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We need a drug tribunal to deal with our sporting drug cheats

By John Black - posted Tuesday, 27 July 2004

In May 1990 the Senate Drugs in Sport Inquiry recommended that the government establish an Australian Sports Drug Tribunal to act as a trimmed down version of the Senate inquiry itself.

Committee members felt that without a sports version of the Independent Commission Against Corruption to carry out a supervisional role, the cockroaches destroying Australian sport would be back under the linoleum within a year or two, running the elite sports drug black market, diverting taxpayer funds to pay for it, corrupting testing programs, and pressuring young athletes into a life-threatening pattern of sports drug abuse.

The committee reached this conclusion after working its way through two years of hearings, at least one confirmed sports drug death and 15,000 pages of evidence and documents.


Through public hearings and popular support, the Senate Committee had secured the co-operation of federal and state ministers. It had also:

  • set up the Australian Sports Drug Agency and its educational role;
  • restored public confidence in the Australian Institute of Sport, which was being sued by its own athletes over allegations of entrenched and authorised sports drug abuse;
  • established drug testing regimes and standards for Australia's professional and Olympic sports;
  • tightened legal, medical, pharmaceutical, veterinary and customs loopholes;
  • established uniform banned sports drug codes;
  • secured the registration of nightclub bouncers in some states - a group at risk of steroid abuse;
  • facilitated Australian involvement in an international series of drug testing agreements; and
  • kicked off development of acceptable testing regimes for synthetic hormones, such as the human growth hormone and erythropoietin (EPO).

Every one of the 65 recommendations in the 1000 pages of reports had been adopted unanimously by the all-party committee and most were implemented by governments, except the setting up of the tribunal.

In the 14 years since the report, there has been a case every six months or so which could have been headed off or speedily dealt with by an independent sports drug tribunal. The cases have included problems with the black market, positive tests that have been ignored by sporting officials, inadequate testing regimes and lapses in the administration of penalties such as those imposed for no shows.

Feedback from the Australian Olympic Committee and the minister's office indicates that the tribunal is again being considered seriously.

The Australian Sports Drug Agency began as a two-person operation run on a shoestring out of the Australian Institute of Sport, but became a $5 million a year bureaucracy.


For a small proportion of this increase in funds, a tribunal could have been established, with the obligatory retired judge, a retired drug-free athlete and someone with experience conducting practical investigations into the drugs-in-sport malaise. Police and Customs officers can always be seconded when needed, and this is probably more desirable than permanent staff.

Throw in an office manager, and how much money are we talking about? Pretty small change compared with the below the waterline hits that Olympic sports and Australia's international reputation have taken in the past few weeks alone.

Large amounts of public money are being spent on elite sport but public confidence in Australian athletes and the integrity of Australian sport is being eroded by the refusal of politicians to admit that we have a Rolls-Royce testing regime for Australian sport, but no one is behind the wheel.

While our political leaders have watched for the past 14 years, the sport of cycling internationally has become so riddled with persistent sports-drug abuse that it is tipped to become the first sport with genetically modified athletes. Several companies are developing ways to give patients a new copy of an EPO-producing gene that would be impossible to detect.

Four professional cyclists died of heart attacks last year. The youngest was 23, the oldest 35. These reasons should be sufficient evidence for some long overdue responses from the government.

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Article edited by John Neil.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 22 July 2004.

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About the Author

John Black is a former Labor Party senator and chief executive of Australian Development Strategies.

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