The truth lies with Dank
In the wake of Essendon footballers being issued with 'show cause notices' AGE investigative journalist Nick McKenzie turns the spotlight on sports scientist Stephen Dank.PT2M10S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-3a2y8 620 349 June 13, 2014
Australia’s most infamous sports scientist paused for a moment before erupting. ''That’s just mind-blowing.''
Stephen Dank was giving a rare on-the-record interview in April 2013, and his reaction was justified. He’d just had a startling realisation.
I’d told him that the peptide he had, moments before, freely admitted giving Essendon players in 2012 had been added to the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority's list of banned doping agents.
Previously, the peptide Thymosin Beta 4 (TB4) had only been captured under a catch-all World Anti-Doping Agency clause. Dank had previously claimed to be supremely confident of evading this clause by using his self-professed superior scientific wisdom about what could be deemed a performance-enhancing peptide.
But TB4’s arrival on a specific list of prohibited WADA substances made it clear that the anti-doping officials who Dank referred to as ''idiots'' weren’t convinced about Dank’s particular school of science.
ASADA’s probe into him was still in its infancy, but Dank knew why the listing of TB4 was bad news. It signalled that ASADA would be gunning for any players he had treated with the drug.
While still interviewing Dank, I rechecked the ASADA website and told Dank that it listed TB4 as ''prohibited in all routes and out of competition''.
Dank’s usual ebullience was quickly replaced by an unusual hesitation. ''Well, that must have just only come in this year,'' he said. ''I will get someone to speak to ASADA about that.''
But Dank never spoke to the agency’s investigators. In the end, they built their case without him in an inquiry that led them from a Chinese pharmaceutical company to a South Yarra chemist and, finally, to the issuing of show-cause notices to Bombers players this week.
ASADA’s retrospectively pieced-together version of events begins in 2011, with an alleged series of discussions between Dank, the now former Essendon high-performance coach Dean Robinson and the convicted drug trafficker-turned peptide supplier Shane Charter.
In August that year, ASADA alleges that Dank told Robinson via a text message that TB4 would be the ''cornerstone'' of his work at the Bombers because it could accelerate player recovery.
Charter has alleged to ASADA that Dank then asked him to source the peptide. On November 26, 2011, Charter flew to China – home to dozens of pharmaceutical companies willing to deal with anyone with a cheque book.
In Shanghai, Charter alleges a company called Gio Biochem Ltd sold him the raw ingredients to make TB4. Charter has given ASADA the texts he alleges he sent to Dank several weeks after his return to Melbourne, including a message that inquired ''which peptides do you need next?''
The reply listed ''Thymosin Beta 4'' and one other banned peptide. A short time later, Charter sent a text to South Yarra compounding chemist Nima Alavi, stating, ''Hi Mate. Thymosin – 20 x 5ml vials. Steve's request.''
On January 12, 2012, as Essendon ramped up its pre-season training, Charter emailed a longer missive to Dank and Alavi about the use and storage of TB4 for ''research purposes''. Included in this email was the suggestion that TB4 was most effective when administered at the rate of one subcutaneous injection ''per week for 6 consecutive weeks, then 1 vial per month''.
This advice would later form a key piece of the puzzle later assembled by ASADA. This was because it matched the frequency of injections of a drug described only as ''thymosin'' on the consent forms given to Bombers players treated by Dank.
Another piece of the puzzle is an email that allegedly reveals that Dank was told in writing – presumably by ASADA or WADA –- in May 2012, that TB4 may be captured by the catch-all WADA clause prohibiting the use of certain peptides.
It is at this time that Dank allegedly conjured up the proposition that the ''Thymosin'' that some Bombers were given was actually a drug in the Thymosin family called ''Thymomodulin''.
ASADA alleges that Dank later emailed Alavi a document, which the compounding chemist signed and which stated that Thymomodulin had been prepared by Alavi ''in accordance with the WADA code''.
In was seven months later, in February, 2013, that the federal government called a press conference to release the explosive Australian Crime Commission report exposing the use of banned peptides in professional sport.
By now, ASADA’s hastily assembled team of ex-cops and lawyers were, in tandem with the AFL’s integrity unit (in an unprecedented partnership the Bombers believe may have tainted the evidence-gathering process) working overtime to piece together precisely what the man at the centre of the ACC report had done at Windy Hill.
Dank, though, was an elusive target. He refused ASADA and the AFL’s advances, instead choosing to drop tidbits in interviews with journalists.
In early April 2013, Dank not only told me he used TB4 on Essendon players but said he did so because there was ''very good data that supports Thymosin Beta 4''.
When I told him that according to the ASADA website, WADA had specifically banned the drug, he said the move was ''just mind-blowing''.
''I think they’ve only just put that in to back up their case'' against the Bombers, he said.
A day later, when I told Dank that The Age was set to publish his comments about TB4, he asked to clarify his interview. He never meant to refer to Thymosin Beta 4, he told me. The drug he had given the Bombers players was in fact Thymomodulin.
Dank and the Bombers have hung onto this claim ever since.
In contrast, ASADA believes the information supplied to it by Charter, Alavi and others is enough to convince an anti-doping tribunal that a case has been made out.
Still, circumstantial cases can always falter. And if Dank was prepared to testify to ASADA that he sourced TB4 for his private customers only rather than the Bombers, it could potentially bolster the players’ defence. Yet the evidence, circumstantial as it may be, suggests Dank has his own good reasons to stay in the shadows.