Durban - Sports medicine experts, school heads and sports administrators are hailing a breakthrough week in their battle against school pupils using steroids and illegal performance enhancing drugs after Parliament discussed key draft amendments that will pave the way for improved testing and sanctions.
Representatives from the Basic Education Department joined forces with the Department of Sport and Recreation to brief Parliament on draft changes to the South African Schools Act that will facilitate random drug testing at schools, with recommended sanctions for those caught using steroids and banned stimulants.
South Africa will become the first country in the world where random steroids testing of minors in schools is allowed.
“These proposed changes to the current legislation are essential,” said Glen Hagemann, the director of the Discovery SharkSmart program that has driven a strong anti-steroid message into its 23 partner high schools in KwaZulu-Natal for more than a decade, under the mantra 'Play Safe Play Fair'.
“While there has been widespread support in KZN for the principle of testing school pupils for steroid use and performance enhancing substances, the fundamental stumbling blocks in the law have made this difficult to implement in the manner that was envisaged.
“These proposed changes to the SA Schools Act will effectively remove those stumbling blocks and allow us to treat school pupils similarly to senior athletes,” added Hagemann, who also sits on the South African Institute for Drug Free Sport’s disciplinary committee.
“For many of us that have been working hard to deal with counter the problem of steroid use by school pupils, this is a huge step in the right direction,” he added. “This will place South Africa right at the forefront of dealing with the problem of steroid use amongst teenage athletes worldwide.
“It is a huge stepping stone,” said Fahmy Galant, the General Manager of the South African Institute for Drug Free Sport (SAIDS). “It finally gives us jurisdiction over the schools that we lacked with the current initiative.
“We had to get special permission from WADA to take this step,” he added. “While there may be some that are still sceptical about it, we are confident that this will make a big difference. Ideally this will act as a deterrent to the pupils who are thinking about using steroids.”
Galant confirmed that the current SAIDS steroids testing programme by nomination was still continuing in KwaZulu-Natal , where he said there was excellent support from high schools.
Last year, Discovery SharkSmart and SAIDS launched the ground-breaking steroid-testing programme that centred on the 23 KwaZulu-Natal high schools participating in the Discovery SharkSmart programme that involved planned testing by consent of nominated athletes for steroids use.
This week’s briefing to Parliament’s portfolio committees outlined important amendments proposed to the Schools Act that will pave the way for not only the scheduled tests for steroid usage but also for random surprise tests throughout the year.
If the working groups have their way, the draft amendments will be tabled in Parliament for approval early next year.
SAIDS will distribute guidelines for sanctions to the schools, which will ultimately be responsible for sanctioning pupils caught using steroids. Sanctions for such transgressions have not been determined yet and will be an important part of the consultative process.
“The intention is to educate and rehabilitate the school pupil, not end their sporting career,” said Galant.
He also confirmed that little change is envisaged to the SA Schools Act clauses that protects the confidentiality of the minor being tested, even if that test comes back positive.
The Department of Basic Education has stressed that the latest initiative will balance punishment with education of pupils, parents, coaches, teachers and governing bodies and, where necessary, rehabilitation of offenders.
Research conducted by Discovery SharkSmart in recent years has highlighted the prevalence of steroid usage in high schools, with a significant proportion of that steroid use not aimed at improving athletic performance but rather for cosmetic purposes as boys “bulk up” their physiques.