Nowadays sports headlines outing athletes for doping are no longer a rarity. The use of banned substances in sport is a well-publicised issue and one that has plagued elite sports since the Ancient Greeks tried all manner of herbs, hallucinogens and opiates to gain an edge over their competitors1. But it's not just elite athletes that should tread with caution.
The first decisions arising from Drug Free Sport New Zealand's (DFSNZ) investigation into purchases of banned drugs from the website Clenbuterol NZ serve as a timely reminder for people involved in sports at all levels of the dangers associated with buying supplements online.
DFSNZ has identified approximately 100 athletes across a range of sporting codes that have purchased prohibited substances during 2014 and 2015 from the website which was being operated out of Christchurch.
Clenbuterol NZ was investigated by Medsafe and its operator, Josh Townshend, was jailed for two years in September after pleading guilty to 129 charges under the Medicines Act 1981 relating to the advertisement, possession and supply of prescription medicines. Clenbuterol NZ sold a variety of banned substances including anabolic agents and hormone and metabolic modulators, including clenbuterol, which is widely renowned to assist with fat burning.
DFSNZ has worked closely with Medsafe to analyse the website data to find evidence to bring anti-doping proceedings. To date, a handful of athletes that purchased substances from NZ Clenbuterol have come before the Sports Tribunal and the New Zealand Rugby Judicial Committee and a handful of decisions have already been released, involving a number of male and female athletes aged under 30 and competing from club to representative level in rugby, cricket and ice hockey. In each of those cases, two-year bans have been imposed. DFSNZ has indicated that the majority of the 100 athletes it has identified are involved in sport below elite and representative level.
Athletes found in possession of banned substances, in addition to facing anti-doping proceedings from DFSNZ, also risk committing offences under the Medicines Act if the substance is a prescription-only medicine. However, in relation to the Clenbuterol NZ investigation, it is likely that the prosecution deadline has passed.
Where an athlete is found guilty of an anti-doping offence in relation to the possession or use of a prohibited substance, the starting point is that the athlete will be banned for four years from competing in all sports, not just the sport in which the athlete was competing at the time. However, there is scope for the sanction to be reduced to two years if the athlete can establish that his or her conduct was not "intentional", if the athlete can establish that they did not know, or did not know that there was a substantial risk, that their conduct constituted an anti-doping rule violation.
The Rules also provide scope for sanctions to be reduced where the athlete can establish "no significant fault or negligence" on their part, or where the athlete has made prompt admissions or provided substantial assistance to DFSNZ with an investigation.
It is important to recognise that the Sports Anti-Doping Rules under which DFSNZ operates apply to every national sporting organisation (NSO) that agrees to the Rules, and every person that is a member of that NSO, or is a member of a team, club or organisation that has agreed to the application of the Rules with that NSO.
They key point for athletes to note is that, even if they are only competing below the elite level where they are not subject to drug testing, the Rules will apply to them, and the sanctions imposed will be enforced.
The internet is making it much easier to purchase these sort of substances, and it's not just elite athletes that need to be aware that simply purchasing prohibited substances, even if they are not used, will be treated as a breach of the Rules by DFSNZ. It's also worth noting that online transactions leave a lasting footprint, with anti-doping bodies able to access purchase data for years to come.
There is plenty of information out there for athletes, and it is important that athletes at all levels educate themselves on what they can and cannot use, or purchase.
An up to date copy of the World Anti-Doping Agency Prohibited List can be found on DFSNZ's website, and the website also has an online tool which allows athletes to submit queries about supplements or herbal remedies. While DFSNZ cannot guarantee any supplement, it can advise of the risks associated with some of the more common products available in New Zealand. Medsafe's website also has an online tool to check whether or not many common medicines require a prescription.
1Sally Jenkins "Winning, Cheating Have Ancient Roots," Washington Post, Aug. 3, 2007.
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