Alan Hubbard

A media release drops into my inbox from UK Anti-Doping with the information that a rugby player, one Ralph Rainbow (no, me neither) has been banned for four years after UK Border Forces seized a package which contained £200 worth of items used in the process of injecting Human Growth Hormone (HGH), a case which echoes British Cycling’s infamous jiffy bag affair.

He was subsequently charged by the Rugby Football Union (RFU) with two violations, possession by purchase and attempted use. He did not contest the charges.

Not too much is known about him except that he plays - or has played - for years as an amateur for Old Northamptonshire RFC as a tight head prop. The club’s website does not give his age but from his photo he seems to be a veteran, perhaps in his 40s. Maybe he was seeking the elixir of youth.

Worrying, however is that he is one of what seems a multitude of notifications over the past couple of years of grassroots rugby players committing doping offences. It may be over for this particular rainbow there seem to be plenty more willing to risk their careers by cheating.

It may not be an exaggeration to say that rugby is rife with performance enhancing drug taking, much of it undetected when masking agents are so readily available, as in athletics. 

You have only to look at some of the galloping Goliaths charging around the pitch built like brick outhouses, all beef and biceps, to raise an eyebrow and wonder if it is all achieved by press ups.

Jut how deep into the grassroots in all sports, not just rugby, does this go? UK Anti-Doping recently reported a case of a 16-year-old youth footballer who received a nine month ban from the sport for possession of a banned substance. A pen type dispenser containing somatropin, a growth hormone which is banned from sport at all times.

Shocking? You bet it is but then just about every year in modern sport seems to be an annus horribilis when it comes to unacceptable behaviour by both those who play the game (or rather don’t play it) or rule over it.

For instance, cycling is now reeling over the case of the dodgy doctor who has been struck off for supplying drugs to an unnamed competitor, leading to widespread speculation as to whether the recipient was an Olympic gold medallist or even a Tour de France winner.

The former Team Sky and national team medic, Dr Richard Freeman, 61, was found guilty after a lengthy inquiry in Manchester by a Medical Practitioners Tribunal of ordering banned sachets of testogel knowing or believing it was to illegally assist a rider.

It is hard to recall a scandal more ruinous for the reputation of British sport.

This is the conclusion of a number of respected media pundits, among them The Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel, who wrote: "This is quite possibly the biggest scandal in British sporting history. We were so good, how did we do it?"

The scandal involving former British Cycling team doctor Richard Freeman is one of the biggest to hit British sport ©Getty Images
The scandal involving former British Cycling team doctor Richard Freeman is one of the biggest to hit British sport ©Getty Images

As Samuel pointed out Dr Freeman destroyed laptops, left unusually convenient gaps in his record taking system, suffered mystifying absence of memory or holes in his knowledge. The Tribunal concluded accordingly that he was at it.

Sir Dave Brailsford, then Dr Freeman’s boss and elevated to sainthood in the eyes of cycling fans for GB’s phenomenal successes, claims he knew nothing about what the doctor ordered and has not been called to account. Yet like so much of what came out across approximately 17 months of inquisition - there will be those who remain incredulous.

While his sport has been stunned by the revelations perhaps we should not be so surprised because cycling has a lot of previous when it comes to the druggies.

Scepticism has abounded since Lance Armstrong first put his scurrilous feet to the pedals - even before that was the murky controversy surrounding the British cyclist Tommy Simpson, a national icon who collapsed during the 1967 Tour de France and died after being airlifted to hospital.

The official cause of his death was heart failure and heat exhaustion but a post mortem found that he had taken amphetamines and alcohol, a diuretic combination which proved fatal in the heat.

However I do not agree that Dr Freeman putting the spoke into British Cycling’s wheel of fortune is the greatest scandal in the history of our sport.

This week BBC TV has been airing a three-part documentary on the historical sex abuse of young footballers stretching back three decades. It is quite breathtaking, with more than 1000 players from youth and junior leagues.

There are also a number who have progressed to play for leading clubs such as Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea but the most notorious club of all is Crewe Alexandra.

Former manager and player Dario Gradi has belatedly apologised for happenings under his watch which eventually resulted, in 2016, of coach Barry Bennell being jailed for a total of 31 years for the abuse of young players from junior teams, some of them schoolboys whom he encouraged to stay at his home and share his bed. If they demurred they faced being dropped from their teams.

Bennell also coached at Manchester City and Chelsea, some of whose younger players were also abused by him and others.

The judge who sentenced Bennell him called "the devil incarnate." This week the Football Association issued a fulsome, if belated apology for their institutional failing and lack of action despite warnings.

Gradi, who was grilled by police but has never been charged with any offence, is labelled by the FA as "a potential risk to children" and is currently banned from football. It was he who brought the serial paedophile Bennell to the club.

Our columnist argues that Barry Bennell's abuse of young footballers, which took place at clubs including Crewe, is one of the biggest scandals to face British sport ©Getty Images
Our columnist argues that Barry Bennell's abuse of young footballers, which took place at clubs including Crewe, is one of the biggest scandals to face British sport ©Getty Images

A number of other clubs came under fire across the 700 pages of the independent report panel chaired by Clive Sheridan QC which probed child sexual abuse in football between 1970 and 2005. Sheridan‘s report took many years to produce and examined the cases of several paedophiles including coaches.

Ian Ackroyd, who says he was raped hundreds of times by Bennell is now a survivor support advocate helping other ex-footballers who were abused to access therapeutic and practical help.

"If anyone is naive enough to believe those days are gone then we are in trouble," he said.

"It’s happening again and again and again."

What a disturbing thought.

In the BBC’s disturbing documentary a number of former players abused by Bennell and others broke down and wept at the memory of it all.

The sheer volume of the number of young players who were abused surely outstrips doping in cycling - or indeed any other sport - in the scale of scandals. It also puts events such as FIFA’s corruption and financial skulduggery into some sort of perspective.

As does the physical and mental bullying which was exposed last year in British Gymnastics. Horrifying examples have come to light, to the extent when one young female gymnast admitted that she was so scared of the coaches: "I wet myself."

Unsurprisingly following the media exposures (thank goodness eh for a free press) top heads have rolled at both the the English Football Association and British Gymnastics.

On top of this we have the pandemic and enduring problem problem of racism across almost the whole spectrum of sport which taking the knee has done little to alleviate.

And we haven’t even touched on the escalating concerns of dementia from heading the ball in football and scrimmaging and excessively violent play in rugby.

Sport at any level used to be fun - and to some extent it still is even though greed, gamesmanship, cheating and all too often wrongdoing and sheer evil have scarred our beautiful games for ever.