The “blackest day in Australian sport” wasted millions in legal fees, sullied reputations, and brought calls for countless sackings. How did the investigations get so out of control?

The red-and-blackest day as Essendon players cleared

Essendon captain Jobe Watson (centre) and his team front the media this week after the players were cleared of doping offences.
Essendon captain Jobe Watson (centre) and his team front the media this week after the players were cleared of doping offences.

At 3am on Saturday, 250 members of the Essendon Football Club gathered at Windy Hill to board a bus. At 3pm, that bus will deliver them to ANZ Stadium in Homebush, where their full team will face last year’s grand finalists, the Sydney Swans. By 7am on Sunday, the road-trippers will be back in Melbourne. There is no time for sightseeing, or even sleep. Their plans have been made hastily, announced at a press conference on Tuesday, after the AFL cleared 34 past and present Bombers accused of doping. The fans have been offered an itinerary that appeals only to the fanatical. They are unlikely to be welcomed. But they will be present, and after two years of uncertainty, that’s enough. Jobe Watson will be their captain. And James Hird will be their coach.

It would be wrong to say today marks an ending. This tortuous story, or saga, is too virulent for that. But it does mark the conclusion of a period that began on February 8, 2013, when the Australian Crime Commission released a report called Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport. To call this report “discredited” now seems redundant, as redundant as putting “disgraced sports scientist” in front of the name Stephen Dank. Few of the protagonists there when it was delivered are still around.

Andrew Demetriou at the AFL, Aurora Andruska at the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA), and John Lawler at the Australian Crime Commission are all gone. Former minister for sport Kate Lundy ended her hamstrung political career last Thursday. Even the man who coined the expression “the blackest day in Australian sport”, former ASADA head Richard Ings, has walked away from the assessment. “The outcome of all this is that doping enforcement in Australia is broken,” he says. 

The humiliated current ASADA head, Ben McDevitt, also disowned the “blackest day” in an April Fools’ Day press conference. He called it “a cheap line ... a sensationalist line”.

Perhaps cheap is the wrong word for something that has been this costly. But underneath the histrionic claims of match-fixing and organised crime involvement (which yielded zero prosecutions), there was something real touched on that day. It was hidden away on page 17 of the report:

“Widespread use of peptides has been identified … which could constitute an anti-doping rule violation … An instance of team-based doping, orchestrated by some club officials and coaching staff, has also been identified … Officials from one club have been identified as administering, via injections and intravenous drips, a variety of substances, possibly including peptides … the substances were administered at levels which were possibly in breach of WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] anti-doping rules.”

Possibly. Possibly. Two years, dozens of sackings and resignations, hundreds of interviews, thousands of media stories, and millions in legal fees haven’t shifted these two words. The most accurate summary of the story we have today was there from the beginning.

1 . Living by the needle

We can fill in the names now: the club was Essendon, and James Hird and Stephen Dank were among the officials. The supplements program they implemented was only in place for a brief period. That was typical of Dank. He was previously linked to many AFL and NRL clubs –Manly, the Melbourne Demons, Geelong, Gold Coast, Penrith, South Sydney, Wests Tigers, Carlton and, of course, the Cronulla Sharks. Some clubs, such as the Adelaide Crows, seemed to sniff him out quickly. He didn’t have a PhD, and it was unclear if he’d even finished his master’s degree. He specialised in impressive-sounding, unorthodox treatments of unproven benefit. In 2005 Dank was giving Manly players DNA tests and injecting them with calf’s blood. It wasn’t just credulous football clubs that were sucked in – this prototype program was given an approving write-up in the journal Nature, which hailed it as the “beginning of more widespread use of genetics in sport”.

These shamanic figures aren’t unusual around sporting clubs, and materials more unusual than calf’s blood have been employed: deer antler spray, magnets, “blood-energising chips”. But something about Dank’s approach seemed to fascinate Hird. The club legend had been appointed coach with no prior experience, and soon realised his player list wasn’t physically imposing enough to make a stamp on the premiership. That would have to change. 

