Reform needed after Stephen Dank’s AFL anti-doping tribunal verdict

Sports scientist Stephen Dank outside his Ascot Vale home in Melbourne in, 2013. AAP Image/Julian Smith

Reform needed after Stephen Dank’s AFL anti-doping tribunal verdict

If Stephen Dank’s NRL life ban is any indication, the controversial sports scientist faces the daunting prospect of never working with AFL footballers again.

Dank, who has been found guilty of 10 breaches of the AFL anti-doping code, will receive his penalty when AFL’s anti-doping tribunal sits on May 5.

The tribunal found that Dank’s charge of administering Thymosin beta-4 to Essendon players in 2012 could not be proven.

This decision followed the clearance of 34 Essendon footballers, who were charged for using illegal substances.

After the players were cleared, it made perfect sense that Dank’s charge in administering illegal substances to the players failed to stick.

However, the tribunal found Dank guilty of attempting to traffick banned substances to Essendon staff.

He was also found guilty of trafficking a banned substance to a Carlton support person and attempting to traffick a banned substance to Gold Coast Suns’ support staff.

But Dank’s trafficking did not rest within the AFL. Dank was found guilty of drug trafficking offences in the sport of baseball.

Dank has said he will fight the AFL anti-doping judgement and his lawyers are preparing documents to activate legal processes.

Reform in sport

The Essendon supplements saga has been the messiest case in Australia’s sporting history and it has left a terrible stain on AFL football.

The Dank case is expected to trigger reform of the medical and sports science practices in Australian sport, ensuring relevant personnel document the treatment of athletes carefully.

Stringent rules are needed to prevent sports performance experts from pushing the boundaries in a way that could potentially harm the health of athletes.

The AFL have identified ten prohibited substances, including peptides and body building supplements, in its tribunal investigation involving Dank.

The illegal substances include Hexarelin, Humanofort, namely Insulin Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1), Insulin Growth Factor 2 (IGF–2), Mechano Growth Factor (MGF), Fibroblast Growth Factor (FGF), Follistatin and Thymosin Beta 4, CJC-1295, GHRP6 and SARMS.

The use of these supplements aims to give athletes a competitive advantage, through the building of muscle strength and the physical ability to recover from hard-fought games.

The AFL needs to carefully police the medical and health procedures of all clubs, ensuring its integrity department is well versed in practices of sports performance and medical staff.

I commend the AFL’s work to update its anti-doping code, in which only medical practitioners may administer substances to treat footballers with a medical condition.

This will prevent “sports scientists” or biochemists from administering substances which may provide athletes with a pharmacological advantage.

While the club medical officer is in charge of the medical issues of AFL footballers, there needs to be regular checks - possibly from an AFL-endorsed and experienced medical doctor - to monitor the practices of each club.

As there is regular drug testing, medical checks would prevent the repeat of an event like the disastrous Essendon supplements saga.

It is vital the integrity of the game is preserved, so that the AFL’s competition is legitimate and worthy of fan enjoyment for years to come.

Fans appalled

Australian fans enjoy honest, hard-fought sporting battles and many have been appalled by the ugly saga, posting their comments on various social media platforms.

The scandal has also triggered abusive comments in social media forums, igniting tensions between fans.

It is expected more appeals and drawn-out legal processes will follow the tribunal’s verdict on Dank.

Just before Dank’s judgment was made public on Friday, the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) were informed of the tribunal’s decisions.

ASADA said it was disappointed in the tribunal’s verdict to clear Mr Dank “of a number of serious alleged violations”.

ASADA said in a statement:

ASADA notes that all 35 matters were heard concurrently by the tribunal. We also note the tribunal stated its preference was to release their decisions on all 35 matters at the same time.

The reality however is that we have only just received the findings on Mr Dank. ASADA is disappointed that this comes as the window of appeal on the first 34 matters rapidly closes.

ASADA will now consider both decisions by the AFL anti-doping tribunal, which may lead to an appeal on the judgments.

ASADA chief executive Ben McDevitt, who described Essendon’s 2012 supplements program as “absolutely and utterly disgraceful”, is clearly disappointed over the AFL anti-doping tribunal’s verdicts because of the seriousness of alleged violations.

ASADA has 21 days to appeal and then, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has a further 21 days to appeal if its chooses to.

Dank has vigorously defended his practices and intends to fight the verdict to the bitter end. His legal fight is expected to drag on for coming months.

The AFL, its players and fans now have a common goal – to enjoy AFL football for the great game it has become and leave the ugly supplements saga behind them.