Codes to blame for fostering sport’s seedy underbelly

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A composite image of David Gallop CEO of Football Federation Australia (FFA) (top left), Andrew Demetriou, CEO of the Australian Football League (AFL) (top right), David Smith, CEO of the National Rugby League (NRL)(bottom left) and Bill Pulver, CEO of the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) (bottom right). AAP Image/Lukas Coch

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The Australian Crime Commission (ACC) has finally blown the lid on the seedy underbelly of Australian sport that leading codes have been fostering for far too long.

The ACC report details how Performance and Image Enhancing Drugs (PIEDs), namely peptides and hormones, are widespread in a number of professional sporting codes, facilitated by sports scientists, high-performance coaches and sports staff with organised crime identities and groups involved in their domestic distribution.

These drugs range from products not yet approved for human consumption to, as one NRL player admitted, calf blood and, seemingly, everything in between.

This development comes on top of recent headlines surrounding the Essendon ‘supplement’ scandal and new and extensive worldwide match-fixing cases, with local police warning international match-fixing syndicates are “grooming” Australian sports stars as part of long-term plans to infiltrate local competitions.

According to the ACC report: “There are clear parallels between what has been discovered in Australia and the USADA investigation into Lance Armstrong, which underlines the transnational threat posed by doping to professional sport, both from a ‘fair play’ perspective and as a broader integrity issue.”

And just like the Armstrong example, it’s going to take investigative work of governments, anti-doping agencies and independent commissions to unravel this mess, as opposed to doping tests which, as history has shown, can’t keep pace with the rate of performance enhancing drug developments.

While sporting codes represented a united front in response to this investigation, with hundreds of Australian athletes supposedly involved across multiple codes, there were clearly different messages coming from different codes.

Cricket and football officials were quick to distance themselves from the doping allegations with suggestions they were not implicated in the investigations, with the NRL and AFL, in light of recent developments, the clear targets for PIED usage.

The cross-code implication was a minor PR win for the two leading footy codes.

Yet on the other hand, A-League, the Big Bash League and so forth face a big risk in the likely interest from betting and match-fixing criminals given their games’ popularity in Asia.

According to the report, the difference to the Armstrong doping cases is that the Australian threat is current, crosses sporting codes and is evolving. With so much of the AFL’s players, clubs and brains trust, for example, concentrated in Melbourne, think of the pervasive way doping and bad influences can infest multiple clubs in such a short amount of time.

This unraveling of the underbelly is long overdue and there has been enough warning signs in the NRL and AFL in the last 24 months or so: Ryan Tandy’s betting scandal in the NRL, Essendon’s supplement development, West Coast Eagles’ illicit drug problems and underworld links, Adelaide Crows and Melbourne Storm salary-cap evasions, Melbourne Demons tanking, remarkable recoveries from major muscle, knee and ankle injuries and so forth.

Strip away the shrouded language and it’s case after case of cheating, doping and match-fixing.

Yet it is a culture codes have allowed to grow through inaction and masking of the underlying problem.

The AFL, for example, recently admitted that unnamed players have been forced to miss matches as a result of breaches to its illicit drugs policy. The ‘three-strikes’ policy, where it’s only after a third positive test that offenders’ names are made public and they face the wrath of the AFL with a reported loophole in which players can avoid recording a strike by self-reporting drug use.

In response to players and club officials’ concerns that clubs were being left out of the process and that some players were exploiting the loophole, a summit was held with no rule changes made.

When such a prominent sport encourages a culture of secrecy and tolerance, then a wider doping culture can foster in a “win at all costs” environment whereby athletes can gain an unfair advantage and yet believe they can subvert the system and avoid punishment.

As has been suggested, often the providers of performance enhancing drugs are the same as illicit drugs. As a recent newspaper report suggested, “AFL players have been picked up on phone taps purchasing narcotics and talking of drug use.”

So don’t encourage a practice whereby on the one hand illicit drugs are tolerated within a certain parameter, yet expect players to stay away from performance enhancing drugs.

Could more have been done, therefore, by codes and clubs to warn off players? Absolutely. As Richard Hinds writes, “The effort taken to scour old records and check systems will be far greater than that taken to ensure the scourge was kept at bay.”

Yesterday’s events are merely the first groundbreaking steps to crack Australian sports’ very own “omerta”, with the unraveling of individual cases sure to follow – NRL and AFL clubs already being implicated.

As the ACC report states, “This report does not provide a comprehensive summary of all relevant activity of concern in all sports, or all sporting clubs and franchises in Australia.

“Rather it represents a snapshot of the activity, derived from the intelligence, which formed the original basis of the inquiries and the need for the ACC to focus on the role of organised crime in the PIEDs market. It is likely, given the level of demand for PIEDs and the diverse sources of supply, that the use of WADA prohibited substances is more widespread than identified in this report.”

In the meantime, reforms can’t come soon enough: zero tolerance for an athlete or support staff on banned substances, a tougher stance on recreational drugs, and a strengthening of Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority’s resources and investigative powers, working independently of governing bodies.

As countless examples across the globe prove, there will always be athletes and clubs who seek an unfair advantage through any means possible. And young athletes with impressionable minds and dispensable income will become easy targets for the shadier figures in society trying to gain a financial benefit and connection into the riches of sport.

Therefore, governing bodies mustn’t follow the UCI’s (cycling’s governing body) example and turn a blind eye and allow such practices to flourish.

Australia has always had a holier than thou attitude when it comes to their athletes. No way they could dope or cheat to the extent of “the others”.

That naive theory has allowed the environment that the ACC details to flourish and has now been blown out of the water. As a result, Australian sport may never be the same again.

Adrian Musolino is editor of V8X Magazine, and has written as an expert on The Roar since 2008, cementing himself as a key writer who can see the big picture in sport. He freelances on other forms of motorsport, football, cycling and more.
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