'I live with the fact I've cheated': Former rugby league stars open up about issue of doping

150222 Oliver Wilkes and Jamie Acton have both admitted taking performance-enhancing drugs, ITV News
Oliver Wilkes and Jamie Acton have both admitted taking performance-enhancing drugs. Credit: PA

As an international captain Ollie Wilkes has an enviable Rugby League CV. A scorer for Scotland in a World Cup and an extraordinary professional career spanning more than 500 games for 11 different clubs over 21 years.

When it comes to longevity in one of the toughest of sports, when he retired his beaten and battered body two seasons ago, he became a member of a very small club. It is for that reason he is torn about the conversation we’re about to have; in his own words he’s about to “trash” his reputation “and lose friends.” That’s because Ollie Wilkes is about to admit to doping. “No other names” he insists; “no clubs”.

During his career, Ollie Wilkes played for 11 different clubs and captained Scotland's team.

He’s not about to “dob anyone in”, unquestionably there’s an Omertà that exists within the sport. But what he has to say shines a light on a dark and dangerous secret that has impacted many a young player’s dreams. And it’s a temptation that still exists today. “I used to see people who I was as good as, then all of a sudden come back after a pre-season massive. I'd never say what club, what name. And then just see 'em absolutely tear it up," Wilkes says.

"They were quite slow at the start of pre-season, just a bit heavy and then shred up a bit. I assume they'd be clean by this point and avoided being caught..."

"At one stage I thought to myself: 'How am I going to compete with that person knowing they're doing what they're doing?'

"This was before I tried it myself. You knew that someone was using something and you knew you were as good as them, but they'd be getting picked. But you think to yourself: 'Is that what I have to do to, to get in the team? Do I have to take something?'" And that is why Wilkes says he is speaking out. He’s hoping his honesty will have an impact on two fronts; firstly, that young players will see the dangers in giving in to temptation, and secondly that his testimony will force those who run the sport to redouble their efforts to tackle the scourge of performance enhancing drugs.

Wilkes first crossed the line during an off-season, seven years into his career; he was training with Whitehaven at the time.

"I signed for Whitehaven and I was only training two times a week, and they'd offered me alright money and I thought to myself, I was like: 'Should I have some, see what all the fuss is about?'

"So I tried a performance enhancing drug, a banned one, and six weeks into the season I got a phone call off Wigan, to sign for Wigan. And, uh, I thought to myself: 'Well', I thought: 'It worked.'"

Wigan were the team he’d always dreamt of playing for and the opportunity came to him just weeks after he doped for the first time; coincidence?

"Where I grew up the nearest big club was Wigan. I grew up as a Wigan fan and when I got the phone call that day, it was like all my dreams come true.

“Did I feel guilty that I had taken something, that was illegal in sport? Or was it like: 'Well about time'?

"You know, I didn't know. I didn't know what to think. It's like: 'Well, it's, it's got me there or did it?'

"You know, was I, was I going to be playing that well that year to get seen and picked anyway, I don't know, but I know I was bigger and stronger.”

Wilkes claims doping took place at a number of the clubs he played for, however, there is no suggestion that the clubs were aware of their actions.

The 41-year-old also says that some coaches used to protect their players from the testers who were checking for performance enhancing drugs, but also recreational drugs, like cocaine." On a couple of occasions. I could say that if anybody had been mentioned… drug testers are here. If you're not here now – here is your chance to bob out and there has been a couple of times when guys have nipped out and their names haven’t gone down on the list."

The drugs of choice were growth hormones and peptides (which increase muscle growth) which players believed to be undetectable. They took them variously to lose weight, aid recovery from injury or allow them to train harder and for longer. Wilkes says some of his former teammates were cavalier in their attitude to the risks of being caught, it was a gamble worth taking: “I remember being at a club and a guy jumped in the back of my car for a lift between training sessions and he just jabbed a needle in his arm.”

Ollie Wilkes explains why he's now decided to speak out about what happened

ITV News has spoken to current and former players who do not recognise the picture Wilkes is painting of their sport, but there are also many who do. “It’s ingrained within the culture. You knew everyone else was taking it. I knew 10 people within a team taking it all year round," one told us. “I’ve seen many players scarper when testers are there at training," said another. And another said: “I know a lad who wanted to play for England but he thought the person who was in his position was on it - so he started taking it.”

