Doping: Aussie sports still in the dark a year after 'blackest day'

MELBOURNE (REUTERS) - The release of an explosive report into the use of performance-enhancing drugs among Australian athletes prompted the country's former anti-doping chief Richard Ings to describe Feb. 7, 2013 as the "blackest day" in the country's sporting history.

A year on and with only one athlete punished as a result of Australia's biggest anti-doping investigation, Ings defended his statement as a reaction to a rap-sheet of serious allegations mouthed by politicians at a highly publicised news conference.

"We will catch you," the then-federal Sports Minister Kate Lundy, flanked by grim-faced heads of major sports, told television cameras on the day the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) report was released. "We are well on the way to seeking out and hunting down those who will dope and cheat."

Jason Clare, who was home affairs minister at the time, also warned: "Don't underestimate how much we know. Come forward before you get a knock at the door."

Investigators from the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency (Asada) have knocked on doors but only rugby league player Sandor Earl, who was provisionally suspended in August after admitting to the use and trafficking of a banned peptide, has been sanctioned.

"My reaction was based on what was said on that day and who said it," Ings, Asada head from 2006-10, told an internet forum hosted by Reuters on Wednesday.

"Reflecting back, we had the federal justice minister, federal sports minister, ACC CEO, Asada CEO and heads of every major sport saying: 'This is not just athletes cheating, this is athletes cheating with criminals.'

"I held the view and still do that these were the most serious allegations made against Australian athletes by the leaders of government, law enforcement and sport."

Despite dozens of interviews, extra government funding and the strengthening of Asada's investigatory powers, the probe grinds on, casting a pall over two Australian football leagues, which have been at the heart of the allegations.

The Australian Football League (AFL), which governs the popular indigenous code Australian Rules, threw one team out of the play-offs last year, suspended their head coach and issued a A$2 million (S$2.3 million) fine after charging the club with sourcing and administering banned substances to players.

The National Rugby League (NRL) also slapped one of its clubs with a heavy fine and banned their coach for a year after a probe into governance issues with the club's supplements programme for players.

Both the AFL and NRL have said Asada may issue individual punishments for players involved in doping.

That none have been forthcoming from Australia's peak anti-doping agency jars with the allegations of a year ago, which former prime minister Kevin Rudd denounced as "torpedo-ing" Australia's identity as a nation of fair play.

Addressing the ACC report, Clare spoke of "sports scientists and others... orchestrating the doping of entire teams", with some players administered substances not approved for human use.

Organised crime figures had also infiltrated Australian sports, the report alleged. But not one conviction has been made.

"What is clear is that whatever the evidence was that motivated the (news conference), that evidence was nowhere near being at a level to issue infractions," Ings said.

"I believe (it) was premature and indeed made Asada's job of actually doing the investigation harder as a result."

Amid widespread criticism of the pace of the investigation, Asada's current chief Aurora Andruska announced earlier this month that she would step down from the post in May.

Her resignation has raised concerns the investigation will be further dragged out.

"I assume she is retiring because she has chosen to retire," Ings said.

"It does seem unusual to me to retire amid the biggest investigation in Asada's history and to vacate the post with only eight weeks' notice."

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