IT’S a privilege for me to be in a profession that enables me to offer the occasional scientific opinion on matters of sport matters from a scientific perspective.

The dark side of this is that often the matter in question is doping.  I can think of 10 doping cases in the last three years that have invited insight and discussion.

Then last week, I found myself sucked into the murky vortex of doping allegations when a Kenyan task force, set up to investigate doping in Kenya, accused Paul Treu and his assistants of giving Kenyan Sevens players a “concoction” containing illegal steroids.  Though unofficially, I am one of those “assistants”, thanks to the informal advisory and consulting work I have done with Treu. 

I must disclose that I have never received a cent in payment for advising and consulting with Treu since he joined Kenya — I do this for the passion and learning opportunities it offers.

I did, however, work officially and closely with Treu for five years during his tenure as South Africa’s Sevens coach, but my involvement ended with his departure.

This article is my personal response to the accusations, woven into a cautionary tale about the dangers of supplements that I hope educates parents, coaches and athletes.  I also write it because I know the characters of Treu and his South Africa-born assistants, Graham Bentz and Vuyo Zanqa, and I cannot think of a group less deserving of this controversy.

When Paul took over as the Kenyan coach in November last year, one of the very first things we spoke about was the money being spent by the Kenyan Rugby Union on supplements.  Spending huge money on supplements (as they were) is just bad business, and even worse science (and ethics), for two reasons. 

First, there is very little evidence that supplements even work.  If an athlete focuses on good nutrition, then supplementation is largely unnecessary.

Claims made by supplement manufacturers are almost always unfounded and supplements offer very little upside.

Second, and more important, the supplement industry is, in general, hopelessly uncontrolled.  It’s the Wild West, and trust and confidence are for fools and gamblers. 

Too often, supplements either don’t contain what they claim to, or they contain substances not listed on the label, which means the risk of contamination is very real.

Studies done here in South Africa have found enormous inconsistencies between the labels and what is actually in the product, including traces of glass and faeces, let alone banned steroids. 

This stems from lax regulation of manufacturing. Just ask Bjorn Basson, or Johan Goosen, or Jamaican sprinter Asafa Powell, who share failed doping tests because of supplement contamination. 

Because the report has not been made public, and because neither I, nor Treu, nor anyone else involved has seen it, or even been asked to comment as part of the supposedly thorough investigation, I can’t even begin to explain what was tested, or what was found.

It’s a convenient excuse for athletes, and I’ve no doubt it is often a lie, but there are certainly cases where athletes have innocently ingested a banned substance because of contamination (not ignorance — this can never be an excuse).

The point is, given that supplements offer a small or non-existent upside, and an enormous downside, professional athletes need to seriously rethink their approach to supplementation.

This is why, over breakfast at a Cape Town hotel last November, Treu and I agreed that, effective immediately, the Kenyan Sevens should have a “no supplement policy”. 

This was Treu’s first tactical decision in charge. It would save money, and allow credible, evidence-based approaches to nutrition to be introduced. 

However, we couldn’t totally get rid of nutritional support, because the Kenyan players are part-time, and juggle rugby with other careers or studying. This forces them to wake up before 5am, train and then go straight to work — eating properly is practically impossible. So we identified a South Africa-produced food replacement product and a protein hydrolysate that is certified by an independent body as being contaminant-free. 

The e-mail conversations between ourselves and these companies will prove our intention to rid Kenya of unregulated supplements, rather than to force them onto the players.

The so-called “independent report”, which none of us has seen, names Evox supplements as the “concoction” responsible for the banned steroids. This was purchased by Kenyan Rugby a year before Treu took over and should have been among the “casualities” of his scientific banning of supplements.

Because the report has not been made public, and because neither I, nor Treu, nor anyone else involved has seen it, or even been asked to comment as part of the supposedly thorough investigation, I can’t even begin to explain what was tested, or what was found. 

If it is true that Evox supplements were contaminated with banned substances, it would vindicate our desire to change Kenya’s supplementation policy, and should also serve as a warning to all coaches and athletes that you play the supplement game at your reputational and professional peril.

However, whether the task force is even qualified to conduct this investigation is already under in dispute in Kenya. For our part, we’ve responded to the World Anti-Doping Agency, SA Anti-Doping Agency and International Rugby Board, inviting them to conduct any investigation they deem necessary. 

This includes a full and unequivocal commitment to make available (and public, if necessary) all financial statements, e-mails, training information, performance data, and communications relating to our intended supplement policy. 

Exposing everything to the light will reveal that the report is either misguided, or maliciously targets Treu as a foreign coach, but it is certainly not true.

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