Jamie Acton quit Rugby League in 2019. Last month he was banned for two years from the sport after a stored sample of his was retested and found to contain a growth hormone releasing peptide, a performance enhancing drug. Again, there is no suggestion that his clubs knew about his actions while he was playing for them.

His response was to record a video message on his Instagram account, explaining the impact drugs have had on his life, accusing the sport of going to great lengths to keep drugs use a secret and suggesting that much improvement could be made in the areas of mental health issues and player welfare. Since then he’s been contacted by nearly 50 players.

So what drove Acton to risk his career by taking performance enhancing drugs? “It’s the pressure of getting in the team, it’s the pressure of dealing with injuries, it’s the pressure of dealing with fans, of being scrutinised... having your performance analysed tooth and nail, scrutinised and being absolutely… all of your peers try and identify how bad a rugby player you are, where all your faults are...”

"In the bubble, the rugby sphere when you’re a player you think that everyone is doing it, that must be the answer, they must be better than you because they’re taking it.

"There’s never any evidence of that but you go along with the hype and in some form or way you take that as justification. I know I did." Acton’s use of performance enhancing drugs led to an increase in recreational drugs binges, to help cope with the guilt. A spiral that took him to some very dark places at the time. He’s still dealing with the consequences: ”I live with it everyday. I live with the fact that I've cheated. I live with the fact that I’ve got to look at my son in the eyes and tell him that your dad was a cheat. I wasn’t strong enough to deal with the pressure of being an athlete.

"I still now go out with friends to certain cultures or nights out, I'm terrified because I don't want to take drugs, I don't want to take cocaine, I don't want to take recreational drugs and as soon as I feel a bit down or depressed or in certain environments the first thing that comes into my mind is: 'Just take it, just take it, just take it, it’s fine.'

"And it’s terrifying, you’ve got to live with that.

"So one, you live with the self-hatred the guilt, but two, you live with the constant now effect of being an ex-drug addict or I would argue a current drug addict. I don’t think you ever get over it because you just learn to have to live with it and deal with it and it's a huge, huge, huge problem, because if you asked anyone in my family, my wife, my children, would say, it affects me on a daily basis."

Acton says his social media post prompted a surprising array of people to contact him: ”Right down to other athletes, current players, ex-players, friends that are nothing to do with rugby, all sorts, a full, full spectrum of different personalities of people have all come forward saying that it’s either motivated them to be honest about things or try to create change.”

Above all, like Ollie Wilkes, Acton is hoping by speaking out, by exposing his frailties and the long-term impact his drug taking has had, young men faced with the same temptations that once confronted him will choose a different route and ask for help.

In a statement to ITV News, the Rugby Football League (RFL) said it is "committed to rugby league being a clean sport. 

"The RFL condemns drug use in sport as doping is harmful to the core values of rugby league. It is damaging to players’ health and wellbeing, the fairness and integrity of the competition and prevents all from the right to participate in a doping-free competition.  

 "The RFL works closely with UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) with all alleged breaches of the anti-doping rules being referred to and investigated by UKAD.  

"The RFL has a significant focus on education of players including online and with anti-doping workshops run annually by UKAD trained Educators. In addition, it is compulsory for certain support staff to have completed UKAD’s Clean Sport Advisor Course.

"In conjunction with UKAD, we carry out a number of in and out of competition doping tests. 

"We are also supportive of UKAD’s testing of historical tests and believe this plays an important part in messaging to players on ensuring the sport remains clean. 

"We actively encourage anyone who has any concerns regarding doping to report them. The RFL passes any intelligence in relation to any anti-doping complaints or concerns, to UKAD.

"UKAD also has a confidential hotline which allows anyone to report concerns direct to UKAD."

A UKAD spokesperson said: “We take all information regarding possible doping in sport very seriously and encourage anyone with information to search Protect Your Sport and pass that information on to us, in confidence. “In 2021, as part of its intelligence-led and risk-based testing programme across all sport, UKAD conducted over 600 tests in Rugby Football League (RFL), making it the third most tested sport by UKAD, after Football and Rugby Union. “UKAD prosecutes athletes who fail and evade tests and removes from sport those who cheat. “Samples from many athletes are also kept in long-term storage for reanalysis at a later date. UKAD recently successfully prosecuted a former Rugby League player following sample reanalysis... “It is important to note that testing alone does not make a robust anti-doping programme. We work closely with the RFL to ensure their education programmes make athletes and support staff aware of their responsibilities to clean sport and the risks involved in taking prohibited substances.”

ITV News has contacted Wigan and Whitehaven for a response.

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