Supplement shaming wins first Olympic gold medal


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Sports supplements: Doping culprits or doping scapegoats? ©iStock
Sports supplements: Doping culprits or doping scapegoats? ©iStock

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It didn’t take long for a dope-busted Olympic athlete to blame a contaminated food supplement for his infringement and sportsmen and sports bodies to jump into the fray with ‘see? you just can’t trust supplements’ missives.

It’s a thin excuse that has been knocked out time and time again by doping athletes over the decades of Olympiads but one nearing complete threadbareness in the current doping-weary climate after so many outrageous scandals across so many sports.

As Joerg Gruenwald, the founder and chief scientific officer of Berlin-based contract research organisation (CRO) analyze&realize, told us: “The category of supplement manufacturers are not to be blamed, like any other product category, for misbehaviour of certain individuals.”

In fact the 2016 Rio Olympics had not even begun when Irish middleweight boxer Michael O’Reilly tested positive for an as yet unnamed banned substance on the eve of the Games opening ceremony last Friday (5 August). He has been promptly booted from the athlete’s village and sent packing back to Ireland.

On Irish TV, fellow boxer Eric Donovan jumped to O'Reilly's defence, noting Sports Ireland warned athletes off supplements, then adding: “Supplements – especially over the counter – you just don’t know what’s in them.”

Supplement knock down

It only took a few days for O’Reilly to produce his alibi – an as yet unnamed tainted supplement, one conveniently not on the safe and assured list approved by his Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA).

Nice move – he transfers blame for his doping problem from both himself and his sporting association onto an anonymous food supplement he inadvertently - oh so naively and stupidly! – consumed.

And by rote of dodgy association, the food supplements sector comes away from the contest with a potentially dark shiner of a black eye. Well, maybe more so in the past...

"Pull the other one, mate…"​ is the now-standard response among the broad public in the wake of so much doping badness and not just among the highly sceptical [some would say righteously so] anti-doping Twitter troops.


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O’Reilly has said he took a supplement he procured from "someone unrelated to his team or association."

The 23-year-old said he revealed this at the time of his anti-doping test as athletes are expected to detail their supplement consumption on doping control paperwork.

Running with this narrative the IABA parried: "We are very disappointed that Michael may have taken any supplement without consulting the IABA High Performance Support Team. Educating athletes of the risks proposed by supplements is provided to all our boxers as part of the High Performance Programme.


Some questions then:

  • If it was a contaminated supplement, why not name it? Surely this should be done as a public health service as it could be unsafe and at the very least, other athletes may be in grave danger of a similar infringement, especially if they are using the same dealer...sorry, supplement supplier.
  • Why did O'Reilly go off-piste and not stick to the products his boxing association advised were tested and safe?
  • How did O'Reilly know the supplement was tainted – has he had it tested with results returned between last Thursday and today?
  • Why doesn't he share that documentation?

Most likely these queries will go unanswered because the defence stinks…it stinks like many aspects of the Games themselves stink – of doping.

Clean sport, clean supplements

If we could deal in facts for a second, the fact is the mainstream supplements industry has done much to strengthen and promote its 'cleanness' – from better QC procedures following tougher GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) regulations; to marketplace policing and adherence to quality assurance schemes like those offered by LGC-owned Informed-Sport and NSF International.

There will always be rogue players offering products outside of this system and if any athlete clicks that way they only have themselves to blame for any heavy consequences that follow. It is also true that the existence of such a black market offers athletes doping alibis, even if authorities don’t always accept the arguments.

The mainstream industry shouldn’t take any heat from these incursions. Perhaps it should do more to let the public know of these realities when it is forced against the ropes as it has been on this occasion by O’Reilly’s assertions.



A new NutraIngredients and European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA) congress held in Frankfurt on November 28 the day before Health Ingredients Europe​ will place your business front and centre of the playing field be it in supplements, herbals, powders, mixes, drinks, bars or gels.

More information here​.

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1 comment

supplement shame

Posted by Duncan,

Good article.

In addition to naming it, the question must be asked -
How does the boxer know that the banned substance was in the supplement? Did he immediately make the connection between "banned chemical = unlisted supplement"

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