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, to reveal that "multiple athletes from a number of clubs" in the big professional leagues are suspected of using or having used performance enhancing substances.
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.
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 ACC and have launched independent 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 Asia.
"This is the blackest day in Australian sport," Richard Ings, the former chief of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency, told the national broadcaster.
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.
Details of individuals and clubs involved couldn’t be released publicly, the ACC said, but certain sports had been given classified briefings and the report findings had been forwarded 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.
World Anti-Doping Agency president John Fahey, an Australian lawyer and former state and federal politician, said he was alarmed but not surprised by the ACC report’s findings.
"I think it tells us how wide (and) how deep this problem is — in a country that prides itself on fair play we’ve got a problem of the nature we’ve heard of today," Fahey was quoted as saying.
Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates said he’d long been fighting for broader investigative powers for anti-doping agencies and increased sanctions for cheats and now the "gloves are now off."
"The new powers to compel athletes, coaches, doctors, sports scientists and other officials to give evidence and produce documents have been a long time coming but we can now start the process of weeding out the cheats and ensuring the integrity of our sporting codes," he said.
Coates said anti-doping labs were storing samples so that prosecutions were possible whenever testing procedures caught up with illegal substances.
"For some cheats the knock at the door has not come yet, but it will come," Coates said. "Recent events in cycling have shown this to be true."
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.
The same sports scientist involved with the Essendon fitness program last year had previously worked with other AFL clubs and with NRL clubs, including powerful Sydney team Manly.
Australian Rugby League Commission chief Dave Smith said a retired Federal Court judge had been appointed to assist in the NRL 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.
"We’re seeing vast increases in the betting pools in Asia on A-League soccer," Ashton said. "When this betting is occurring to that level, it becomes attractive for crime figures to want to get involved."
Football Federation Australia has hired an international agency to assist with surveillance of A-League matches.
"There is nothing specific in relation to football … but that doesn’t mean we don’t join in the general concern about the issues that are raised in the (ACC) report," said FFA chief executive David Gallop, a former rugby league administrator. "The level of deterrence must be high and that’s what we are dealing with here both in relation to the doping issue and match fixing. "
Sports Minister Kate Lundy said the government would introduce tough new measures to crack down on the use of banned drugs and unethical behaviour 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, budget and penalties to tackle the problem.
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 per cent 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 per cent 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."