Podcast: The Detail

The weekend warriors banned for vanity

Is the zealotry of New Zealand's sporting watchdog and its heavy-handed approach to doping sending the wrong message to amateur athletes?

Later this year, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, or CAS - the highest sporting court on earth - will pass a decision on whether a surf-lifesaving volunteer in New Zealand is allowed to play golf with his mates on the weekend. 

This might seem unusual for an organisation also tasked with judging whether Russian athletes can compete in the Olympics, or whether football powerhouse Manchester City can play in the Champions' League.

The case was referred to CAS by Drug Free Sport New Zealand, and the athlete - known only as Athlete XYZ - is one of the most curious cases stemming from a big MedSafe bust back in 2016.

Joshua Townshend - a former army recruit and hairdresser - was jailed for operating a website illegally selling performance- and image-enhancing steroids.

Due to an information-sharing agreement, MedSafe shared Townshend's client database with Drug Free Sport NZ, which began investigating the names on the list to see whether any registered athletes had procured the substances.

The most popular steroid was clenbuterol - a drug initially developed for animals, which helps humans to shed fat and build muscle.

It's not illegal in day-to-day life; it’s a vanity drug, with extremely limited performance-enhancing properties.

But it's one of the 300 or so drugs on the World Anti-Doping Agency's list of banned substances.

That means anyone who's a member of a sporting organisation and who's proven to have bought the drug is in breach of anti-doping rules.

And "sports organisation" is a wide umbrella: just about anyone, from high school rugby players to Sunday league cricketers, to members of a local bowls club, technically belong to a sporting organisation.

Eventually DFSNZ narrowed the list down to 107 names - and began building cases against them.

Stuff.co.nz national sports correspondent Dana Johannsen has been following this story for the best part of three years. 

“The initial reaction was: oh my God, we’ve got this widespread doping problem in New Zealand. This is huge! Are there going to be any big names, any international sports stars in this list?

“But as more cases trickled through the judiciary … a lot of these athletes were low-level sports participants. Guys playing club cricket, club rugby.

“There were a couple of people playing at high levels – a couple of brothers playing in the New Zealand ice hockey team, maybe a couple of provincial rugby players – but by and large they were low level sports participants.”

The first casualty was a rugby player, Adam Jowsey.  

Jowsey was a club rugby player in Manawatu who bought clenbuterol to help him lose weight.

He played a handful of games for Te Kawau in the Manawatu club competition, and for the New Zealand University under-23s side. He was slapped with a two-year ban, meaning he couldn't participate at all in any capacity, in any sport, for 24 months.

The Clenbuterol hit list is a mish-mosh of these sorts of stories.

Christopher Ware, a club cricketer in Auckland, also bought the supplement to lose weight and ended up serving a two-year ban.

Blake Roff, a club rugby player in Southland, bought clenbuterol hoping it'd help with his asthma; he was also slapped with a two-year ban.

DFSNZ’s aggressiveness in pursuing low-level sportspeople resulted in an extraordinary reproach last year, when lawyer Nigel Hampton QC, assessing the case of a rugby player named Paratene Edwards, described the organisation’s approach as “using a sledgehammer to crack the tiniest of nuts”. 

But it’s the case of Athlete XYZ – a volunteer surf-lifesaver and weekend golfer – that brought renewed attention to Drug Free Sport’s policies.

“The Court of Arbitration for Sport is the top court. This is the body that’s going to decide if Russia can compete in the Olympics this year; they’ve just ruled in the Sun Yang case, the Chinese swimmer; they’re dealing with Man City and their financial issues,” says Johannsen.

“And now they’re going to rule on whether a club golfer from somewhere in New Zealand can join his mates on the golf course this year.”

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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