A line in the sand for Australian sport

It’s the biggest story in Melbourne and possibly the largest scandal in AFL history, which now involves every sport in the nation, following an Australian Crime Commission report released today.
Eighty per cent of players on the Essendon football club used a supplement last year injected by club fitness staff to boost body mass and strength.
To make matters worse, AFL officials believe the supplements might have been used by other clubs. Essendon officials asked the AFL to investigate use of the supplements last season – a season when the Bombers looked like contenders at the start, and collapsed in the second half of the year due to a rash of soft-tissue injuries. The alleged supplement is peptides, which can be used to increase muscle growth and strength. An Essendon official inquired about the substance at a sports medicine conference a year ago, according to former AFL star and commentator, Gerard Healy, who told the league’s general manager about the inquiry at the time. http://bit.ly/VSzV3r
The Crime Commission found widespread use of banned drugs in Australian professional sport and links with organised crime, releasing the findings of a 12-month investigation into the integrity of Australian sport at a press conference (photo above The Age) two days after the Essendon story broke.
The commission said the links may have resulted in match-fixing and fraudulent manipulation of betting markets, and was hopeful criminal charges would be laid. The key findings of the investigation identified widespread use of prohibited substances including peptides, hormones and illicit drugs in professional sport. http://bit.ly/YUGcA7 The CEO of the AFL, Andrew Demetriou, speaking at the press conference, denied the Essendon investigation was prompted by the imminent release of the report. http://bit.ly/WvAP81
Earlier this week, Essendon suspended its high performance manager, Dean “The Weapon” Robinson, pending the outcome of the investigation by the AFL and the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA). The club had sacked one of its senior sports science staff, Stephen Dank, late last year, and The Australian’s Greg Denham believes he will be a central figure in the investigation. http://bit.ly/11SuCl8
Last year Robinson and Dank visited Melbourne Doctor Robin Willcourt, head of the Epiginex Integrated Medicine Practice and an expert on hormones and nutrition, on two different occasions, to discuss the supplements Essendon players were taking, and what could be done to improve their testosterone and natural hormone growth levels. Dr Willcourt told Fairfax: ”We had a discussion about what we could or couldn’t do and one of the things that we couldn’t do was use peptides, we couldn’t do testosterone, we couldn’t do growth hormone, and there was a lot of hand-wringing going on about how we could make these guys healthy without violating the rules. There isn’t an answer to that one. Could Steve Dank have been doing things I don’t know about? Yes. But I am not accusing him of doing anything. I have no proof.” http://bit.ly/VWZlx4
Essendon players started turning on each other after the revelations. Mark McVeigh, who retired at the end of the 2012 campaign, took on former teammate Kyle Reimers, who was dumped by the club last year.
Reimers had said players were told the supplements were ‘borderline’ and they had been required to sign waivers. But McVeigh denied this, saying players had signed only a consent form, not a waiver, and all supplements had been legal: “I knew 100 per cent that it was within the WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] and the AFL doping regulations.” http://bit.ly/12uzHEU
All this reminds me of my first encounter with performance-enhancing drugs in my first year at West Catholic High School in West Philadelphia. I was a very small left guard (that’s one of the offensive linemen who protect the quarterback and block the defensive linemen on running plays) on the freshman football squad, and we were playing one of our traditional rivals, Bishop Neumann High, from South Philly.
We’d been having a bad year, like Essendon, but we were getting better. The only trouble was that the guys from Bishop Neumann were giants (I’m sure one or two of them would have made it to the NFL), and although we played well, they were still killing us.
At halftime, our coach, Jack F (just in case he’s still alive, but it is more than 50 years ago), instead of his usual speech about “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog,” said quietly: “You’ve been playing well, but those guys are bigger than you, and you’re looking tired. We have some tablets here which will perk you up. (I’m sure he didn’t use the word pills!) So go out there and beat them.” Well, we took the tablets, which were obviously pep pills of some sort, and, you guessed it, we lost! I think Jack lost his job, not because of the tablets, but because we only won one or two games that season. I don’t remember feeling particularly performance enhanced that day, nor did anyone else, but Jack felt the need to help us with a supplement. He needed the win more than we did.