Hird was not only involved in the supplements schedule, but took many of the substances himself. Partly this was to test for side effects (The Australian Financial Review implied one of these was priapism). But he also took other drugs prohibited for players, including a tanning agent and libido enhancer. 

Hird was party to what the Ziggy Switkowski report into the club’s governance infamously called “a pharmacologically experimental environment.” The same report included the caveat that “performance enhancing and image enhancing drugs, their delivery processes, and legitimacy for elite sportspeople, fall well outside my expertise”, though this was less widely reported.

At some stage Dank injected players with a peptide. Whether this was the banned peptide thymosin beta-4 would later become central – and fatal – to ASADA’s case. Whatever it was, the Bombers’ performance enhancement never seemed to arrive. Instead, they were afflicted by soft tissue problems. 

Hird texted Dank: “Why do you reckon we are getting all the injuries?”

Dank responded: “I need to use much more placental cells and Actovegin ... West Coast, Hawthorn and Collingwood’s tissues are biologically advanced. We need to change our biology for a little while.”

More than the biology would need to change. The Bombers’ successful defence ultimately rested on the fact that no one knew what the players were being injected with, perhaps not even Dank. 

2 . Impossible to prove

Not only was ASADA looking for something almost impossible to prove, the authority was looking for it by making the claims first, and only then conducting an investigation to try to prove them. ASADA did it in real time, in the court of public opinion. Everyone leaked continuously. The AFL and the federal government both pressed ASADA for outcomes. Then prime minister Julia Gillard called on players and clubs to “come clean”, Kate Lundy had regular meetings with the body, and re-election chances were mentioned.

Investigators, looking for leverage, told ruckman Paddy Ryder his unborn children might suffer birth defects. When the Cronulla Sharks took backdated suspensions for their supplements program, WADA expressed its displeasure openly. 

There were separate sets of lawyers for Essendon, Hird and the players who had since moved to other clubs. The joint AFL–ASADA investigation was taken to the Federal Court, and then the Supreme Court. Keeping a tally of the putative lawsuits became almost impossible. The AFL threatened journalist Roy Masters with a legal action. Former Bombers player Hal Hunter threatened both Essendon and the AFL with legal action. Dank threatened the AFL, Essendon, the Cronulla Sharks, Channel Nine and a raft of other media organisations with defamation action. The sum of $10 million was mentioned, then never mentioned again. 

Resignations were common, but not as common as calls for resignations. Leigh Matthews said Hird should resign. Andrew Demetriou suggested Hird should resign. Jeff Kennett said Hird and Demetriou should both resign. Player agent Peter Jess said the whole AFL commission should resign. The Age’s chief football writer, Caroline Wilson, said everyone should resign. There have since been calls for her resignation.

The cast of characters became more and more unlikely: a former Telstra CEO. A former state premier. A former bodybuilder called “Dr Ageless”, now making a documentary about his role in it all. It should make interesting viewing. 

Former St Kilda journeyman Clinton Jones found himself playing against his old club in the pre-season competition. Essendon, unable to field a full team, had called up ring-ins from the VFL. Jones described the 50-point defeat as “a pretty unique situation but it was a bit of fun”. He was right about the first bit.

“There are no two words in the English language more emphatic than not guilty,” wrote Mark Robinson in the Herald Sun after the decision. The Melbourne press alone has published more than 2000 articles on the Bombers; this was one of the most shared. But the AFL tribunal hadn’t used those words at all. Instead it was “not comfortably satisfied” there was no wrongdoing, a phrase ambiguous enough that even the accused players were unsure whether they’d been exonerated. Today, those players will face another kind of trial, and another kind of tribunal. This one sits in the outer. Its verdict will be more forthright.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 4, 2015 as "The red-and-blackest day".

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