Where to now for sport in this country?
David Evans speaks to the media during the Essendon Bombers press conference to answer questions about supplements given to players as part of their fitness plan in 2012, at AFL House, Melbourne. (Photo: AFL Media)
Australian sport finds itself today in the biggest maelstrom in its history.
A 12-month investigation by the Australian Crime Commission has blown the lid on widespread drug use and the involvement of organised crime in sport in this country.
The shock waves will no doubt continue to reverberate for many months to come as criminal investigations are launched into various sports, teams and individuals.
Today’s news comes in the shadow of the scandal currently engulfing the Essendon Football Club.
Many have stated that should the supplements that were administered to the club’s players be found to contain banned substances, it will be the biggest scandal to have hit the code in its history.
Well, regardless of the outcome of the Essendon inquiry, we all need to brace ourselves as the ACC investigation tells us that the use of performance-enhancing drugs in this country is rife.
Just last night, I was watching Sports Night on Sky News where the Essendon issue was being debated.
One of the special guests on the panel was Richard Ings, the former head of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency (ASADA).
When asked about the practices of ASADA he responded by saying that it is an organisation that is a case of world’s best practice.
He is not alone in that belief as ASADA has long been regarded internationally as one of, if not the, leading anti-doping organisations in the world.
And yet today we find that sport in Australia is mired in a drug culture far beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
While institutions like ASADA are at the cutting edge with regard to detection and usage of PEDs, the truth remains that only a small number of athletes are undone as a result of the current testing protocols.
And therein lays the most troubling aspect of the drugs in sport debate.
The ACC report tells us, in cold stark prose, that there are literally hundreds of elite athletes in this country who are flaunting the system.
They are able to blatantly cheat yet do so beneath the radar.
The biggest question that needs to be asked – and answered – is how this can happen?
Australia has one of the most stringent anti-doping protocols and still, according to the ACC report, its success rate in identifying cheats seems miniscule.
Sadly, this latest report merely emphasises the enormous battle that sports administrators face on a daily basis.
Mind you, there are organisations that seem to have done little to unearth the drug problem and culture within their sport – you need go no further than the UCI for an example.
Globally in recent history there have been myriad drug scandals and unfortunately the largest and most systematic of them have been unearthed not through testing but by investigations carried out by the likes of police and customs agencies.
Cycling’s 1998 Festina affair, the BALCO inquiry, cycling’s Spanish-based Operation Puerto, the US Postal affair – all these events sent shockwaves through sport yet none of them were triggered as a result of positive drug tests.
How many times did we hear the likes of Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong trot out the well-worn line, “I have never used drugs”, doing so as a result of relying on their published drug test results.
Despite the best intentions of bodies like ASADA, the ACC report brings home to roost the fact that the drug testing of athletes is only the very tip of the iceberg in the battle to unearth the use of PEDs in sport.
The recent high profile downfalls of otherwise legendary names in international sport have come as a result of criminal investigations, the ACC report may well be the genesis of similar outcomes in Australia.
It is clear that the only way to fight drugs in sport effectively is to up the ante with regard to the powers and penalties that can be afforded the criminal investigators.
The ACC has painted a picture that places the PED market fairly and squarely alongside that of the ‘recreational drug’ rackets.
The attention given to organized crime in the report is perhaps the most alarming and concerning aspect of the document.
The authorities’ ongoing battle against illegal societal drugs has primarily been fought in the hope of unmasking and prosecuting the big wigs – the people who are at the pointy end of the pyramid and are responsible for the rackets that have seen our streets flooded with illegal drugs.
It now appears that the sport is being controlled in a similar fashion when it comes to PEDs.
While there is no denying that bodies like ASADA have a crucial role to play in unearthing drug cheats, two things need to be done if the Federal Government is truly determined to get to the bottom of what now appears to be a truly endemic problem in Australia sport.
Firstly, they must fund ASADA to a far greater level. They must have the financial resources to conduct myriad more random tests outside normal playing and training times.
What many of these athletes are charged with using in the ACC report are readily testable substances.
It is incumbent therefore on the government to give ASADA the funds to be able to go out and strike far more often than its current budget allows.
Secondly, the battle – if it can ever be won – is going to occur as a result of stings and investigations by crime fighting agencies.
The mentality that has long been adopted to fight the barons of the societal drug trade has to be adopted by those wishing to clean up sport.
Today marks a nadir for sport in this country with the release of a report that shows the endemic drug use and involvement of organized crime in a sphere of life that Australians hold so dear.
The report also paints a very bleak picture in the area of match-fixing with claims that organized crime has its tentacles well and truly extended into that facet of sport as well.
For too long we have cast stones beyond our borders.
Today, we stand open to similar actions coming our way from abroad. Sport in this country has been delivered a crushing blow.
We now have to sit back and see how, in concert with crime fighting agencies, it can restore its reputation and recapture the faith of those who are actually the reason they exist – the fans.
After 21 years as a sports broadcaster with the ABC, since mid-2011 Glenn Mitchell has been freelancing in the electronic and written media. He is an ambassador for mental health in Australia, and tweets from @mitchellglenn.
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