The sinister shadow cast by towering teenagers

Anti-doping authorities might never interrogate headmasters or first XV rugby coaches. There will be no raids on classrooms or government ministers staging shocking news conferences about drugs and organised crime in the schoolyard.
Nanjing Night Net

But to ignore whispers about the use, and potential for use, of performance-enhancing drugs and supplements in schools may be as naive as believing Australian professional sport is squeaky clean.

One player manager involved in talent scouting, who wished to remain anonymous, said questions were murmured about a Wallaby, who ”finished at Shore, disappeared for a year, loaded up on everything he could, came back and started playing footy when he was 20”.

He said that was the only rumour he’d heard. ”That’s not to say a kid here or there isn’t getting his hands on hormones or something, or that a kid down the road isn’t selling them something. The thing is, until they’re contracted [professionally], no one really knows what goes on.

”That’s the greyness of the whole thing. Until they reach that level, it comes down to the school and the family. You’d like to think most people do the right thing.”

The issue of supplements and performance-enhancing drug use in schools is set to be discussed following an investigation by Fairfax Media that built on enduring rumours of drug and supplement use in schools. Among the revelations, the report revealed that Scots College had accepted a rugby tournament sponsorship from Ultimate Sports Nutrition, which sells supplements ”to deliver explosive gains in muscle size and strength”.

The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority conducts about 7000 tests each year, including testing minors, but none are conducted on behalf of schools.

Under legislation, the organisation tests ”any national or international level athlete who participates in a sport with an anti-doping policy”.

”Generally, the ASADA legislation allows ASADA to conduct testing on the basis of an athlete’s level of sporting ability and sport membership, as opposed to school membership,” the authority said.

Drug testing in schools would be a polarising move. Ross Tarlinton, the headmaster of St Joseph’s College, a prolific rugby nursery, said before the investigation was published he was strongly against testing.

”I don’t think it’s the right track at all,” Tarlinton said. ”This is amateur sport, not professional sport. That’s getting into the realm of professional sport and that’s not what school is about. You’ve got to remember these are kids.”

Tarlinton said students were often on medications, including asthma and acne treatments.

”Where would it stop? I wouldn’t support that regime,” he said. Fairfax Media was seeking a response from Tarlinton to Saturday’s story.

Earlier this month, two students in Brisbane were expelled after being found with steroids. Body image obsession was said to be the motivator. Days earlier, Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mike Carlton wrote of a ”disturbing email” he’d received from the parent of a child at one of the elite Great Public Schools.

”I just couldn’t believe that the development I was looking at was the result of gym work,” the parent said of a school rugby game. ”This sense was only exacerbated by an overheard conversation on the touchline: of a gym where drugs could be purchased to aid performance.”

Carlton’s column sparked interest. Among the responses was a note from a former GPS student, with children now at one of the Combined Associated Schools. ”I have had little doubt for years performance drugs were rampant,” the parent said.

”It’s also common knowledge amongst the kids themselves. I’m sure it exists to a greater or lesser degree in most of the top schools.”

The parent wrote that in a recent school match, ”it was fairly clear they’d been doing something more than a few extra squats and bench presses! The kids and parents know, or at least strongly suspect, what’s going on.”

No proof has emerged of doping or unethical supplement use in schoolboy rugby. Nick Farr-Jones believes it will stay that way.

The NSW Rugby Union chairman and World Cup-winning captain, a Newington College alumnus, said he would be ”enormously surprised” if performance-enhancing drug use in schools ”was at all widespread”.

”You never say never, but I’d be hugely shocked if it was involved in schoolboy sport,” Farr-Jones said. He added, however, that where coaches pushed children too hard, a win-at-all-costs mentality could pervade.

”You do get some lunatic coaches who get far too serious and forget that it’s to be enjoyed,” he said. ”Yes, winning is enjoyable. But the whole concept of sport being part of education is that you’d like children and young adults to understand life is about how you win, but also how you accept loss. Sometimes coaches, parents and schools can take sport way too seriously. To win at all costs, I’m definitely opposed to that.”

Winning at all costs may push schoolboys towards performance-enhancing drugs. Similarly the reality is, these days, a standout schoolboy player may be just a step away from a lucrative professional contract.

Tarlinton was troubled by Carlton’s column, as he felt it implied that schools were participating in unethical programs or turning a blind eye. ”Those suggestions I refute,” he said.

However, he conceded there were ”some big, well-built kids” playing schoolboy rugby who may have taken supplements or drugs. He said St Joseph’s had adapted to a changed environment and was educating students about the issue. Yet, he added, there was only so much a school could do to protect students.

”There is not, to the best of my knowledge – and certainly not at this school – any suggestions made to the boys that part of their program involve supplementation,” he said. ”In fact, we are absolutely overt in our conversations with the boys that supplementation programs are not part of our regimes.

”Can they get supplements? Well, they can go over to Chatswood to a gym and get them. Are they doing that? They could well be. But to suggest that schools are promoting that or turning a blind eye, not at all. We actively work against it.”

Tarlinton said supplements were available, but students were being taught ”these things are not necessary and the risks are unknown”. Each boy involved in a gym or athletic program at St Joseph’s, he said, had ”qualified staff” working with them, including ensuring they understood the problems with performance-enhancing drugs.

”Five years ago, we probably weren’t even talking about it,” he said. ”Now, we do talk about it and we talk about it in a positive way, that they are not part of what’s needed in terms of a healthy lifestyle. That is the proactive approach.”

The headmaster hoped parents, too, were educating children about the dangers, ”but just because a school and parents educate kids not to do something doesn’t mean they won’t do it. They’re exposed to them broadly. I couldn’t give you a categorical ‘No they don’t’, but I can tell you our approach.”

Tarlinton said the quality and knowledge of fitness and training had developed in recent years and to suggest ”the improvements only came about because of performance-enhancing substances, I think is a long bow”. Respected schoolboy coach Tony Hannon agreed. Hannon coached the likes of league and union stars Chris Whitaker, Craig Wing and Duncan McRae at Sydney Boys High School. He said the top schools should be commended for improving strength and fitness programs.

”With a school like Joey’s, you’ve got to respect what they do – they work so hard,” he said.

Hannon claimed he’d never encountered evidence of drug use, ”though many years ago there was a halfback at a certain school that suddenly swelled up and became very big. That was the only time I’ve ever seen anything that seemed wrong.”

All schools have access to ASADA’s e-learning module on its website. ”ASADA understands the kind of pressure up-and-coming athletes are under while they are trying to carve out a career, but wants to make sure these athletes know that being a cheat is not the kind of name they want to make for themselves,” the authority said. ”ASADA’s education program aims to reduce the number of athletes contemplating doping, reinforce health messages, reduce the percentage of inadvertent anti-doping rule violations and raise anti-doping awareness throughout the Australian sporting community.”

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