Battling The ASADA Armada

untitledBy STEVE MASCORD

EVERYONE has already just about forgotten Curtis Johnston.

The 23-year-old winger actually liked playing reserve grade for South Sydney – because the Rabbitohs’ feeder team is North Sydney, with whom he and his family have an affinity.

That all ended in early February, when he became the first – and so far only – victim of the investigation into drug use in Australian sport, which was announced at showbiz-like media conference in Canberra on the 7thh of the month.

A ‘third party’ advised Souths that Johnston had boasted in text messages about using performance-enhancing drugs and he was stood down. He is yet to return to the game but has not been charged.

His story may be instructive on the tactics being used by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency, which was advised of connections with professional sportsmen by the Australian Crime Commission and is pursuing doping cases against a number of players.

If he is to be believed, Johnston was entrapped – although it is not clear by whom.

He told the Sun-Herald newspaper: “I woke up on Monday morning and got a text on my phone from this app called Kick. I thought it was one of the boys from my team and I kept talking to them. They were saying ‘I’m sore from the weekend still’ and ‘I’ve been taking stuff I shouldn’t be’. And I went ‘Yeah, we all do’. I was joking around, you just agree with your teammates.

”And then they were like ‘Can you get me some?’ because I know someone who knows about it. So I supplied the number and they go ‘Can I call you soon?’ I made a few jokes about yabbie pumps … it was just a joke me and some of my mates use. Anyway, I thought it was my mate and then this girl – I still don’t know who she is – called up and said: ”You’re [busted], you’re going down. This is going to [the media].

”It was just a massive joke and then all of a sudden it was completely blown out of proportion.”

The fact that Johnston is in the sports doping equivalent of Guantanamo Bay, neither proven guilty by a court or free to get on with his life, is symbolic of the situation Australian rugby league finds itself in as we head into the fourth month of the investigation.

At the time of writing, 31 players had been advised they were required for interviews. The possible number of players involved – and ‘interviews’ does not necessarily equate to suspicion – has gone down from any part of 150 across all sports, to 50, to 31.

The number of clubs possibly involved (and the authorities did say ‘mention in the report’ initially) has been reduced from six to just one, with the long finger of the law pointed squarely in the direction of Cronulla for systemised cheating in the 2011 season, under the direction of sports scientist Stephen Dank.

As all stories on this subject faithfully report, Dank denies any wrongdoing.

Manly, North Queensland, Penrith, Canberra and Newcastle have had their brands sullied over the course of more than a month before it was announced they had been cleared of systematic doping. Players at those clubs are still under suspicion of using banned substances away from the team environment.

Cronulla on March 8 stood down coach Shane Flanagan and sacked staff members Dave Givney, Mark Noakes, Curtis Schulz and Darren Mooney for their alleged failure to act in the face of the doping.

When journalist Phil Rothfield, a confessed Cronulla fan, cornered chairman Damien Irvine on why he had stood the coach down and sacked the doctor, football manager, physio and head trainer, he said: “Mate, when paid staff fail to report … injecting players with equine substances, I can’t help.”

The staffers had been sacked without any public reason given. They thought that was reason enough for legal action. Now a reason had been given – something they strenuously denied – their lawyers started salivating.

The comment forced Irvine’s resignation. So far, ASADA have not made public its findings regarding Cronulla. Irvine has begged those sacked not to sue him, citing financial hardship. At the same time, he is standing for the next Sharks board elections.

While all this was happening, we had the emergence of shadowy figures like “the Gazelle”, sports supplements merchant Darren Hibbert who sold tablets to players out of a car boot.

There were Dr Moreau –type stories of players gathering at the house of St Helens star Josh Perry and being administered injections by a male nurse (Perry denies this). In amongst all the intrigue, leaked details and rumour, two news stories stood out.

One was by News Limited’s James Hooper, who reported that Cronulla players Paul Gallen, Ben Pomeroy and John Morris drove to the house of their former head trainer, Trent Elkin, and demanded to know what what he had told ASADA.

Elkin, now with Parramatta, denies the confrontation ever took place.

The other was by Fairfax’s Michael Chammas, who tracked down the retired Isaac Gordon. Gordon said injections at Cronulla has been halted when he displayed bruising “you’d only see on a 90-year-old lady”.

“My leg was black and I was thinking to myself, ‘This is not normal’,” Gordon said in an extraordinary interview.

But these little islands of interesting information are mere atolls in a sea of innuendo, unsubstantiated chinese whispers and spin. Cronulla, for instance, have hired a former ASADA prosecutor and a political spin doctor, even though they haven’t had enough money for half a decade to employ a chief executive.

Why did the Federal Government place such a black stain on all Australian sports, with the heads of many including former NRL and current soccer boss David Gallop in attendance, when only rugby league and Aussie Rules are now being investigated?

Cynics say an election on September 14 might have something to do with it.

Why did Cronulla stand down and sack employees over their alleged involvement in doping but give players the benefit of the doubt?

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has the power to compel the NRL to punish the Sharks or make the RLIF exclude Australia from the World Cup. It’s thought the club wanted to be seen to be proactive.

But sacking staffers some supporters have never heard of is politically far more palatable for an administration than sacking players with a new season on the horizon.

And back to Curtis Johnston. If his fate can be sealed in a matter of days after the case against him arose, why are there some 31 players “of interest” still going around every weekend in the NRL who are “of interest” in a doping investigation.

The implication is clear. ASADA needs more evidence, and to get it, it needs players to provide information on each other. Information which leads to a “conviction” (doping is not illegal in Australia, so by that we mean a suspension) can result in a ban of six months instead of two years.

“I think it’s going to get pretty messy,” Manly prop Brent Kite told me.

“Giving blokes exemptions to roll over on other blokes – I don’t think that’s going to be very good for the game.”

It’s been said that only one per cent of cheats are caught by drug tests.

But if ASADA only gets a handful of suspensions in Australian Rules and rugby league after a media event that was dubbed “the blackest day in the history of Australian sport”, the political fallout for the Labor Party could be calamitous.

Most of the predictions that the investigation will drag on all season are not made with September 14 in mind.

But maybe they should be.

NB: Curtis Johnston was cleared by ASADA of any wrongdoing in early April, 2013. Damien Irvine did not win re-election to the Cronulla board.

Filed for: FORTY-20 MAGAZINE

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