David Kenley's meal ticket, an anti-obesity drug known as AOD9604, was as "dead as a dodo" when he stumbled across some information that stunned him and which would ultimately lead him to the most controversial man in Australian sport.
The Melbourne businessman was told the drug, which the company he worked for could not sell because it hadn't been approved by regulators, was being traded in a thriving black market. "All of a sudden I saw AOD was going gangbusters even though it was not approved for therapeutic sale," says Kenley, a neat man with a salesman's spring. While the Chinese black market sales were technically ripping off Kenley's company, Calzada, he was nevertheless intrigued. "If people were buying it from illegal manufacturers, it meant they thought it worked."
It was 2010 and Kenley's company had already spent $50 million trying to commercialise the drug developed by Monash University scientists and subjected to several positive trials over a decade. While they had failed to amass enough clinical data to satisfy Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration, Kenley had never given up hope.
As he sought funding for yet more expensive and time-consuming trialling, he decided to do some digging on the AOD black market. Kenley, who had once helped to reform the commercial arm of CSIRO, decided to turn private eye. A few internet searches led him to the site of a Chinese black-market supplier and he ordered some AOD, only to have his shipment seized by Customs. Not one to give up, he phoned the supplier. "He told me that bodybuilders will try anything to get an edge and apparently some in the US and Europe had started injecting it prior to competitions," he says.
Next, Kenley learnt that Australian gym junkies were following suit, after he was told that Customs officers had discovered AOD in seized shipments of human growth hormone, a prescription-only drug that is used illegally by bodybuilders to bulk up. "It was strange because while we knew that AOD helped with weight loss, there was no evidence at all that it stimulated muscle growth," he says.
Kenley was also contacted by the government Australian Sports Drug Testing Laboratory, which was running its own inquiries into AOD. "Bodybuilders had made it clear to us that they were using it to remove stubborn fat pockets from around their six packs. The drug lab agreed with me that AOD wasn't performance enhancing."
Yet the drug lab also sent Kenley a copy of the World Anti-Doping Code, which included a rule banning all substances not approved by a therapeutic regulator. The rule had the potential to mean that AOD was prohibited for use by sportspeople, even though it would soon be sold by Kenley's company in Australian department stores as a cosmetic anti-cellulite product (rather than a therapeutic anti-obesity drug).
In 2011, Kenley got a tip-off. "I was told the Manly Sea Eagles were using AOD. And I was told that the man I needed to speak to was a sports scientist called Stephen Dank." Kenley contacted Dank and arranged a meeting. "I wanted to know more about his thoughts on the potential for the drug's use in sportsmen."
Dank, who was then working with NRL clubs to improve player health and performance, never confirmed the drug was being used at Manly, but he told Kenley of his belief that AOD could help injured players heal faster. Kenley was impressed by Dank's passion for cutting edge science. "Steve got it and I presumed it was through his experience of the use of it," Kenley says.
The pair stayed in touch when Dank moved to Essendon for the 2012 AFL season, with Dank helping to arrange for Kenley to brief the Bombers' chairman, David Evans, who runs his own stockbroking firm, and coach James Hird, who is a business associate of Evans. Kenley hoped to convince the pair to invest in Calzada, which in addition to AOD is working on releasing a burns treatment.
"They were asking a lot of questions," Kenley says. In fact, Hird and Evans never followed up with Kenley. "I just assumed that they thought the drug didn't work," he says. Kenley recalls being surprised when later that year, Dank told him that injured Essendon players had been given injections of AOD to get them "back on the pitch quicker".
"I was totally floored when he first told me he was using AOD on Essendon players," Kenley says. "I wasn't sure it was the right environment. At that stage, we had no firm animal data to indicate that it could work in a human in the ways that he wanted." (This year Calzada got some clinical results showing AOD's potential to help repair cartilage in animals.)
"I said to Steve when he told me, 'If you are going to use it on players, make sure a doctor is involved and make sure it is not banned by WADA'," he recalls. Kenley was assured by Dank that this was the case. But even today, Kenley is uncertain about the decision to use AOD on AFL players. "We have seen no evidence at all that it is harmful. But we still don't know enough about its effects on sportsmen."
