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A casual acceptance of Cortisone still a major problem in the GAA

By Declan Bogue

Published 12/10/2016

Needs must: Dick Clerkin highlighted the use of Cortisone
Needs must: Dick Clerkin highlighted the use of Cortisone

True to form, Ronan O'Gara did not skirt the issue when the anomaly of Racing 92 players Dan Carter, Joe Rokocoko and Juan Imhoff's doping tests after last year's rugby French Top14 final showed traces of corticosteroids.

"There's 60-80 of these administered in a year - an injection into a joint," O'Gara revealed, "…and there were three readings showing a corticoid and the readings are extremely low…

"I have no doubt that one of the challenges facing rugby is steroid abuse, but this is an anti-inflammatory."

To avail of these anti-inflammatory injections does not require an application for a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE). And it is not in the same planet as an anabolic steroid.

But in sport, a long-overdue period of reflection is slowly evolving as to where exactly the line is drawn between medicine and performance-enhancing drugs.

When Kerry were in the midst of their 'Golden Years' of Gaelic football, the idea of resting up meant falling out of the starting line-up.

A willing participant in this macho culture was Mikey Sheehy. That he was one of the finest forwards to play the game might offer some consolation that, by the time he was 25, he couldn't cross his legs with his knee regularly locking in place. He suffered with excruciating knee pain for decades until he had a replacement a few years back.

"I had several clean-out jobs on the knee and I don't know how many cartilage jobs," he said in an interview two years ago.

"It was bone-on-bone for years. I was taking jabs in it and this and that just to survive. We often played with pain-killing injections. You mightn't have been match-fit but you started once you could get away with it... if you felt you could get away with a jab, Jesus, you'd do it. I'd do it.

"Nowadays that's a thing of the past. From a player welfare point of view, down the road, that will be crucial to a lot of these guys - not taking pain-killing injections."

That hasn't been the case, though.

The longest-serving player in inter-county GAA is Dick Clerkin. At the end of the 2015 season he wrote a column about how his body was holding up.

"Over the past 12 months, I have had four Cortisone injections into various joints. Some were needed just to help me sleep at night," he admitted. "And don't talk to me about the ordeal of putting on a pair of socks the mornings after rigorous training sessions."

The Mayo Clinic, a medical research group, warns: 'There's concern that repeated Cortisone shots might cause the cartilage within a joint to deteriorate. So doctors typically limit the number of Cortisone shots into a joint.

'In general, you shouldn't get Cortisone injections more often than every six weeks and usually not more than three or four times a year.'

Gaelic football and hurling is currently going through a remarkably similar period of transition to that which occurred in rugby union when it became professional. Weight training and an increased focus on nutrition has led to players becoming bigger and leaner, faster and more powerful.

Naturally, the collisions have become bigger. But bones and ligaments are still brittle.

Being strict about it, Cortisone is not a performance-enhancing drug. But it does enable performance. And enabling performance means more long-term damage to players who are meant to be doing this thing as their pastime.

Belfast Telegraph

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