By Paul Gardner
So England produced a lethargic performance against Poland last Wednesday because the players had been taking sleeping pills. Sounds quite possible -- after all, that’s what sleeping pills are supposed to do. Make you sleepy.
And why would England players want to feel sleepy? You can blame the Poles for that. The Poland vs. England game was supposed to be played on Tuesday, in a lovely new stadium with a retractable roof that keeps out the rain. There was plenty of rain on Tuesday, buckets of it, but the Poles left the roof open.
Human error. The rain gods took full advantage and swamped the playing field. So the game had to be postponed until Wednesday.
Ahah! -- things get murkier at this point. The English players, you see, were all hyped-up for Tuesday -- for an event that didn’t happen. In this state of frustrated hyped-upness, how were they to sleep on Tuesday night, then?
A mild sleeping pill would do the trick. So that’s what some of the players took. Possibly they had the pills in their baggage, or it could even be that the England medical staff provided them -- that might well be a good idea, if it otherwise meant players having a restless night before a big game.
But as more became known, attention switched from chemicals that were used to induce sleep, to chemicals that might -- probably were -- used to induce the hyped-up state. That sounds like doping, no? The use of performance-enhancing drugs. Not quite ... because the hype-up drug of choice among soccer players (and no doubt all other athletes) these days is caffeine. A drug we all know about, a homely, comfortable sort of drug, the one that helps to make both coffee and tea such welcome drinks.
These days there’s a whole range of caffeine products on the market -- all available without prescription -- whose active ingredient is caffeine. Most of these products are “energy drinks” (Red Bull is a prime example) and they unabashedly advertise the fact that they make you function better -- in the office, at home, as a person and so on. Oddly, none of them actually mentions performing better at sports. Red Bull comes close, proclaiming that the product “has been developed for people who want to have a clear and focused mind, perform physically ...”
The evidence is -- as it usually is when trying to measure performance -- unclear. But plenty of athletes believe that caffeine does help, and they use the products. So how come these athletes don’t fail drug tests then?
Because caffeine, assuredly a stimulant, is not on the list of banned substances issued yearly by WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency). Quite an omission from a list that names over 60 stimulants. WADA used to ban caffeine, but policing and monitoring such a widely -- and innocently -- used drug proved an impossible task. So, in 2004, caffeine was taken off the list.
Now we know, what we already did sort of know, that top players -- in this case member of England’s national team -- hype themselves up with pre-game doses of caffeine. We know because Liverpool’s Glen Johnson told the BBC that “A lot of the lads take Pro Plus tablets [caffeine tablets] before the game and then the game is off and no-one can sleep ...” Hence the sleeping pills and the drowsy game against Poland.
The tendency, I think, will be to laugh this one off. My own inclination is to do just that. After all, everyone does it, it’s not illegal, it’s not dangerous. Well, provided the guys don’t run riot with high dosages, that is.
And there’s no escaping that the way in which caffeine has been sort of “grandfathered” off the prohibited list does make a mockery of that list. My own feeling about doping is a mixed one -- I’m against it in principle, but I see extraordinary difficulties and contradictions involved in trying to define exactly what doping is, trying to separate nutritional aids from performance enhancers, trying to work out if bans based on dosage might be feasible, and then trying to enforce stringent anti-doping regulations.
If there were any doubts about the difficulties of enforcement, they have probably been banished by the recent revelations in the sad tale of Lance Armstrong.
Whatever one’s opinion about ingesting drinks or supplements or pills to win games, there remains a stigma -- not necessarily a logical one -- attached to such practices. If it’s OK to use caffeine products, then why shouldn’t one do it openly and fess up to what one is doing? Glenn Johnson has done just that (naively, one suspects), but his honesty will not be widely admired or copied.
The product Pro Plus is advertised as pills that will “relieve the symptoms of fatigue and tiredness and help you feel awake.” The ads mention “busy professionals and students” as people likely to get help from a two-pill dose (containing 100mg of caffeine -- “equivalent to a strong cup of coffee”). Pro Plus can also help you to “concentrate and be more alert.”
Pro Plus now has a great opportunity to boost its sales by letting the world know that it is widely used by top England players, and by getting those players to star in commercials. Will it take advantage of that opportunity? Come to that, will it offer the English FA a nice chunk of money to be recognized as the “official energy pill” of the England squad?
No it will not. All around, there is the feeling that the England players have been caught doing something naughty, something that shouldn’t be shared with outsiders.
In fact, the most surprising part of this imbroglio is that we have yet to hear a straight-faced, stern-voiced pronouncement from the FA saying that it, and its medical department, thoroughly disapprove of caffeine taking.