This comment goes to the heart of the sports doping scandal. How did players subjected to Dank's sports science program come to use not just AOD but other relatively unusual supplements, including those with uncertain health effects? Among the supplements given to Essendon players were a peptide derived from a pig's brain extract and a product containing the first milk produced by a cow after it had given birth.
Part of the answer to why players used these supplements may come down to Dank himself. He is a restless, energetic Queenslander with a biochemistry degree who freely admits he is employed to "push the boundaries". He is as comfortable with wealthy businessmen and top scientists as he is with tattooed bikies, who are among his non-sporting clientele. Kenley says of Dank: "I have never seen any dodgy side to his character. The Steve Dank that I know would never give anything to anyone that was unsafe."
A polarising figure, others point to Dank's tendency to "believe he's the smartest man in the room". "Dank has a major superiority complex," says one observer who knows him well. He extols the virtues of certain supplements as an evangelist speaks of the glories of God.
Based on Dank's advice that they would not breach WADA rules, some NRL players used supplements that encourage the body's own production of human growth hormones. More than a dozen NRL officials and players, mostly from Cronulla where Dank worked as a sports scientist in 2011, now face the prospect of lengthy bans for using these drugs on Dank's advice that WADA insists is wrong.
At Essendon, there is conflicting evidence about whether the players took a substance in breach of WADA's code. The club and Dank believe everything used, including AOD, has been approved by Australia's anti-doping body.
However, WADA's panel of experts this week signalled that AOD should be considered a banned substance under the catch-all provision of the code that forbids the use of drugs not approved for therapeutic use.
Unchallenged is the assertion that players still took drugs with potentially uncertain health benefits. But while Dank is persuasive, he is not all-powerful. The willingness of Essendon players to act as, what one club source called, "unwitting guinea pigs" also comes down to the backing Dank was given by officials, including Hird.
If Dank had a god complex, then Hird, at the Bombers at least, is a god. The former Brownlow medallist embraced Dank's methods, and pushed the sports scientist to source supplements without apparently properly questioning his assurances that their use was condoned by WADA and was safe for humans.
As he had done as captain of a premiership side, Hird led by example. He was, according to Dank, regularly injected with some of the supplements the players took. He was also injected with a peptide banned by WADA for use in players, Dank says. Hird disputes Dank's claims, with reports on Friday suggesting he will admit to only being injected twice with amino acids.
Another key element of the scandal lies with the federal government, which on February 7 held a dramatic press conference to publicise an Australian Crime Commission intelligence report about how the "widespread" doping in elite sport was being supported by organised crime.
In going public and going big, the federal government also chose to go early, well before ASADA had completed its investigations. This not only risked unfairly tarnishing the reputation of innocent players without due process, but gave suspected dopers ample time to get "lawyered up" or destroy any evidence not already in a sealed ASADA bag.
But government failings extend beyond poor timing. The system it uses to govern what therapeutic goods Australians can use and sell is full of gaping holes. Dank often did nothing more than walk through them.
Doctor Robin Willcourt landed in Melbourne with a dream to champion a new style of medicine but no patients or place to treat them. It was 2011 and the Adelaide doctor was yet to meet Dank, although he already shared his enthusiasm for certain supplements, including those more conservative doctors would sometimes baulk at. If Willcourt likes a drug, he'll call it "just amazing" or "incredible".
"I've always been on the cutting edge of medicine. That's been my life," says the former obstetrician with an impressive medical record in the area of foetal health.
Willcourt first flew to Melbourne after Nima Alavi, a South Yarra-based compounding chemist permitted to make and distribute certain drugs, discovered Willcourt was licensed to prescribe a hormone therapy program for post-menopausal women. Alavi asked Willcourt to advise his older female customers on a monthly basis. He agreed, but soon found himself fielding inquiries from Alavi's other clients about what they could take to feel and look younger.
Willcourt, a fit, passionate and personable 66-year-old with a knack for engendering his own enthusiasm in his patients, says people also began seeking him out after failing to have their problems addressed by more conservative, traditional doctors. (During a meeting at a restaurant with one of this article's authors, a waiter approached Willcourt gushing: "You fixed my psoriasis. I feel great!")
