said he would like to see the testing program expanded to include all CIS athletes.

“There’s ample opportunity for an abuser to slip under the nose of the establishment because the testing is random," he said. "Ideally, over the course of the year, all athletes should be tested."

He can see the appeal of steroids for some athletes, especially those with a shot at playing professionally south of the border, Sheahan said.

“Even the most cynical observer in the U.S. might claim that steroids might be the difference between someone becoming a millionaire or not,” he said.

Sheahan said the dangers of steroid use make it something no athlete should consider, though.

“The risks far, far outweigh the perceived benefits,” he said.

Sheahan said the Baxter situation should encourage student-athletes not to take drugs.

“It’s a warning to all athletes: beware,” he said.

CIS Chief Executive Officer Marg McGregor said 250 to 300 student athletes are tested each academic year by CCES. McGregor said CCES is separately funded by Sport Canada, and makes the final decisions on which athletes and sports are tested.

“They are in dialogue with us on a fairly consistent basis, but we don’t say ‘Test field hockey players at this university,’” she said.

CIS athletes in football, hockey, basketball, field hockey, soccer, volleyball, rugby, swimming, cross-country, track and field and wrestling are tested by CCES. The tests can be used to identify any type of drug use, not only steroids. This year, in addition to Baxter’s positive test for Letrazole metabolite, one athlete tested positive for cocaine and one for marijuana.

McGregor said the current numbers of tests are adequate, despite having more than 10,000 student-athletes competing in CIS sports each year.

“The threat of testing is probably the most legitimate deterrent, so the threat exists regardless of if only 300 are tested.”

McGregor said CIS would consider discussing testing other athletes on a team if there were concerns about drugs on the team.

“If there were some concerns about it being a systemic issue, we’d have a chance to dialogue with CCES about targeted testing,” she said.

Those concerns haven’t been raised during her time with CIS, though, McGregor said. She joined the organization in 2000.

McGregor said CIS punishes individual athletes rather than teams to ensure coaches don’t preemptively bench athletes randomly selected for testing.

“If we weren’t to have that policy, what you’d need to do as a coach would be to bench athletes who got tested to protect against positive results,” she said. “That’s tremendously unfair to student-athletes.”

McGregor said Western’s OUA championship wouldn’t have been revoked even if Baxter had played in the game and tested positive afterwards. However, CIS invoked a provisional suspension on him to prevent him from playing until the hearing process was completed as soon as they learned of his positive test.

The delay between the organization learning of Baxter’s positive test on Oct. 15 and their release of the results on Jan. 24 was due to the hearing process, she said.

“That’s the process CCES has to ensure natural justice and a fair hearing process,” she said. “That takes time. … There is a significant time lag that occurs from the time the sample is drawn until the process runs its course.”

McGregor said she sees CIS focusing more on drug education in the future, due to a recent shift to online programming, but doesn’t see increased testing being implemented any time soon.

“This year we moved to online doping education, and that’s probably where our focus will go,” she said. “The testing element will probably remain similar.”

In an October interview with the , former WADA chair Dick Pound said he doesn’t think CIS’s drug policies are effective.

“A four per cent chance of getting tested is not huge, and when you are working with limited resources you need to make sure testing is effective,” Pound told the . “Random testing is probably the least effective because it is simply a numeric decision and doesn’t assess where the risks of drug use are highest.”

***

Ross said more than 170 Queen’s athletes have been tested since 1992 and none have tested positive.

“At Queen’s, we’ve had a perfect record,” he said. “The reason is our administrative, coaching and educational staff, and good, honest athletes. … We want to win, but we want to win fairly and on a level playing field.”

Gaels’ track and field head coach Melody Torcolacci said although steroids are a problem in international track and field, she doesn’t think there’s steroid use at the CIS level and doesn’t see the need for more athletes in her sport to be tested.

“From a CIS perspective, the current level is more than adequate,” she said. “There’s no question that from an international level, … there’s definitely drugs in sport and we’d be pretty naïve to say there wasn’t.”

She said most Canadian student-athletes are too mindful of the negative effects of performance-enhancing drugs to take them.

“From a Canadian university perspective, most people have their heads screwed on pretty correctly,” she said. “It’s academics first and sports second. Long-term life and career is more important than trying to cheat the system.”

Torcolacci, who’s in her 20th year of coaching at Queen’s, said she can only think of three track and field Gaels who have been tested during her tenure.

She said she has never suspected a CIS athlete of using drugs.

“I’m certainly not aware that it’s an issue or a problem, and I certainly hope it’s not a problem,” she said.

She doesn’t think it’s necessary to reduce drug testing, despite her thoughts that drugs aren’t an issue, as the funds used for tests can’t be reallocated to something. The funds come from the federal government and are earmarked specifically for drug testing.

“The pot of money that goes to drug testing is going to drug testing no matter what,” she said. “It is what it is, and that seems to be perfectly adequate.”

Gaels’ sprinter Veronica Catry said she agrees that steroids aren’t a problem for CIS track and field athletes.

“I don’t really know if it would be very prominent,” she said. “It means a lot more [to avoid a positive test], because our education is kind of riding on it. If we were to get caught doing steroids, I think it would have repercussions on our education as well. ”

Catry said there’s a chance that some CIS athletes are cheating, and that none of her teammates have been tested this year.

“In Canadian track and field, it is possible—we have seen it in the past,” she said. “It’s hard to say if it’s happening or not. I would hope it isn’t, but it’s such a taboo thing inside sport that it’s hard to tell.” She said Queen’s has an extensive steroid education program.

“What we have at the beginning of the season is a meeting where we’re told generally what kind of medications we can take,” she said. “We then have to pass an online course to be allowed to compete. The course is just a few slides. You read through the slides and answer questions and you have to get 100 per cent on the questions.” She thinks the program is useful.

“There are ways to kind of skim through it and avoid reading it all, but I think if someone is really interested in learning what they can take and what they can’t, it is very informative.“

The minutes of the CIS Board of Directors Oct. 23 conference call stated that Baxter claimed to have taken Letrozole inadvertently, as it was contained in one of the supplements he was taking.

Catry said she’s not too worried about taking a banned substance inadvertently.

“It is possible [with] multivitamins and things like that, you don’t know every single ingredient,” she said. “I am really careful about what I take, I try not to take painkillers and things like that, but I don’t think it’s really a problem as long as you look at the ingredients in the medications and get the doctor to list what’s in the medication. You can actually check it on that website where the information slides are, and that way, there are many ways to prevent it.”

CIS drug testing by the numbers

250 to 300

Student athletes tested for drugs each academic year by CCES

5,200

Athletes tested for drugs since 1990

47

Positive violations—for everything from marijuana to anabolic steroids—found in drug tests since 1990

36

Football players who have tested positive for drugs since 1990

4

Hockey players who have tested positive for drugs since 1990

4

Basketball players who have tested positive for drugs since 1990

1

Field hockey players who have tested positive for drugs since 1990

1

Soccer players who have tested positive for drugs since 1990

1

Volleyball players who have tested positive for drugs since 1990

3

Violations found during drug testing this year

Source: Canadian Interuniversity Sport, Queen’s Co-ordinator of Athletic Therapy Services Dave Ross and CIS Chief Executive Officer Marg McGregor

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.