‘Sport: A black day with a silver lining’
Sporting Compass: With Dr Pippa Grange and Paul Oliver
As a sports psychologist and founder of Bluestone Edge, I am fortunate to have many conversations with people about the substance and meaning of sport.
My colleague Paul Oliver also engages with people at all levels across the sporting sector to keep his finger on the pulse of the latest news, views and issues.
In this space each fortnight, we will share some of these stories, insights and possibilities in relation to people, culture, ethics and leadership in sport. I hope you enjoy the conversation and we look forward to hearing your thoughts.
All the best, Pippa and Paul
‘Sport: A black day with a silver lining’
14 February 2014
Category: ETHICS AND INTEGRITY – what should we do?
There has been much negative commentary in the media and sporting circles around the press conference one year ago where the ministers of the day, Kate Lundy and Jason Clare, announced the outcomes of the Australian Crime Commission’s inquiry and report into organised crime and drugs in Australian sport. Our favourite national pastime was under attack they declared. A bombshell was detonated that day, whose aftershocks are still rippling across the Australian sports landscape.
Despite the political ‘shock and awe’ approach of the launch, which was labeled ‘the blackest day in Australian sport’, and the subsequent Essendon and Cronulla side-shows of self-regulation that followed, many are incensed one year on at the lack of infraction notices issued and criminal charges and prosecutions. Many also remain indignant at the ‘albatross of uncertainty’ that continues to hang around the neck of Australian sport. “How dare they sully the good name and integrity of our athletes, administrators and sporting codes! Aussies don’t cheat – we all know that; the rest of the world knows that!!”
We watched on from our increasingly unsteady moral high ground as other nations’ athletes were exposed for doping, as competitions in different continents became marred in betting and match fixing scandals, and as criminal tendrils latched onto vulnerable young stars and referees grooming them for future misdeeds on which multi-millions would be wagered and won. We were naive to think we could remain immune from the negative influences of globalization and modern science and technology that intersect with sport. We became complacent as the black cloud drifted closer to our skies. “Aussie sport is tough, but fair we bellowed. Cheats are ostracized just as quickly as quitters, we jeered.”
Everyone remembers the first part of the saying: ‘A good reputation is hard-won and easily lost’, but not so many know the full quote which goes on to say: ‘But the lost reputation has invariably been given away by the actions of the holder, rather than been taken away by somebody else’. Sport lost some of its golden lustre on that inauspicious day 12 months ago because the thorough investigation (Project Aperio) by the ACC, supported by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) and the Therapeutic Goods Administration, revealed some home truths that many of us who love sport did not want to hear or acknowledge. We had closed our eyes to the truth and had refused to ask the hard question in sport for too long and this was the result.
The report revealed that performance-enhancing substances prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA), know as peptides and hormones, were being used by professional athletes in Australia, and in some cases facilitated by quasi-sports scientists and support staff. Perhaps most alarmingly, it revealed ‘these substances are also being used by sub-elite athletes competing at various levels of competition, for example at the state and club level’1 . This revelation cut bone deep – the use of these illegal drugs were not just the domain of the elite anymore, they were widely available now and had even infiltrated to the grassroots level of sport. Our defenses had well and truly been breached.
As Minister Lundy said in May last year: “What we learned from the ACC report is that there are many threats to the integrity of sport – threats that go beyond doping, illicit drugs”. 2 These threats were spelled out clearly in the report: ‘Illicit drug use by athletes leaves them particularly vulnerable to exploitation for other criminal purposes, including match fixing and fraud arising out of the provision of ‘inside information’’3 . The nexus between illicit drug use and doping, supply and distribution networks, criminal infiltration and match fixing suddenly became obvious.
This wasn’t a case of one-off doping or the odd thrown match for a few bucks, this was organised and systematic. The report had highlighted significant issues at all levels of Australian sport, which have the potential to undermine the principles of fair play as we know them and ultimately cause the community to question its enduring faith in sport. The collective gasp was deafening.
‘The release of the report, the ACC said, was only ever meant to ”protect life” (because it had established that players had been injected with substances not fit for human consumption), warn criminals, alert players and fans and encourage them to volunteer information’. 4 And while there has not yet been the bans and criminal sanctions to match the theatrics shown at the launch, everything prophesized in the report has occurred: athletes at various levels have been caught and rubbed out for PIEDs and illicit drugs use, supplement use in sport has exploded, including at the school level; the Victorian premier league soccer was embroiled in a match fixing scandal; and massive, irregular betting occurs on a range of Australian sports.
However, ever since it has been far easier to blame the messenger: the previous government for their expediency in trying to win a few political points; ASADA for not working more effectively, more efficiently, and more transparently; sports science as a profession generally; the media for pushing for answers to legitimate questions; and anyone else aiding and abetting such ‘unnecessary sabotage’ of our sports and our national reputation in the process. As ABC sports commentator Francis Leach said: “Talkback radio has become a loony bin of tribal hysteria, split between those suffering duffle coat syndrome – prepared to defend their club with whatever it takes – and those peddling conspiracy theories and demanding public floggings.” 5
One year ago few of us were aware of what PIEDs, peptides and supplements were, let alone their increasing use by our athletes; and probably fewer still had entertained the notion that match fixing and the involvement of criminal identities and betting syndicates could infiltrate our sports clubs and associations – this was conspiracy theory stuff no more. The cat was out of the bag now – ignorance was no longer an excuse. Now that we had this information and awareness what could we do to try and help our athletes and support our sports to negotiate these contemporary challenges?
The world’s foremost anti-drugs crusader, US Anti-Doping Agency Chief Executive Travis Tygart, described the investigations that resulted from the report as “the tipping moment for Australian sport”. ”Hopefully … people realise that Australia is not immune from these same pressures of drug use and organised crime or whatever may be that’s going to undermine the integrity of sport,” he said. ”Hopefully it will further the resolve of all of those who love sport to do even more to protect it. Hopefully it will send a powerful deterrent message to the next generation of athletes that there are no shortcuts to athletic success.” 6
It is encouraging to see responses to the challenges on many fronts. Everyone in sport is talking ‘good governance’ and the Australian Sports Commission are demanding it otherwise funding may be withheld; the government has beefed up ASADA’s funding and powers to assist with investigations; the National Integrity of Sport Unit is assisting sports to strengthen their own integrity systems and educating about threats from organised crime; peptide supply regulations are being reviewed; sports science practices are being tightened; and sports are developing their own integrity units, staff and policies to protect their organisations from potential threats.
As Patrick Smith wrote (The Australian, 7 February 2014): ‘In truth, the Australian sporting custom has changed irrevocably and beneficially. It has turned on three fronts – governance, integrity and sport science. While athletes and sleazy individuals will always attempt to gain an unfair advantage – cheat – Australian sport is forever better placed to identify such actions and deal with them forcibly’.
Now more than ever, integrity matters for sports, athletes, sponsors and fans. Surely this is the silver lining from that black day 12 months ago that will see us better placed to meet these challenges in the future, and choose not to give away a hard earned reputation.