In 2012, Willcourt quit his job as a senior medical administrator at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Adelaide to start his anti-ageing, cosmetic and nutrition clinic. He rented a small office in a Chapel Street shopping complex and named his business Epigenx. Willcourt describes his typical patient as a 30-something male feeling stressed, tired and lacking in libido. But men capable of "regaining their old spark" with the right supplements or nutrition advice. His clinic also regularly treats wealthy executives, Botox-seeking women (and, increasingly, men), gym junkies and athletes. And then there are the more colourful patients; tattooed bikies, bodybuilders and the odd crime figure with links to an underworld where added muscle has long been sought after and the drugs that boost body mass are traded in a black market.
In 2011 and 2012, police surveillance operatives targeting Bandidos outlaw bikie gang boss Toby Mitchell discovered his links to a South Melbourne anti-ageing clinic trafficking steroids.
The South Melbourne clinic was run by a thick-set man called Derek Bartolo, who allegedly used a pliable northern suburbs doctor to obtain steroids that were later illegally on-sold. (Police phone taps captured Bartolo using code words to ply his trade: the steroid baldenone was referred to as "the bald c---" and Mitchell as "T").
Bartolo's business partner was fitness guru Shane Charter, who was charged by the federal police in 2004 and later jailed for trafficking amphetamines and steroids. Before coming unstuck, Charter advised top athletes about fitness and nutrition. In 2000, Demons player Shane Woewodin thanked Charter in his Brownlow medal acceptance speech. Another of Charter's clients was Hird. Neither Hird or Woewodin knew that Charter would turn bad. But in the sport supplement and anti-ageing game, good often flies close to bad.
In 2012, both Bartolo and Charter contacted Willcourt with an offer. "They said that they would see patients and then they wanted me to write the prescriptions [for patients I hadn't seen]. I said, 'no way am I doing that'."
The same police surveillance that linked Mitchell to Bartolo and Charter also captured the Bandido travelling to South Yarra a few months after he was shot multiple times in a botched murder attempt. Mitchell was seeking help to repair his shattered body. His destination was Epigenx. The man who referred the bikie to Willcourt was Dank (neither will discuss their patients).
Where Willcourt had shut the door on Bartolo and Charter, Dank appeared a different proposition. "He's a very knowledgeable and affable person. I've only ever seen him [Dank] work flat out to keep his patients in the best of health," says Willcourt.
So when Dank asked Willcourt to use his authority as a doctor to sign several forms requesting a pathologist conduct blood tests on some of Dank's clients, he complied. When the forms arrived, Willcourt noticed that the young men named in the paperwork shared the same address: the Essendon Football Club.
"I agree that looking at it now, it is really weird that they didn't get the [Essendon] club doctor to sign off on the requests. But at the time, I didn't think much about it. The whole issue of doping was the farthest thing from my mind. I looked at the blood-work of about 20 players and gave my comments, like 'this guy needs his growth hormone up or his testosterone up'."
Willcourt describes his advice to Dank as "informal". Willcourt never met any players, nor did he prescribe them any drugs, assisting Dank in the hope that Dank might engage him on a formal basis at Essendon. The former obstetrician also began to gain an insight into what Dank was using on the Bomber players.
Willcourt says AOD had great potential, although acknowledges the science around its use in sportsmen is still being developed. He also is a backer of Cerebrolysin, a peptide used on Alzheimer's patients and which can increase alertness. "It comes from the pig's brain and it has to be properly processed to avoid nasty diseases," he says. "It has been used in Europe for a while and it's great stuff. I had an injection after a long flight and, boy, it just blew away my jet lag."
Willcourt says he argued with Dank about the use of protein rich bovine colostrum, which is the first milk of a cow that has just given birth. "I think it is just weird. You can probably get more benefit from a protein shake that is actually designed for humans," Willcourt says.
Dank had been hired at Essendon on the recommendation of fitness guru Dean Robinson. Dank says Hird told him at the outset that as a sports scientist he would be in the coaches "inner sanctum".
