Athlete-informed approach drives drop in supplement positives
For the first time in over a decade not a single athlete tested positive due to a supplement in Australia, Sport Integrity Australia CEO David Sharpe said.
The achievement is the result of more than five years of sustained effort between:
- Sport Integrity Australia (SIA)
- The National Integrity of Sport Unit (NISU)
- Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA - now Sport Integrity Australia)
As well as partners including:
- The National Measurement Institute
- The Australian Sports Drug Medical Advisory Committee (ASDMAC)
- The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS)
- Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ)
- The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and national sporting organisations.
The result comes on the eve of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Global Education Conference, being hosted in Sydney this week, bringing together 300 international anti-doping education experts to learn how they can continue to help athletes through education.
Mr Sharpe said supplements have long been one of the leading causes of anti-doping rule violations in Australia, accounting for a third of positive doping tests between 2016 and 2019.
“These numbers peaked in 2016-17 when 17 athletes tested positive due to a supplement,” he said. “However, from working with these athletes, we know that the vast majority of those did not intend to dope.”
Studies showed that some supplements were illegal, unsafe and dangerous, not all supplements had all the ingredients listed on the bottle and that many supplements were contaminated during production process. In fact, one survey revealed that one in five supplements surveyed contained a banned substance.
The response needed to be swift, innovative and athlete-informed – and include regulatory and sporting partners, Mr Sharpe said.
Over the five-year period, the response included:
- Athlete-informed changes to supplement messaging, focused on harm minimisation.
- The creation of the Sport Integrity mobile app which provides a list of low risk “batch-tested” supplements.
- Implementing supplement education in all online courses and more than 500 face-to-face sessions, including education for coaches, parents and medical support staff
- Developing specific resources to guide doctors, dietitians and medical support personnel.
- Answering questions from individual athletes, parents and support people about supplement use
- A regulatory response, in partnership with the TGA and FSANZ
- Education videos featuring sanctioned athletes.
- A communications campaign, including over 300+ supplement warnings on social media.
The combined education, communication and regulatory response resulted in the number of positive tests attributed to supplements dropping dramatically, with only three in 2019-20, one in 2020-21, and none in 2021-22.
“The app was a game-changer for athletes. For the first time they had a list of low-risk supplements to choose from and a survey to assess the risk of other products. Since it was created it has been downloaded 65,094 times, with almost 23,000 supplement checks a year.
“We were also privileged to have athletes like Cassie Fien and Thomas Carr work with Sport Integrity Australia to share their stories in the hope that it would prevent other athletes being caught out like they were.”
The appointment of a medical advisor within ASADA/Sport Integrity Australia enabled us to reach doctors and medical support staff with specifically tailored resources and education.
Another significant response came in 2020, when the TGA announced that from 30 November 2020, in order for sports supplements with therapeutic claims containing higher-risk ingredients to be advertised and supplied, they must be included in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods. This meant that certain products would undergo greater regulation and scrutiny, leading to a safer marketplace for athletes.
Despite the latest figures, Mr Sharpe urged athletes not to become complacent.
“Just because it’s on the shelf does not mean it’s safe,” he said. “Sport Integrity Australia has not and will not approve or endorse supplements because they pose too much of a risk to an athlete’s health, career and reputation. If you must take a supplement, please check it.
“All athletes should continue to be vigilant and only use batch-tested supplements if there is a genuine need.”