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TONY BUTTERFIELD:War on drugs went too far

15/07/2019 // by admin

CAUGHT: Former Raiders star Sandor Earl received a four-year ban from ASADA. Picture: Jay CronanWADA’s focus had always been about the Olympics. It had an ethos of catching cheats and promoting health.
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But just six years after its inception WADA had gone too far.

THE story of Sandor Earl, the only NRL player to be caught up in the ASADA drugs drama so far, was revealed last weekend.

His legal team are threatening legal action for what appears by all reports to be shabby treatment indeed.

I will always be dead against cheats in any pursuit where rules are in place to provide a fair go. But when ASADA announced at the beginning of last season that the spectre of the darkest day in Australian sport was upon us – I was cynical.

But first some background. In 2002 a Canadian snowboarder was stripped of his medal for testing positive to marijuana. This was something of a coup for the International Olympic Committee’s World Anti-Doping Agency which had only been operating since 1999. Unfortunately, it could only boast a very small number of positives for all its expense and efforts.

WADA’s prestige took a further hit when the Court of Arbitration for Sport reinstated the medal because marijuana was not on the WADA list of ban substances.

The powers that be in WADA were ropable. So they set about changing the rules and insisting everyone else did too.

WADA’s list was pretty quickly updated to more than 300 named substances and up to 10,000 molecularly similar substances.

The IOC was no longer just about banning performance-enhancing drugs it was now about banning all drugs.

The mantra was that the Olympics was not just about performance it was also about healthy lifestyles. The war on drugs had a new front and a catchy theme.

And WADA didn’t just want its rules to apply to the Olympics. It wanted all organised sports on the planet to take up the new rules.

As head of the Rugby League Players’ Union in 2005, I argued, along with players’ associations from other sports, that the proposed WADA rules were way over the top and heavy handed.

WADA’s focus had always been about the Olympics. It had an ethos of catching cheats and promoting health.

But just six years after its inception WADA had gone too far.

Supported by independent chemists from around the world, we argued that the science simply did not support having many of the substances on the banned list.

A very sound case was put against the over-officious approach of WADA and its Australian counterpart ASADA. Put simply most of the substances on the list were not performance enhancing.

Many of them could be ingested inadvertently. Some of them are performance limiting and there was little concession for drugs used for legitimate medication or recovery.

Coupled with early morning home door stops and a ‘‘whereabouts’’ regime that would be simpler if athletes were electronically tagged, a reasonable person could start to see this issue from another perspective.

For what is largely a younger and singularly skilled cohort, the bar was (is) set far too high and the punishments far too severe.

At the time the NRL, like most organised professional sports, had an effective regime of its own. At first the NRL was reluctant to get caught up in the WADA maelstrom. It agreed and stated publicly that effective mechanisms were in place without the need to adopt the Olympic scheme.

But the NRL folded. Not because it was wrong but because political pressure was brought to bear. WADA was putting the screws on governments to make all sports toe the line.

The Howard government was one of the first to jump aboard globally.

From there, all it took was an announcement that the government would not provide funding to sports that didn’t adopt the code. No new stadia if no new drug code!

The soccer hierarchy disagreed but soccer was in the Olympics so they had no bargaining power.

Rugby union was ever hopeful they too could be an Olympic sport so they folded. And the AFL fell over at the 11th hour having negotiated extra funding and changes to the unchangeable rules.

The nadir for the NRL was reached when the government trumped the players’ reasoned opposition by advising recalcitrant codes that not only would new stadium funding be withheld but that any sport that does not comply with the code – exactly as it was written – would lose all federal funding to their junior sport.

Fast forward to 2012 and our elected representatives were at it again. Scare mongering about drugs in sport. Smearing players with innuendo and rumour. Implying that every athlete was under suspicion.

So here we are 18months and a new government later and we’re still waiting.

Importantly, ASADA achieved a load of publicity from their announcement – not to mention funding increases, significant new powers and job security for themselves.

They now have the power to intercept calls and text messages, raid homes, demand attendance, stop people at the airport to confiscate phones and the like.

They apply strict liability where athletes must prove that they are not guilty – rather than the other way around.

Kids aspiring to be sports stars should dream of competing in an environment where mind, ability and fortitude alone determine outcomes; where rules level the playing field and ensure a fair go.

Likewise, should ours kids not expect those making the rules adhere to similar standards when applying them.

The Sandor Earl case and possibly others will test the integrity of that expectation in the months ahead.

■ I was down in Newcastle East on Tuesday afternoon where I bumped into my old mates Clive and the General elegantly attired sipping double decaf macchiatos.

The General jumped straight onto me.

‘‘Buttsy’’, he said. ‘‘Mate, after the Penrith game I was so shattered I didn’t even go for a beer.

‘‘But after the game last night, mate, pass on my congrats to the boys would ya? ‘‘They were great.’’

For his part, Clive, the silver fox/smooth operator looks across the table, eyebrow raised nodding with experience.

‘‘Buttsy, they can turn the corner on this season – mark my words”.

And we will Clive.

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