Banned drugs prevalent in Australian sport

The widespread drug use by elite athletes and links with organized crime uncovered in a year-long government investigation have rocked a nation that prides itself on its sporting achievements and its collective notion of fair play.

Published: 07th February 2013 10:48 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th February 2013 10:55 AM   |  A+A-


The widespread drug use by elite athletes and links with organized crime uncovered in a year-long government investigation have rocked a nation that prides itself on its sporting achievements and its collective notion of fair play.

"The findings are shocking and will disgust Australian sports fans," Justice Minister Jason Clare said as he fronted a news conference in Canberra, the national capital, on Thursday to reveal that "multiple athletes from a number of clubs in major Australian sporting codes are suspected of currently using or having used," performance enhancing substances.

The country's two most popular sports competitions, the Aussie rules Australian Football League and the National Rugby League, have already acknowledged they're working with the national crime commission and have launched their own investigations. Other high-profile sports are doing the same. A state police force has suspicions about a recent soccer match which attracted heavy betting and seemingly unusual attention from Asian gambling syndicates.

Richard Ings, the former chief of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency, told the national broadcaster: "This is the blackest day in Australian sport."

The Australian Crime Commission released the findings of the year-long "Project Aperio" on Thursday, saying there was evidence of match fixing, widespread use of prohibited substances including peptides, hormones and illicit drugs, and the infiltration of organized criminal groups in the distribution of performance and image enhancing drugs.

Illicit drug use by professional athletes was more common in the major codes than current drugs testing programs suggested, the ACC report noted, adding that some coaches, sports scientists and support staff had "orchestrated and/or condoned the use of prohibited substances" that sometimes weren't even cleared for use on humans.

The ACC said it could not disclose the details of individuals or sports involved, but had given classified briefings to some sports and had referred its findings on certain individuals and clubs to the Australian Federal Police and state police forces.

The ACC revelations come in the same week that prominent AFL club Essendon asked authorities to investigate the use of certain supplements used in its 2012 fitness program, and European police agency Europol revealed evidence of hundreds of cases of match fixing in soccer around the world. The ACC report contained various references to U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong and the sophisticated and systemic doping that wasn't formally detected during his long professional career.

AFL chief Andrew Demetriou said the findings had come as a shock, but rejected claims that the Essendon investigation had only become public after the club or league had meetings with the crime commission.

"We've always had a very thorough and very rigorous testing regime," Demetriou said. "When you start to think about the sophistication of drugs and how the scientists are ahead of the testers ... then you do have to rely on intelligence gathering.

"Today is the day we draw a line in the sand and collectively we address and tackle," the doping issue.

Australian Rugby League Commission chief Dave Smith revealed that players and clubs in the elite NRL competition are under investigation, and that it had appointed a retired Federal Court judge to assist in its own probe.

"We've worked with the crime commission in the last week or so and information has come forward for NRL specifically that affects more than one player and more than one club," he said. "We have an obligation to make sure that we do treat this very seriously and that we respond accordingly."

Graham Ashton, deputy commissioner of the Victoria state police, said authorities had identified A-League soccer as being at major risk of match fixing, adding that tennis and cricket could also be targets due to the amount of money wagered. Investigations are already under way in horse racing.

"We're seeing vast increases in the betting pools in Asia on A-League soccer," Ashton said, saying that one bookmaker had taken more than $40 million on one A-League match. "When this betting is occurring to that level, it becomes attractive for crime figures to want to get involved and fix matches to get certain outcomes to make large sums of money."

The ACC report found that professional sport in Australia is highly vulnerable to "infiltration by organized crime."

Sports Minister Kate Lundy said the government was moving to introduce tough new measures to crack down on the use of banned drugs and unethical behavior in sport.

"If you want to dope and cheat, we will catch you," Lundy said. "If you want to fix a match, we will catch you. And as you can see by the investigations that have taken place, we are well on the way to seeking out and hunting down those who will dope and cheat."

The government has strengthened ASADA's investigative powers, resources and budget to tackle the problem.

"If persons of interest refuse to co-operate with ASADA investigations they will be liable for civil penalties," Lundy said.

The Coalition of Major Professional and Participation Sports in Australia — which includes the national governing bodies for sports such as cricket, both rugby codes, football, tennis and Australian rules football — has agreed to establish integrity units to deal with doping, betting and ethical issues and to share information.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated in 2006 that the income generated by the sport and recreation industry in Australia topped $8.8 billion. The ACC said that figure had since grown significantly.

"While there is a long history of betting on sports, the market has expanded significantly in recent years with growth of up to 13 percent annually," the ACC report said.

There has also been a doubling of the number of performance and image enhancing drugs (PIED) seized by Australian customs and border protection in recent years, with number of PIEDs detected rising from 2695 in 2009-10 to 5561 in 2010-11.

In the same time, there's been a 255 percent increase in the number of hormones detected.

Despite the gloom and prospect of some high-profile athletes and clubs being tarnished very soon, Ings told the Australian Broadcasting Corp that ASADA's new coercive powers "mean Australia is better placed than any country in the world to be able to handle this worst-case scenario."

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