In April, reporter Nick McKenzie conducted an on-the-record interview with controversial sports scientist Stephen Dank. Much of what Dank was asked about is central to the AFL's case against Essendon and its coach James Hird. Fairfax Media has decided to publish long excerpts from this interview, which revealed Dank's response to many of the key issues, including his dealings and defence with James Hird and the alleged use of Thymosin Beta 4 (TB-4) and anti-obesity drug AOD-9604.
In April, the World Anti-Doping Agency confirmed that TB-4 was banned for use in 2012 under the catch-all section two rule of the WADA code. It also specifically listed TB-4 as banned. Shortly after this interview was conducted, Dank said he had been mistaken when he told Fairfax Media that he had given the players TB-4, a claim he has since made repeatedly. WADA has said that AOD-9604 is banned under section 0 of its code that prohibits athletes using drugs that are not approved for human therapeutic use. Dank has refused to be interviewed by the AFL and the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority.
Nick McKenzie: I have had a doctor tell me that bovine colostrum [which is produced by a cow immediately after giving birth and is not banned by WADA] would not have done anything when given to Essendon players. So why did you use it?
Stephen Dank: It is very high in [proteins]. I think your doctor source could possibly be right but there is some very, very good data supporting it. There is some data not so supportive, to be honest. But at the end of the day, right, if we have to wait for an absolute blueprint piece of scientific literature on everything that is used in exercise we would end up using nothing.
NM: Thymosin Beta 4 – why was that used in Essendon players given there is an opinion from a doctor or researcher and other scientists that its effects are uncertain? (note: The AFL believes it has a strong circumstantial case that TB-4 was used on players.)
SD: That's not totally true Nick because, with all due respect, right, there is good data – very good data – that supports Thymosin Beta 4 in the immune system.
NM: OK, why give it to all Essendon players if only some of them had colds and flu?
SD: Well, the point is that there is a degree of immunosuppression after a game or a hard training week, right. Often times the ability to back up next week is decreased by the hit on the immune system.
NM: Did you see any indications in Essendon players that it actually helped them?
SD: Well apart from the fact they won 11 out of their first 14, right, and we did regular bloods [blood tests] . . . at the end of the day I was very happy with the science, I was very happy after working a long time in football, right, that there are periods of malaise which are possibly related to sub-clinical flus and sub-clinical colds, right, which can affect performance. When we want to be honest, Nick, how much performance data is there out there on Actovegin [calf's blood extract)]
NM: There's a lot, isn't there?
SD: No there's not! So, you know, you've got to extrapolate from the science.
NM: How often were Essendon players taking Thymosin Beta 4?
SD: [Explains the dosage level but asks that this be not published].
NM: ASADA has just released on its website that Thymosin Beta 4 is prohibited in all routes and out of competition.
SD: Well, that must have just only come in this year and I will get someone to speak to ASADA about that. That's just mind-blowing.
NM: Thymosin Beta 4, they must have just banned that.
SD: I think they've only just put that in to back up their case.
NM: On AOD-9604, let me ask you a specific question. It was not until this year, February, that researchers released the first positive data about its cartilage injury repair possibilities. But you were using it to treat injuries [at Essendon] before that. So how could you be sure?
SD: Well, first of all I had a very, very long discussion with the investor/founder of AOD, Professor Frank Ng, who was very excited about the possibility of AOD in injuries, coupled with the fact that we had seen definitive changes in bone density among the obese patients in the previous clinical trials. It comes back to things being used off label.
NM: Why are you sure supplements were not captured by WADA section S0 [which bans the use of supplements not approved for human therapeutic use]?
SD: Because they were compounded. (note: people can legally access and use drugs not approved for human therapeutic use, including AOD-9604, if they are sourced from a compounding chemist. In some cases, a prescription is needed.)
NM: Did James Hird know the names and properties of what his players were using?
NM: Did James Hird know he was taking [WADA-banned drug] Hexarelin or is it possible that he was just told that he was taking amino acids?
SD: He was told it was Hexarelin. It was discussed with him at length. He asked me if players could use it and I said no. Mind you, he wasn't the only coach who was a regular user of it. [The AFL has alleged that James Hird was injected with "amino acids" by Dank. "Amino acids" is a generic term for proteins. The AFL has said Hird “made no inquiries" about what the amino acids he was injected with were or whether “the substance he was to be injected with” were banned by WADA or the AFL.]
NM: Who else was using it?
SD: [Coaching staff] Simon Goodwin and James Byrne.
NM: Why were Hird, Goodwin and Byrne using Hexarelin in the first place?
SD: Because at the end of the day, they are in very, very stressful jobs, they are getting a little bit older in life, so like a good many thousands of other people around the country . . . they were using something to give them a little bit of a lift, to confront the stresses of their job, and something that they were well entitled to use. Whatever I think of James Hird as a bloke, and you can appreciate it is at an all-time low at the moment, in no circumstances did James Hird do or take anything he wasn't entitled to do.
NM: Wasn't that setting a bad example, that you were giving the coach of a footy club a peptide the rest of the footy club couldn't use?
SD: Not at all. In no way, shape or form does it set a bad example. How many coaches in their 40s in any country in any code of sport are using testosterone? So how is it a bad example?
NM: Everything you used at Essendon and Cronulla, did you get permission, when they were in the grey area, from ASADA or WADA to use them?
SD: Yes. (Note: Dank also explained he had witnesses who could corroborate his dealings with ASADA. ASADA has denied it gave Dank formal advice to use AOD-9604, TB-4 or other banned drugs).
NM: I have interviewed someone familiar with ASADA. They said that if you got assurances from ASADA, then that is a get-out-of-jail card, but you need to prove you got those assurances and one of the ways to prove it is if you got an ASADA receipt [which is usually given when a person makes an inquiry with ASADA and is given advice].
SD: You only get a receipt number when you ring up or online. I was straight inside the bowels of ASADA.
NM: Why don't you think some of the drugs you used breached section S2 of the WADA code [which bans certain drugs that stimulate the body's production of human growth hormones].
SD: Because there is no biological relationship either in terms of mode or structure [between the drugs used and the banned drugs] . . . The only similarity is the end point. And if you are going to question the end point, then you need to ban the squat [a gym exercise] and any other modality that stimulates growth hormone.
NM: Did Essendon football boss Danny Corcoran or [former] CEO Ian Robson know about your program and to what extent did they know the details? (Note: Hird and Corcoran have both been charged by the AFL with bringing the game into disrepute, while Robson resigned earlier this year).
SD: Of course they did. Danny certainly knew everything as he needed to. He promoted it. Each week he would check in with me, particularly in the early days. To be quite honest, we went to training for a week at the Gold Coast and I remember a discussion before we left that we were to make sure that the supplements went up there.
NM: Is it right that [convicted drug trafficker] Shane Charter stuck his head in during that training week at the gold coast? (Note: The AFL has alleged that Charter supplied peptides to Dank that were used on players. Dank denies this).
SD: He happened to be staying there exactly the same week we were staying there. He said hello to me because he saw some of the players and realised I was staying there. I think he went and said hello to James for about five minutes.
NM: Your critics say you think are the smartest guy in the room and you have a bit of a god complex.
SD: No. Quite the opposite.
Nick McKenzie is a leading investigative journalist. He's won Australia's top journalism award, the Walkley, seven times and covers politics, business, foreign affairs and defence, human rights issues, the criminal justice system and social affairs. firstname.lastname@example.org or +61 401877402
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