• Dank: "I'm a smart dickhead. I'm a dickhead that knows a little bit about drugs." (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Legalised doping. It's been canvassed before, and last Sunday in Sydney it was discussed again, at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. They forgot to say it was stupid, writes Anthony Tan.
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Cycling Central
7 Sep 2016 - 8:49 PM  UPDATED 7 Sep 2016 - 11:11 PM

It was one of the headline topics at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, held last weekend at the Sydney Opera House.

Is it time to admit performance-enhancing drugs can't be eliminated, and their underground use only exposes their athletes to more harm? Would legalised doping create a truly level playing field? These were the types of questions explored by panellists Stephen Dank (yes, that Stephen Dank), former ASADA boss Richard Ings, former Olympic swimmer Lisa Forrest and University of New South Wales academic Jason Mazanov.

"There will always be inconsistencies. But as far as cycling is concerned, for the most part, can we believe what we see? I think we can."

"The system (of prohibition) that's in place clearly doesn't work," said the event's chair, journalist Tracey Holmes.

"It's fraught with inconsistencies. Some people get off when others don't, there are always appeals, and a lot of stuff has been banned without scientific evidence that it is even performance-enhancing," adding that "substantial changes" to the system are afoot.

Dank, banned for life for his role in the AFL and NRL doping scandals, said "I was never about improving performance per se" - "I was all about recovery". Asked if he would legalise drugs in sport, unsurprisingly, Dank said: "Obviously I'm for it. But it wouldn't be a drugathon. The testing, management, use of medications, who's registered to administer them would be more robust than the system we have had.

"I think it's quite embarrassing what we have in place today. If you really want to get to the nuts and guts of what the World Anti-Doping Authority and its subsidiaries really know and understand about drugs, it's a completely flawed system, and it's based on a group of people who really know sweet FA about drugs and what (they do) from a biochemical perspective in sport."

Is that because the system caught you, Mr Dank? Insofar as what he knows and how he does it, aside from his life ban for doping countless athletes (think of him as Australia's answer to Eufemiano Fuentes of Operación Puerto infamy), this March a NSW Supreme Court jury found Mr Dank acted with "reckless indifference" in giving growth hormone-releasing peptides to Cronulla NRL player Jon Mannah while he was in remission from cancer, and may have accelerated his eventual death.

Meanwhile, Mr Ings said the regulation of drugs in sport had become a $500 million dollar industry full of vested interests: "We need to get our money back," he said.

"(Anti-doping) is not working... Before we inject - pardon the pun - more money into the system, we need to ensure we're getting the best value from that massive half-billion-dollar global spend, which is not catching those seriously involved in doping and catching too many athletes who are inadvertently falling afoul of the system."

Unusual how Mr Ings is so critical of the system now that he is no longer part of it, yet when head of ASADA not once did I hear him say anti-doping governance was a poisoned chalice. I am not going to throw a bunch of statistics at you but ask any clean professional cyclist if they would prefer to be part of the peloton a decade or two decades ago or the one they're in today. Ask them if they believe systematic doping is prevalent, or even exists, at WorldTour level.

Ask them if they think they can win clean.

Interestingly, the only panellist last weekend who categorically opposed any legalisation of drugs in sport was the former athlete. Ms Forrest, who, as a member of the Australian swimming team, competed in the 1980 Moscow Olympics against the East Germans at the height of their state-sponsored doping program, said she was completely opposed because "I don't think most people who take drugs have a choice."

Sure, the anti-doping system is not perfect; in sport, as in life, a certain percentage of cheaters will slip through the cracks. There will always be inconsistencies. But as far as cycling is concerned, for the most part, can we believe what we see? I think we can. The extraordinary performances we saw last weekend at the Vuelta a España were fuelled not by drugs but a combination of clever tactics, strong legs and unbridled ambition.

Did you know that British rider Steve Cummings, winner of two of the best stages you'll see at the Tour de France this year and last, eschews all supplements and instead prefers a healthy, balanced diet with water as his preferred tonic? Could he have done this a decade ago?

I'm with Mark Cavendish here when in May he told journalist Daniel Friebe the greatest threat to disturbing the natural outcome of a cycling race is not doping but motorbikes. Sunday at the Vuelta, Alberto Contador et al were practically motor-pacing at times in the early moments when the proverbial hit the fan. Then you have events such as Peter Sagan getting knocked off in last year's race (and then being fined!) and Greg Van Avermaet taken out in the closing moments of the 2015 Clásica San Sebastián.

Antoine Demoitié's death as a result of injuries sustained at this year's Gent Wevelgem and fellow Belgian Stig Broeckx, who has been in a coma for three months after two motorbikes crashed in front of him at the Baloise Belgium Tour, provide timely reminders that there are simply too many motos in today's peloton. Technology such as drones and GoPro cameras should surely mean we need less, not more, of them.

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