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Frustration follows in wake of Australia's "blackest day"

By Nick Mulvenney

SYDNEY (Reuters) - It was dubbed the "blackest day" in Australian sport but one week after a government report said doping was widespread among professional athletes, frustration and anger had replaced soul-searching as the prevailing mood.

The incendiary report, the result of a year-long probe by Australia's top criminal intelligence unit, said it had found evidence of performance-enhancing substance abuse across several sports and increasingly dangerous links with criminal figures.

Anger that names were not named in the report and the scandal therefore tainted all sports in Australia was not long in finding expression, and by the week's end was dominating the media landscape.

"It's a big enough issue to be investigated, but as a playing group we were a little bit disappointed at how it was put out to the public," rugby union player Dave Dennis told Reuters this week in a typical contribution to the debate.

"I don't think it's a fair reflection of the Australian sporting landscape. I think we've always been known for being tough, hard-working athletes. For a country of 20 million people, we always compete well and honestly and fair," added the New South Wales Waratahs captain.

"I honestly feel sorry for a lot of other sports, because we all end up getting tarred with the same brush, which I think is tough."

Even Malcolm Speed, the former head of cricket's world governing body the International Cricket Council, said he thought the "hysteria" surrounding the release of the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) report could have been avoided.

Speed, now chairman of the representative body for major professional sports (COMPSS), said the elements of performance-enhancing and recreational drugs as well as crime and the specter of match-fixing guaranteed sensational headlines.

"I think on reflection (our) view is there could have been things that were done better," he said after a meeting of COMPSS in Melbourne on Thursday.

"It's fair to say there's some irritation but there's also a realization that we don't yet know the full story..."

ASADA INTERVIEWS

Some have even suggested last Thursday's news conference, presided over by Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare and Sports Minister Kate Lundy, was an attempt by a government gearing up for an election to manipulate the news agenda.

The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA), meanwhile, have confirmed the "scope and magnitude" of the probe was "unprecedented".

"ASADA anticipates interviewing about 150 players, support staff and administrators from two major sporting codes based on current information," it said in a statement on Thursday.

"The number of interviews may grow if the investigation uncovers new lines of inquiry. The investigation is both complex and wide-ranging and will take many months to complete."

The two sports being investigated are rugby league, the main winter sport on the East Coast, and Australian Rules, which dominates in the southern states.

One Australian Rules club, Essendon, has been identified and betting on their season-opening match in the AFL was suspended amid speculation they may struggle to field a team if multiple players were stood down or suspended for doping offences.

National Rugby league (NRL) clubs Manly, Cronulla, Newcastle, Penrith, North Queensland and Canberra have been briefed by ASADA this week, prompting a slew of comments from the teams that they had little or no case to answer.

Both sports are gearing up for their new seasons, which has offered players and coaches plenty of opportunity to vent their frustration at the pace of the investigation.

But while there is criticism of the process of the release of the report and the execution of the probe, many are still keen to get to the heart of the matter.

"Sport has been damaged this past week because a roller brush of suspicion was run over every athlete," influential columnist Patrick Smith wrote in the Australian.

"But if we use that to walk away from the issues identified by the ACC and ASADA then we as a sporting community have failed our future athletes comprehensively. And unforgivably."

(Editing by John O'Brien)

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