The sports drug debacle falls on ASADA's shoulders

Essendon Football Club has found itself at the centre of a serious drug scandal, but the body investigating it has a lot of questions to answer too.

Today I am going to write about aspects of sports drug administration in a way rarely seen in the sports pages of the daily newspapers.

Drug administration is not on my usual beat but the sports doping affair has become a much wider issue than simply sporting clubs. It goes to the heart of governance in government drug organisations where there appears to be considerable confusion.

And the confusion in Australian drug administration means that if a sporting body like the Australian Football League next month was to make a drug penalty mistake it could conceivably find its final series has to be postponed because of court actions. (I am not suggesting that is a likely outcome – the AFL is too smart and courts are often reluctant to be involved its sports issues).

My commentary starts from what was happening in the background when then justice minister Jason Clare hauled the administrators of the major sporting codes before the TV cameras last February, and concludes with my written questions to the chief executive officer of the Australian Crime Commission, John Lawler, and his written reply.

But first a confession of my own. I am an Essendon supporter and a social member of the Essendonians. My views are my own and not those of the Essendon Football Club or any other Essendonian. I am ashamed that my club got involved in this mess but I applaud what the chairman did when he discovered what appeared to have happened. My commentary does not excuse what took place but Essendon was not the only body to get it wrong.

I had never heard of the compound AOD-9604 until Essendon captain Jobe Watson declared on Fox TV that he believed he had been injected with the peptide AOD-9604 in 2012. Most sports commentary explained that the World Anti-Doping Authority had banned AOD-9604, so some commentators suggested that Jobe would be stripped of his 2012 Brownlow and Essendon would lose 2013 premiership points.

Yet last February, as Jason Clare was berating AFL boss Andrew Demetriou and other sports administrators, the Australian Crime Commission boldly declared in writing that AOD-9604 was not prohibited under schedule S2 of the WADA prohibited list.

In his reply to my questions John Lawler revealed that the Crime Commission made that declaration after seeking “expert advice” from the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority.

If AOD-9604 was not prohibited in February 2013 then it clearly was not prohibited in 2012. In terms of taking that peptide, we can now say with confidence that Jobe Watson and all the Essendon players are in the clear – subject of course to the courts. The same applies to Essendon coach James Hird as well.

But the body that has been entrusted to make the investigation of Essendon, ASADA, is certainly not in the clear. It should be in regular contact with its global counterpart and clearly it was not because on April 22, just over 70 days after the Australian drug administrators made their “all clear” declaration, WADA banned the compound.

If the matter comes before the courts ASADA will have a lot of explaining to do and I do not think it was the appropriate body to investigate any matter involving AOD-9604.

If, of course, it can be proven that Essendon players took some other substance that was banned in 2012 then we are looking at entirely different issues. And the way the program was conducted can be very legitimately criticised.

But it’s not only sporting bodies that should learn from this affair. ASADA needs to get its act together and work much more closely with the world body so the February 2013 AOD-9604 peptide debacle does not occur again.

For the record here are my questions to the Australian Crime Commission and their answers:

Gottliebsen: In February 2013 as part of the Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport report, the Australian Crime Commission stated that AOD-9604 was not a WADA-prohibited substance and not a substance banned under section S2 of the WADA prohibited list relating to peptide hormones, growth factors and related substances.

The ACC report stated that it had been co-operating with ASADA since early 2012.

Just over 70 days later, on April 22 2013, WADA released a statement which was totally different to the ACC report. WADA stated that AOD-9604 was prohibited under class S0 of its prohibited list because it is a substance ''still under pre-clinical and clinical development and has not been approved for therapeutic use by any government health authority in the world''.

How did the ACC and/or ASADA come to be so out of line with the world body? What actions have been taken to make sure it does not happen again? 

John Lawler (Chief Executive Officer, Australian Crime Commission):

“The ACC sought expert advice from ASADA at the time of developing the Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport report and was advised (correctly) that AOD-9604 is not prohibited under schedule S2 of the WADA prohibited list 1.

WADA is the pre-eminent authority and expert in this field and the ACC welcomes the subsequent clarification by WADA on April 22 2013 on the status of AOD-9604 as a prohibited substance under the S0 classification. The WADA statement confirms that AOD-9604 was a prohibited substance, both in and out of competition, during the period of activity that was investigated by Project Aperio.

The S0 classification reflects WADA’s advice that there is no current approval by any governmental regulatory health authority in the world for human therapeutic use of AOD-9604. One of the concerns held by the ACC during Project Aperio was that professional athletes were being administered substances that had not been approved for use on humans”.

Crime Commission footnote:

Schedule 2 prohibits sportspersons from taking the following substances, in or out of competition:

1. Erythropoiesis-Stimulating Agents [e.g. erythropoietin (EPO), darbepoetin (dEPO), hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) stabilisers, methoxy polyethylene glycol-epoetin beta (CERA), peginesatide (Hematide)];

2. Chorionic Gonadotrophin (CG) and Luteinizing Hormone (LH) in males;

3. Corticotrophins;

4. Growth Hormone (GH), Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1), Fibroblast Growth Factors (FGFs), Hepatocyte Growth
Factor (HGF), Mechano Growth Factors (MGFs), Platelet-Derived Growth Factor (PDGF), Vascular-Endothelial Growth Factor (VEGF) as well as any other growth factor affecting muscle, tendon or ligament protein synthesis/degradation, vascularisation, energy utilisation, regenerative capacity or fibre type switching; and other substances with similar chemical structure or similar biological effect(s)”.