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
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.