Cape Town - For high school athletes, the competition is getting tighter by the year, and pupils are turning to nutritional supplements to play better.
But many of these supplements may contain steroids and stimulants banned by international sporting organisations, say health officials.
Consumers are at risk of ingesting banned substances from supplements that do not label their ingredients completely, said Fahmy Galant, doping control manager at the South African Institute for Drug Free Sport (Saids).
In South Africa, a survey by the Journal of the American Medical Association detected that 12 (40 percent) out of 30 over-the-counter supplements contained banned substances.
If a student who has ingested a banned substance is tested by his school or an independent organisation like Saids, he or she may be suspended from playing, said the Saids representative.
“It is extremely difficult for the average consumer to judge the quality and the value of the claims of dietary supplements,” said Heidi-Lee Robertson, business development manager for DSM Nutritional Products.
And the supplements do not come cheaply. Parents are often asked by their children to pay upwards of R500 for a 1kg tub of supplement or protein, often without knowing what kind of chemicals it contains.
Some brands offer guarantees of product purity from independent sporting organisations. These organisations test products rigorously. For example, some DSM products are certified by Informed-Sport, and carry a sticker so consumers can trust their product.
Some products like the Hellfire workout supplement state on the label that they contain banned substances, but many brands do not. A lack of regulation over the manufacturing of supplements means that companies are not held accountable for listing all the ingredients in their product.
Supplements do not technically qualify as a food or as a drug, so regulation of such products is often overlooked, especially in South Africa.
For example, AMethylhexaneamine, a stimulant banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, is commonly mislabelled on nutritional supplements. Saids lists over 30 alternative names including “geranium oil”.
According to Galant, over 30 percent of the organisation’s positive drug tests in 2012-2013 came from athletes testing positive for AMethylhexaneamine.
In 2010, Springbok rugby players Bjorn Basson and Chiliboy Ralepelle were suspended after taking a supplement called Jack3d, which contains AMethylhexaneamine.
For high school athletes, who train up to 10 hours a week, such supplements are considered vital for peak performance.
“The high school and youth usage of supplements is very common,” said Galant.
“If you ever watch a rugby game on a Sunday, you can see supplement companies sponsoring teams and equipment. It’s really a new development.”
Supplement production is an extremely lucrative industry, said Gary Gabriels, who researches clinical pharmacology at UCT.
The local turnover for nutritional supplements was estimated at R1.5 billion a year according to a Health Product Association survey in 2000.
Parents of student players are shelling out more money to give their children a competitive edge in games, said Dave Mallett, the rugby coach at Bishops College. “At these schools, many of the boys can afford to go out and buy these supplements, and parents are prepared to pay exorbitant amounts,” he said.
Mallett’s son was a rugby player at Bishops in 2008, and he said that since that time there has been “a definite increase” in supplement usage.
“When the 1st team gets increased exposure, younger players get excited about the prospect of playing and making the team, and they become more vulnerable to that kind of thing,” he said.
AMethylhexaneamine by any other name
AMethylhexaneamine is one of the most common banned substances found in performance-enhancing supplements. The chemical can be called by over 30 different names on supplement labels, making it difficult for consumers to know what they are taking. Here are some of the most common names for AMethylhexaneamine listed on supplements:
w 4-methylhexan-2-amine (IUPAC)
w C7H17N (chemical formula)
w CAS 105-41-9
w dimethylamylamine (DMAA)
w dimethylpentylamine (DMP)
w Geranamine (Proviant™)
w Geranium extract
w Geranium flower extract
w Geranium oil
w Geranium oil extract
w Geranium stems and leaves
w Methylhexaneamine (MHA)
w Pelargonium (various)
w synthetic geranium
Emphasis on conditioning makes young rugby players reach for supplements
For rugby players at Cape Town’s most prestigious high schools, winning the game is no longer enough.
There is more at stake for these players as pupils may be scouted for professional contracts, and the reputation of a school is often at stake in high-profile games.
Many players are taking sports supplements in order to gain a competitive advantage over their peers.
“Rugby is now a career path, where it used to be a thing of fun,” said Ty Wills, who plays rugby for Bishops. The head boy said changes in rugby culture and an increased emphasis on conditioning was pushing players to use supplements at a younger age.
“Just before we got into high school is when it started to kick in – that you had to be bigger to succeed,” he said.
A 17-year-old rugby player for Rondebosch who prefers to remain anonymous said he started drinking protein shakes when he was in Grade 10. He said using a product like Evox helped make him less stiff the day after an intense workout and helped to curb his hunger.
“Most people take it because they see the results it gives other people, and they want to look like that,” he said.
The pupil said the school did not emphasise education about nutritional supplements.
Instead, players relied on one another and their teachers for advice.
Education around nutritional supplements may be incredibly important for avoiding banned chemicals and “dodgy brands”, said Mike Lambert, a professor of exercise science at UCT.
Not all supplements were dangerous for athletes, he said, but it was vital that schools educate their pupils about what kind of supplements were safe.
Earlier this year the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport (Saids) implemented its first educational programme to focus on the use of steroids and supplements in schools.
Saids employees travelled to more than 100 schools in several cities across the country to spread awareness about the dangers of sports drug usage, said Fahmy Galant, Saids’s doping control manager.
“There are so many myths about supplements, like that they work for everybody, and what the label says is actually true,” Galant said.
“The reality is that you need to work hard to gain your full potential, not just rely on chemicals.” - Cape Times