And this is where I get back to Essendon and Lance Armstrong and the culture of modern sport, which says we must win at all costs. (The first joke I’ve heard about the scandal: Who is the patron of the Essendon Football Club? Lance Armstrong!) Why do teams need performance scientists like Stephen Dank? Sure, sporting teams need doctors and physios and coaches who help their players get fit at the beginning of the season and stay fit, but do they need staff who inject players with borderline substances? No way, Jose, is what we used to say back in the sixties when all this illegal stuff appears to have entered professional sport. And as Greg Denham says in his article and Dr Robin Willcourt told Fairfax, there is no proof of any wrongdoing on the part of Dank.
Not every team in the AFL seems to have these problems (although the ACC and the ASADA may prove me wrong). The Sydney Swans, for example, have a physiotherapist and rehabilitation coordinator, a dietitian, an elite performance coach, a strength coach, a conditioning coach, a physical preparation coordinator and a skill acquisition consultant. All this and Doctor Nathan Gibbs, an expert in getting injured Swans back on the field, but I don’t think he or any of his staff would inject the players with illegal supplements. Sydney is one of those old-fashioned teams who have talent but win on spirit, determination and mateship. They are, after all, still the Premiers until September (As a Swans member, I love saying that! I sincerely hope I am right about them not having any drug problems).
But do the Swans believe in winning at all costs? Again, I don’t think so. I don’t believe John Longmire or any of his coaches or Doctor Gibbs would knowingly send a player back on the field if he risked permanent injury. They play to win, but they also have fun doing it. I believe this modern culture of winning at all costs, inspired by Lance Armstrong and his ilk, has infected all sports, and the release of the crime commission report seems to confirm it.
An angry Ron Barassi, the legendary AFL player and coach, told the ABC’s 7.30 last night the AFL hierarchy was to blame: “These people in charge of our game – not their game, our game, all of us are in this – they should have seen this long ago and done something about it. It’s obvious that this is what’s going to happen because we haven’t been tough enough on something that’s really foul in its thinking, that because you’ve got big money, or because you’ve got a great doctor, you win a sporting match. Come on! I mean to me that is ridiculous thinking.” http://bit.ly/14F6RjS
Another AFL legend, Kevin Sheedy, Greater Western Sydney Giants coach, and former coach of Essendon, said the league should not head down the path of cycling, and sports scientists should face a life ban for doping: ”Everything’s got to be looked at and sorted out. You know the Bible and they’re the commandments and if you’re anywhere over you’re going to suffer the penalty. And sooner or later, just kick them out of the game. Cycling didn’t and we’ve got to learn from cycling … it’s about the integrity of our game.” http://bit.ly/WQ2MXB
This started as a story about an AFL scandal, but it has grown into an inquiry on the integrity of Australian sport. The Minister for Sport, Kate Lundy, called it “a line in the sand for Australian sport.” Like Kevin Sheedy, I was thinking of cycling, and how that sport has gone downhill (no pun intended) since Lance Armstrong confirmed he was a drug cheat. If I were a cycling fan, I would be devastated. I am a huge AFL aficionado, and I will be very sad if it’s proven that Essendon and other clubs (including, God forbid, the Swans) used performance-enhancing drugs. I fear the AFL is one of the codes which Justice Minister Jason Clare referred to today: ‘‘The ACC has found that professional sport in Australia is highly vulnerable to infiltration by organised crime. Multiple athletes from a number of clubs in major Australian sporting codes are suspected of currently using or having used peptides.’’
All drug cheats, and that includes high school coaches and sports scientists at every level, should be named and shamed and banned from all sports forever.
The last word should go to chief football writer for The Age, Caroline Wilson, who ended her passionate piece, Would you want your son playing AFL footy?, with this par: “That’s AFL for you. Surely it’s every parent’s dream. Except when your son finds himself at a football club that puts success before everything and tries to take short cuts to beat the system – or simply thumbs its nose at it. That’s when it becomes a mother’s – or father’s – living nightmare.” http://bit.ly/TNahie

2 thoughts on “A line in the sand for Australian sport

  1. Tommy I don’t think you need reminding that those filthy Eagles beat Sydney by a whisker in a grand final a few years ago with a couple of drugged up players on their team (not sure if they were performance-enhancing though!).
    You certainly reminded their fans repeatedly of this fact the next time the two teams met, at Homebush!

    • Hi Tim, Yes, I thought about adding that, but the piece was running long, and the AFL was certainly aware of Ben Cousins’ drug problem. And, as you say, it was probably something a lot stronger than performance-enhancing drugs. I still believe that the Swans should have been awarded the premiership in 2006, given that some of their players must have been on drugs, and we only lost by one point! The fact that one of the Eagles’ fans at Homebush (a very big bloke!) threatened me with violence at the end of the match made that a night to remember. I usually bring it up every time we play the Eagles, but I think I will declare an amnesty this year, hoping that if any of the players still have a drug problem they come forward and admit it to ASADA! Cheers.

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