Fans with typewriters?

Whether it's a question of competence, culpability or collusion, the story within the story of the "Blackest Day in Australian Sport" might end up being why every sports journalist and commentator in the country missed the biggest yarn of the last 10 years, if not ever ...

It may well be the Australian Crime Commission has spent the last year listening to heavy breathing on telephone intercepts and just decided to embarrass itself for giggles by summoning the heads of five major sporting codes to Canberra to brief them.

It may well be the combined intelligence gathered will not prove "widespread use of these substances has been identified ... in a number of professional sporting codes," as claimed in the ACC's published report.

It may also be that many thousands of innocent athletes have been tarred with the PIED brush - however, if I was a clean athlete, I know I'd be absolutely ecstatic about authorities finally getting serious about drug cheats.

PIEDs is the quaint acronym for Performance and Image Enhancing Drugs - which again, may well end up being legal, over-the-counter supplements and the ACC just got confused during its investigation but thought, "Bugger it, we'll hold a press conference, anyway".

Or it may well be the use of PIEDs in this country - as in the US, UK, Europe and anywhere else vastly competitive athletes look for an edge - is rampant and our sports journos and commentators are the equivalents of weirdly naive 15-year-olds who sit by themselves on the bus insisting Santa is real.

The outrage and incredulity being shown by many sports commentators is hauntingly familiar to that expressed by cycling and mainstream journos when Lance Armstrong was repeatedly accused of doping.

If you were a cyclist or sports scientist, however, you knew the truth by 2005 when the French sports newspaper L'Équipe broke the story of Armstrong's use of EPO in the 1999 Tour de France.

Michael Ashenden, the Australian sports researcher who assisted in the development of the test for EPO before the 2000 Olympics - the same test which would retrospectively catch out Armstrong - was saying on the record, in 2009: "There is no doubt in my mind he (Lance Armstrong) took EPO during the '99 Tour."

If you have any interest in how exceedingly difficult it is to catch drug cheats and the lengths they will go to, read Ashenden's exhaustive, scientifically-detailed interview with the website

Despite this published proof, most sports journos wouldn't accept Armstrong cheated, perhaps because they were too lazy to read up on the incredibly complex science, too busy to spend the time piecing together an investigation or, because, they were simply "fans with typewriters".

This is a term used by Irish sports writer David Walsh, one of the first journalists to publicly question Lance Armstrong's achievements ... 14 years ago.

In 1999, on the day Armstrong won his first of seven Tour de France titles, Walsh wrote in The Sunday Times, "This afternoon I will be keeping my arms by my side, because I'm not sure this is something we should be applauding."

However, journos like Walsh and Damien Ressiot, the Frenchman who painstaking assembled the case for Armstrong's doping in 1999, were widely ignored, sometimes reviled, by other reporters and news agencies.

Says the Smithsonian: "While Walsh published two books questioning Armstrong's story, outlets such as the BBC refused to pursue Walsh's leads because, he says, they did not want to lose Armstrong as a source".

I have to wonder whether the same dynamic was at work with Australian sports reporters covering their respective codes?

It's interesting to note the journalist who linked Stephen Dank, the man at the centre of the AFL supplements scandal, to the Manly club in the NRL, thus making it a national story, was Daniel Piotrowski. He's a 22-year-old cub journo who'd never interviewed a footballer in his life until he tracked down Matt "calf's blood" Orford last Wednesday.

And no, he didn't go through player managers or the club's PR.

I can't say I'd have done any better as a sports journo - I detest seeing people squirm and I certainly don't like making enemies, which is all most crusading reporters achieve.

Lasting change, however? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

The crux of the matter is until we have complete transparency in drug testing in every code, every sport, athletes will continue to take the chance because they can't be sure the other person isn't doing it.

Michael Ashendon, who began his career helping athletes succeed at the Australian Institute of Sport, makes this very honest observation:

I only became involved in anti doping so that I could stop doping and come back eventually and begin working with athletes again, and reassure them that you can be clean, you can compete, and you can win if you're good enough. I couldn't do that back in 2000 'cause I knew athletes could still get away with doping, and therefore whatever I did to help an athlete prepare wasn't going to be enough. So I felt I was better off using my energy in that field of anti doping so that in the long run I could come back to where I wanted to be. So I empathize with the athletes.

Something that sits at the forefront of my mind, a discussion that I had with a group of cyclists, I'm not going to say who they were, and I said to them, "Look, guys, if you tell me what you're doing, I don't need names, so I can go away, develop that test, and come back here and remove that particular doping problem once and for all."

And their response is still a guiding light to me. They said, "If you can come back to us with a test that captures everyone so that we can all stop, you can expect us to support it. But if you come back with a test that only captures a quarter of the people, and those quarter are punished but then they're replaced by another quarter and the problem keeps going, don't expect us to support it. Because you're destroying careers and families and livelihoods, and you're not getting rid of the problem." And I've always held that as an ultimate goal.

Whatever ends up being the case with the ACC investigation, I do think it's time reporters are allowed to ask questions about an athlete's performance and not be shouted down as "muck-rakers" or cynics.

American sports columnist Bill Simmons wrote recently: "Cheating in professional sports is an epidemic. Wondering about the reasons behind a dramatically improved performance, or a dramatically fast recovery time, shouldn't be considered off-limits for media members. We shouldn't feel like scumbags bringing this stuff up. It's part of sports."

Much more so than who players have sex with in toilet cubicles, their peeing on the street, fighting, drunk-driving, recreational drug use or what dress their girlfriend wears to an awards night ... yet this all we seem to hear about.

Says David Walsh: "People always used to say that I was the cynic. You might find this strange, but I'm the only one who isn't cynical, because all the guys who had a sense that [Armstrong] was cheating but thought it was too much trouble to investigate it, that it would make their lives messy – to me they are the cynics."

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