2013: the year Australian sport lost its innocence

HUNDREDS of weekend cricketers, golfers, tennis players and other amateur athletes will grace Ballarat region sporting fields today - just as they do most Saturdays during summer.

Many will take to the fields of competition because they enjoy activity. Others because they are talented. Some because they have dreams of emulating their elite sporting idols.

Amateur sporting clubs and competitions form the heart and soul of small towns and larger cities across the nation.

It's an unique part of culture - and one which we be severely tested in the coming weeks after a damning Australian Crime Commission investigation found a doping scandal exists in numerous sports but chiefly in the nation's two most popular football codes - AFL and NRL.

It went on to suggest criminal elements had infiltrated elite sport, provoking match fixing, illegal betting and illicit drug use.

Just how much fans have been conned is unknown - but judging by the faces of government ministers, football code administrators and officials in Canberra this week, the potential is immense.

Naively, sports loving Australians have long believed our elite athletes operated in a bubble untouched by the evils of their international counterparts.

For years fans, aided and abetted by the media, have sneered at the indiscretions of others and celebrated the pure nature of success of sportspeople at international level and national football codes.

Think Ben Johnson, famously described in victory by Australian commentator Bruce McAvaney in the 100m sprint at the Seoul Olympics: "if it's legal".

Remember Marion Jones, jailed after being found guilty of lying about drug abuse. Few need a reminder of the outrage following cycling cheat Lance Armstrong's television confession last month.

In each and every case, officials or stars at elite level sneered at suggestions that cheating had or would occur in Australian ranks.

Given the atmosphere created by the ACC report this week, the potential impact at grassroots level shouldn't be underestimated. 

Already, clubs at non-elite levels are being questioned about their approach to corrupt behaviour.

Sadly, the very heart of what we know and love about sport left us long ago. The increasing focus on commercial aspects of elite competition has changed not only the way sport is played but how it is viewed and how fans interact with it.

Those that play purely for the love of the game won't have the same freedoms and liberties available to previous generations of non-professional sportspeople. Whatever the fallout from the ACC investigation, 2013 will be viewed as the year Australian sport lost its innocence.

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