Is anybody really surprised?

The revelations of widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs among athletes across the Tasman has been labelled ''the blackest day in Australian sport''.

If the bombshell report is substantiated it could have widespread repercussions, with suggestions already that AFL team Essendon, investigated over the use of supplements, could struggle to field a team this year.

In a parallel development, the report has raised the spectre of match-fixing and the infiltration of criminal gangs into the ranks of the nation's professional sportspeople.

For a nation which prides itself on its sporting prowess, and in many ways measures its place on the world stage in terms of its athletic achievement, the revelations have been portrayed as a bodyblow. Australia has always prided itself on taking no prisoners on the sportsfield but ultimately sticking to the rules. There have been exceptions, but then no country can claim its sporting soul is spotless. Indeed, there is some chatter that New Zealand athletes may also be implicated in the scandal.

This report, however, seems to represent a whole new level of cheating - organised, systematic and widespread.

''The findings are shocking and will disgust Australian sports fans,'' Minister for Home Affairs and Justice Jason Clare said. But will they really? Leaving aside for the moment the claims of match-fixing, it has to be asked if any sports fan can put their hand on their heart and say they are surprised there are sportsmen and women seeking every advantage they can to boost performance and heal more quickly from injury.

In contact sports, such as rugby and rugby league, the players are bigger, faster and stronger than they have ever been. The supplements industry is booming. Every professional sporting team carries barrels of high-protein whey powder and other sports supplements with them.

Is anybody who watches enormous men collide at high speed really interested in how many spoonfuls of creatine, how many cortisone injections, how many painkillers they have taken to perform such superhuman feats?

Sports fans - and some journalists - want to believe in miracles. And when the ''miraculous'' becomes commonplace, many ride right along with it. When Lance Armstrong clambered off his death bed to crush the opposition in the world's toughest sporting event, people wanted so hard to believe that they forgot to ask sensible questions.

When a group of juiced-up baseball players began smashing home runs like never before, many baseball writers in the US lapped it up. Now, those same writers, some of whom wrote books about these off-the-chart feats, have refused to induct Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in baseball's Hall of Fame.

What this illuminates is the curious place professional sport holds in the popular imagination. It is a place of stories and legends, a narrative that ultimately has little interest in how the incredible is achieved. Not until dossiers have been compiled and witnesses subpoenaed do the wise clamber on to high ground to begin their sermons.

Little wonder then that some athletes, whose career window is short and at constant risk of being slammed shut by injury, continue to use substances which not only harm the spirit of fair play but may also do long-term damage to their bodies. In the search for a competitive edge in any field of human endeavour the risks and rewards are weighed - and humans will ultimately make their choice. This week's report says peptides and other hormones being used for performance enhancement in Australia are very difficult to detect. It is not hard to do the maths.

Acknowledging the problem is not to condone it. Professional sport must take steps to build a culture which not only rewards whistleblowers but also lowers expectations of what athletes can achieve.

Worrying, too, are the allegations of match-fixing. The average fan can perhaps understand the motives for performance-enhancement - players pushing the boundaries to try to win. But players trying their best to lose? This undermines everything sport stands for and, with its links to criminal gangs, casts a deep shadow indeed.