Hird also sent Dank an email stipulating that everything given to the players needed to be safe, WADA-compliant and subject to player consent, conditions Dank still insists he always met.
In February, Hird said he was "shocked" upon learning details of Dank's supplements program and has insisted since that he has always acted with complete propriety. But Dank has publicly claimed that Hird was always in the loop, a claim partly corroborated this week by text messages that show the coach was specifically told by Dank of his plans to inject unusual supplements into some players and the need to get an edge on rival clubs. Hird texted back encouragement, telling Dank that when it came to supplements, another AFL club was "not as good as us in that area!!!"
Dank says that Hird also had injections, taking a supplement banned for use in players by WADA. Hird did not answer a list of questions sent to him by Fairfax Media, including whether he went far enough to protect his players from potentially risky practices and whether he set an appropriate example. Hird has told colleagues at Essendon that he didn't know exactly what Dank gave him and the only reason he agreed to be injected was because he was feeling run down.
The extent to which Hird sought and acted on advice from club doctor Bruce Reid and what that advice was is unknown, although Reid has since told anti-doping authorities that he was frozen out of the supplements program after raising concerns about it. It's also not clear whether Hird asked his staff to chase some second opinions about Dank's work.
Had they called the two leading academic experts in the relevant field, endocrinology, Professor Mike Waters and Professor Ken Ho, they would have been told to seek detailed scientific data and act with great caution. Both professors say that while most of Essendon's supplements may be safe, the uncertain science around some of them means they can not be definitive about their health and performance-enhancing impact.
For instance, Waters calls the science around the pig's brain extract "ill defined", but says he doubts anything Essendon took would have made them play better. "They are not like steroids, which can have a major negative effect," he said.
Privately at least, Hird is blaming Dank and claiming that he too is a victim of the sports scientist. So why did Hird apparently invest so much faith in him last year?
Even those who work closely with Dank and still mostly support his activities also express at least some caution about some of his practices. Willcourt says that he refused a request from Dank and one of his NSW business partners, Ed Van Spanje, to write prescriptions for patients they, but not Willcourt, had seen.
Dank has told those he worked with that he possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the rule book used by the nation's therapeutic regulators and medical authorities and always kept within them. Drugs not extensively trialled are not listed as "approved" for human use by the TGA. However, a person may still lawfully access many of these unapproved products as long as they source them from a licensed compounding pharmacist. To supply Essendon with a range of TGA-unapproved products, Dank used compounding chemist Nima Alavi.
A senior government official aware of the TGA's operations and legal regime describes them as a "joke". While not commenting directly on the Essendon case, the official said: "You can bring anything into Australia as long as some dickhead doctor or compounding pharmacist is on board." Willcourt says he never saw Dank break any laws. The first time he became aware of issues of doping and organised crime was late last year when he was approached unexpectedly by two grim-faced officials from the Australian Crime Commission.
As an agency created to identify Australia's biggest organised crime threats, the ACC usually investigates gangland murder suspects, drug traffickers and money launderers. But last year, it turned its attention to Dank, calling him, Willcourt and another 30 or so witnesses to give evidence in its star chamber. Normally the ACC acts in utter secrecy.
On February 7, it abandoned its usual public timidity in grand style, releasing a report warning that criminals were working with supplement suppliers to help dope athletes.
"It's cheating with the help of criminals," thundered Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare at the press conference where he was flanked by ACC chief John Lawler and the heads of most of Australia's major sporting codes, most of whom had never expected to be suddenly thrust into the public eye when asked to fly to Canberra for a special briefing. If the ACC's intention was to put sporting clubs and the community on notice, it succeeded, winning plaudits from some senior sporting officials.
"What the ACC did has changed the culture and made the clubs realise that the doping and crime threat was and is still there. And we support that," says one.
But while it named no names, the ACC's report abounded with clues suggesting it was largely built around a single figure and the clubs and officials he had worked with. With Essendon going public about its own concerns about the club's supplement program a few days before the ACC went public with its own report, it was a certainty that, rightly or wrongly, Dank would become a public whipping boy.
