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Doping scandal rocks Oz

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BRISBANE -- Australian sport is under a cloud this week amid claims of corruption and the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs by our fabulously paid athletes.

The announcement following a joint investigation by the Australian Crime Commission and the federal sports ministry has stunned a nation that often accords successful sporting identities a range of admirable character qualities attained by sheer dint of their physical prowess.

But now these 21st-century gladiators are suspects in astonishing allegations of a criminal enterprise making Lance Armstrong look something like your recreational weekend user.

The ingestion of performance enhancing drugs is aided and abetted by sports scientists, top coaches and sports staff, the 12 month investigation suggests.

There is evidence of personal relationships between professional athletes and crime figures that may point to match fixing and manipulation of popular sports-betting markets.

It's further suggested organized crime groups are involved in the distribution of the drugs, some of which may not have been "approved for human use."

Whether a performance-enhancing drug has ever been approved for an animal's use is a question that does hover into view when confronted with such intriguing accusations.

But the impact of these revelations on the national psyche is such that it would be improper to treat the subject with anything approaching levity.

One of the nation's most popular sports, cricket, does not appear to be heavily implicated. But visitors to Australia could be forgiven for believing anyone who stands in the summer heat playing a game that lasts so long it requires meal breaks might be dabbling in something not available at the local pharmacy. (We were never honest enough to call them drugstores down here).

The majority of Australians earnestly believe footballers (who are in the firing line) whose games rules the social agendas of millions of families in the winter months take to the field with nothing more in their systems than a healthy diet and a commitment to the rigours of physical fitness.

But the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, John Fahey, a former footballer and politician, was not as dewy-eyed as many of his compatriots.

"I'm not surprised,'' Fahey told ABC television.

"It seems to be the history in sport that you'll address these issues only when something surfaces and you'll try to avoid it until that time.''

But Fahey was also critical of the investigation that has put literally thousands of possibly innocent people under suspicion.

"As a result of announcing it when they did, there will be a long time that will elapse before we know how bad, how extensive, which codes, which teams, which players, which athletes,'' he said.

"That's not good for sport.''

Fahey cited Armstrong's long journey to admission of drug use in cycling when asked how long it might take to get definitive findings.

"The (U.S. anti-doping authority) worked for some two years before they laid charges,'' he said. "I sincerely hope that we don't see a similar time lapse in Australia.''

Fahey also insists Australia was not a rogue state but rather another player in a world where sports drugs are becoming the norm rather than the exception.

"We have been given clear indications that the underworld that are connected with performance-enhancing drugs are the same people who are connected with illegal drugs and the same people who are involved in match fixing,'' he said.

"We know that exists in Europe, we know it exists in Asia. Now we know it probably exists in Australia.''

There are some suggestions, often from credible sources, that the rise of the pharmaceutical industry is so powerful that performance-enhancing drugs, monitored and controlled inside a legal framework, might soon be an accepted part of the sporting landscape.

Meanwhile, ordinary Australians remain horrified at the very suggestion some of our most celebrated citizens would resort to drugs to cheat their way to victory.

One long-term method of combating drug use Fahey suggests is education, with suggestions schools and even universities might educate the young and impressionable on the negatives of being a drug cheat.

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2013 A13

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