Melbourne: Former World Anti-Doping Agency chief John Fahey has condemned Australian officials for offering back-dated bans to more than a dozen top-flight rugby players charged with drugs offences that will see most of them miss only three weeks of competition.
Seventeen National Rugby League (NRL) players were accused of using banned supplements in 2011 at the Cronulla Sharks, and 12 current and former players for the Sydney-based team had accepted one-year bans offered by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, the NRL confirmed on Saturday.
With the ban back-dated to Nov. 2013 and the current NRL regular season finishing next month, most of the offenders will miss only three weeks of play, a plea arrangement slammed as a "sweetheart deal" by incensed Australian Olympians.
"I`m puzzled and disappointed that the ultimate penalty for most of the Cronulla players is only three weeks," Fahey told Reuters in an interview on Saturday.
"I don`t know where the code allows that.
"I think of all of the other athletes that have been dealt with correctly under the anti-doping code for breaches that have suffered two-year penalties who must be asking themselves today `how can this happen to rugby league players when it certainly wasn`t available for me?`
"So it puts, in my view, the integrity of the code from ASADA`s management of it in some jeopardy."
The players were found to have used substances CJC-1295 and GHRP-6, peptide hormones which promote muscle growth and are banned under the WADA code.
The position of the five players who had not taken the plea-deal was unclear. Local media reported at least three had turned it down - one because he had retired while two others, Paul Aiton and Ben Pomeroy, were playing in England`s Super League.
NRL CEO Dave Smith said the punishments would "bring an end to a long and difficult investigation for the players, their families and the NRL.
"In this case, the evidence supports the fact that players were misled about the nature of the substances administered to them by people at the club who they should have been able to trust," he said in a statement.
Local media, citing the players` legal representatives, said the players had been given assurances by Australian anti-doping officials that WADA would not appeal the leniency of the punishments.
Fahey disputed that and said any suggestion the case was closed was premature.
"WADA can`t (agree to that) and they haven`t," added the 69-year-old Australian, who finished his term as WADA chief at the end of 2013.
"There would be discussions but I would be absolutely certain that WADA has not agreed in advance to an examination of a brief of evidence. They can`t."
WADA came under fire this year for not appealing a one-year ban handed to American former world champion sprinter Tyson Gay after he tested positive for an anabolic steroid.
Gay`s ban, halved because of his "substantial cooperation" with doping authorities, was back-dated and he was competing within a few weeks of the announcement of the punishment.
Fahey said there was ample precedent for back-dating bans, but could see little justification for the Cronulla players to enjoy the benefit.
"There was the Tyson Gay case where he voluntarily refunded all prize money and agreed to his name being expunged from all events he participated in from the time he breached the anti-doping code," Fahey said.
"All these (Cronulla) players have played this year, so they haven`t stood down."
Australian Olympians reacted with disdain to the bans.
"A backdated 12 month ban for taking a banned substance?! Players to miss only a few games?! I feel sad for sport today," swimmer Melanie Schlanger, who won an Olympic relay gold at the 2012 London Games, tweeted.
"Take prohibited drugs, get a 10 week ban. Accidentally give ASADA the wrong address of your house, get a 2 year ban. Truly ludicrous," tweeted Mitchell Watt, long jump silver medallist at London.
WADA have yet to receive a brief of evidence from Australia`s anti-doping authority on the case, the Daily Telegraph reported, citing an email from WADA chief executive David Howman.
ASADA have three weeks to provide the brief to WADA at the conclusion of their case. If the global agency disagrees with ASADA`s penalties, they can apply to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to over-ride them.
The ASADA probe was triggered by a dramatic news conference by the country`s then-sports minister in Feb. 2013 on the back of a national crime report that alleged, among other things, the widespread use of banned substances in Australian sport.
The investigation has also seen 34 current and former players at Melbourne-based Australian Rules football club Essendon charged with the use of banned supplements.
Those cases remain on hold pending a court decision.