Suddenly, any player who had associated with Dank was a doping suspect on the basis of ACC intelligence that, no matter how sound, had never been tested by any court or tribunal or by an investigation in which suspects were afforded their normal rights. ASADA had only just begun its own inquiry when the press conference was called.
"To release their report before ASADA has some blood on the sword was nuts," says one well-placed source.
The ACC has defended its decision to go public to saying that if it didn't, a player might have injected themselves with something fatal. But the ACC first interviewed Dank in May 2012, six months before he departed Essendon.
"If they were so concerned about player health, why didn't they tell us about him when they knew he was injecting our players week after week?" says one Essendon source.
Former ACC staff also point out that the agency has never publicly released information it holds about a range of organised crime activities posing a daily threat to Australians' lives. For instance, ACC intelligence collected in 2009 identified a doctor illegally prescribing steroids to an outlaw bikie trafficking network. That doctor's practice is still flourishing.
In response, crime commission chief Lawler said on Friday the relevant codes were alerted about potentially dangerous practices as soon it was legally and practicably possible.
The consensus, however, from the law enforcement and anti-doping and sporting community is that the federal government pushed the ACC to go too early and too hard. Clare on Friday defended the high-powered press conference to release the ACC's findings, saying its 12-month probe had identified links between organised crime and sport.
While ASADA has yet to conclude its investigations, Clare says change has already occurred, with one anti-ageing clinic identified closing down. In addition, he says, injecting of players has ceased and an integrity unit has been established in the NRL. "No one wants drugs involved in sport, and sport will be better for the investigation that's going on," he says.
Having lost the element of surprise, ASADA is now working to get players and clubs to willingly self incriminate. While some cases are strong (one source aware of ASADA's work says its investigators are confident of suspending 20 mostly NRL players), others are expected to be scientific and legal minefields.
"It may well be scientists and lawyers at 20 paces," says former ASADA chief Richard Ings.
Cronulla appears to be in a far worse state than Essendon, given its players' use of substances provided by Dank and which ASADA is adamant, despite Dank's denials, are banned. In relation to the Bombers' use of AOD, even ASADA's internal advice suggests the doping case around the drug is weak.
But the NRL and AFL may yet punish those who have brought their codes into disrepute by exposing players to risky practices. Hird is one of several Bombers senior staff against whom evidence of negligence is mounting. Dank, who lost his job at Essendon last year after internal disputes about supplement and treatment bills, has already lost plenty. "He will never work in sport again. And he shouldn't," says one senior sporting club official.
Dank has hired a team of lawyers to pursue those he says have slandered him. He also claims to have evidence that ASADA either approved his methods or has its science muddled. He is holding his ground with the same vigour with which he once spruiked his supplements. Asked what he would say to any player who is suspended, Dank pauses: "Well, I wouldn't say anything until we have lodged a legal appeal."
THE MAIN PLAYERS
Businessman from Melbourne company Calzada that developed the anti-obesity drug AOD9604 that was used at Essendon.
Former Essendon and NRL sports scientist at centre of drugs-insport scandal. Kenley arranged to meet with Dank after hearing he was using AOD to help players recover from injury.
Melbourne anti-ageing doctor who authorised blood tests on Essendon players at Dank’s request and then informally advised him on the results.
Former star Essendon player and now coach. Stephen Dank says he injected Hird with hexarelin, which the World Anti-Doping Agency banned in 2004.
THE SUBSTANCES IN QUESTION
Peptides: a generic name given to any group of amino acids that link together. Among the WADA-banned peptides are those that stimulate the release of human growth hormone.
AOD9604: developed as an antiobesity drug but not approved for therapeutic use. Sold in australia as a cosmetic anti-cellulite cream. Injected by bodybuilders to remove fat pockets.
Cerebrolysin: peptide derived from pig’s brain; being clinically tested as treatment for Alzheimer’s and strokes. Dank used on players to increase alertness.
Hexarelin: peptide banned by WADA which is used to stimulate growth hormones to increase strength and aid recovery. Dank says Hird and other officials used hexarelin. Hird denies he knowingly used any WADA-banned substances.