Australian politics, society & culture

The Greasy Pole

The Sport Doping Enquiry Isn’t Just Stupid - It’s Wrong

‘UNITE THE FIGHT AGAINST NATIONALLY SIGNIFICANT CRIME’. That’s the awkward, shouty slogan of the Australian Crime Commission, turning its attention to problems that, like the old line about the Holy Roman Empire, are not national, not significant, and not crime. More than two months have passed since the release of the ACC’s report into organised crime and drugs, the ‘darkest day in Australian sport’, a date that now seems to signify little more than the start of a fishing expedition.

Moby Dick was the target, but so far the ACC and the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority have failed even to land a minnow. At the beginning, we were told that drugs and organised crime were ‘rife’ within Australian sport. And what now? Players may have unknowingly taken a substance that might be illegal (but might have been cleared by ASADA itself), that might have been provided by someone who knows (?) a bikie, who might have imported them, possibly illegally, but probably through lawful channels. And the ‘150 players’ from two codes to be interviewed? A number fabricated by an executive ‘under pressure’.

It’s worth having a flick through the report. I’m not one of those journalists granted a sniff of the unclassified version, people who seem to be taken into a room, to come out grim-jawed and white-faced. Those reactions may turn out to be justified in time, but what strikes me about the public version isn’t its seriousness, but its fundamental childishness. Listen to this:

“Australians are proud of their sporting ability and reputation as a nation of good sports, and our society expects high standards of behaviour from all people involved in sport. The ACC and ASADA have identified significant issues in professional and sub-elite sport in Australia which undermine the principles of fair play as a direct consequence of the use of PIEDs [performance and image enhancing drugs].”

That’s from a section tellingly titled ‘Importance of Sport’. The ACC is a dangerously powerful body, with unusually coercive powers, assembled in the wake of 9/11 to handle terrorism-grade offences. Here, it’s talking in the moral register we’d expect from a PE teacher handing out ribbons at Regionals. It’s a carry on from the same kind of school vibe we saw in the Australian swimming ‘scandal’ press conference. The boys had done something Very Serious, and had to apologise to assembly – then it was just Stillnox and knocking on doors. If sports bodies want to play by high school rules, fine. But when the prefects have access to phone taps, something has gone badly wrong.

Look at the case of James Hird. He is compelled, under threat of civil penalty, to appear before a star chamber that accuses him of doing nothing criminal, illegal, or even against the WADA doping codes. He is unable to defend himself in the press where he is being attacked, and the ACC has provided ASADA with information from its coercive hearings, wiretaps and interviews. (This is the good version. ASADA had requested the ability to compel testimony and open mail). Two of our most powerful bodies are playing bad cop, bad cop, not in a criminal investigation now, but a moral one.

“There are no active criminal investigations into allegations raised by the Australian Crime Commission's year-long examination of organised crime and drugs in sport despite state-based police having been aware of its findings for the past five months,” reported the Australian after the ACC report was released.

The minister has pleaded for patience, and said we must ‘respect the processes’. But how can anyone respect process in the process of being abused? Lance Armstrong is the precedent cited, but so far this reminds me more of the US congressional enquiries into baseball. With America quicksanding in two wars, torture videos being destroyed by the CIA, and the financial system starting to teeter, Capitol Hill turned its awesome moral outrage to Barry Bonds’ home-run record. After all the grandstanding and bloviating was over (it took years) no players were charged with anything, because they had done nothing illegal. The abiding sense was that the government had gone after some of the few wrongdoers around not big or ugly enough to porcupine their way out.

Our own enquiry is so unusual that even Labor figures have suggested it’s nothing more than expedience. The Gillard government may have a win record that would shame the Demons, but there’s more to it than that. This farrago is a coalescence of the worst aspects of Australian society: the huge overemphasis on sport; the pathetic hysteria over drugs; the tendency of reporters to act as stenographers; the belief that government agencies can’t tie their own shoelaces without being granted sweeping new Footwear Closure powers; the establishment of vast anti-terrorism bodies in a country with no terrorism; the incompetence of the government; and above all, a penal colony’s sense of moral outrage that doesn’t quite know where to apply itself any more. Even if this enquiry ‘works’, nothing like it must ever happen again.


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