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Australia rocked by allegations of drug and crime links in sports

By Jethro Mullen, CNN
February 8, 2013 -- Updated 0023 GMT (0823 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The problems could "easily happen" in other countries, an ex-anti-doping official says
  • An Australian commission finds evidence of "widespread use" of doping in sports
  • It says organized crime groups are involved in distributing the illicit drugs
  • The findings will "disgust Australian sports fans," the justice minister says

(CNN) -- An Australian government commission delivered a stunning blow to the sports-obsessed nation's self-image, alleging that many professional athletes are using forbidden drugs often supplied by organized crime groups.

The Australian Crime Commission said Thursday that a yearlong investigation found evidence suggesting "widespread use" of prohibited substances and illicit drugs, some of them unapproved for human use, in a number of professional sports.

"The findings are shocking, and they'll disgust Australian sports fans," Justice Minister Jason Clare said at a news conference Thursday.

READ: Shock as crime muscles into Australian sport

Scientists, coaches and other staff have facilitated the use of the "performance and image enhancing drugs," which organized crime entities are involved in distributing, the commission said in a report detailing its disturbing conclusions over more than 40 pages.

The revelations are especially devastating for a nation where sports such as rugby, cricket and Australian football underpin identity and culture.

READ: What are banned substances?

"An understanding of sport is central to an understanding of Australian culture and Australians' sense of who they are in the world," according to the University of Sydney. "Australia's biggest cultural events are sporting events."

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A grim start to 2013 for international sports

The scandal follows a bleak few weeks for professional sports worldwide.

Last month, U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong admitted to the use of performance enhancing drugs and blood doping during his multiple Tour de France victories.

And on Monday, European police officials said they were investigating hundreds of top soccer games over suspicions of match-fixing involving international crime syndicates.

The Australian commission's report didn't specify which sports are the focus of the doping allegations, citing legal restrictions. But it said that the current official doping statistics don't reflect the scale of the problem.

Clare said evidence suggests that the drug use doesn't concern the "majority" of sports professionals, but that "we're talking about multiple athletes across a number of codes."

In some cases, sports scientists and other staff are suspected of "orchestrating the doping of entire teams," he said.

Concerns over organized crime

The role of organized crime in the trade of the illicit substances, which include peptides and hormones, has caused particular concern.

"It's cheating, but it's worse than that," Clare said. "It's cheating with the help of criminals."

Criminal groups are taking advantage of legal loopholes under which the supply of certain substances prohibited by sporting authorities isn't classed as a crime even though the athletes who use the drugs face heavy bans, the commission says.

"Professional sport in Australia is highly vulnerable to organized criminal infiltration through legitimate business relationships with sports franchises and other associations," the report said.

"There is also increasing evidence of personal relationships of concern between professional athletes and organized criminal identities and groups," it added.

These connections "may have resulted in match fixing and the fraudulent manipulation of betting markets," according to the Australian government.

'The blackest day'

The government said it was responding by giving the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority increased powers and resources to investigate the issues.

It also said that if "persons of interest" refuse to cooperate with the authority's investigations, they could face civil penalties.

"Don't underestimate how much we know," Clare said. "If you are involved in this, come forward before you get a knock at the door."

He added that as a result of the commission's report, authorities believe "multiple potential criminal offenses have been committed," and the relevant information has been passed onto police.

The catalog of problems exposed by the commission's report prompted expressions of dismay and disgust in Australia.

Richard Ings, a former head of the anti-doping authority, summed up the mood.

''This is not a black day in Australian sport, this is the blackest day in Australian sport," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

In an interview with CNN, Ings called the report a "wake-up call" for sports and suggested that other countries should take a look at their own sports programs to check for doping and corruption.

"What is happening here and what has been uncovered here could easily happen in any other jurisdiction and any other country around the world," he said.

Many prohibited substances in use nowadays cannot be detected by existing drug testing programs, according to Ings.

"The game has changed," he said. "It's now about investigations, it's about law enforcement, it's about exactly what happened with Lance Armstrong."

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