By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia's national anti-doping agency has charged 34 current and former Australian Rules football players with drugs violations, rocking the country's richest and most well-attended sport.
The charges are the culmination of a 16-month investigation into the administration of dubious supplements in 2012 at the Melbourne-based Essendon Bombers, one of the Australian Football League's oldest and most powerful teams.
"The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) has put formal allegations of possible anti-doping rule violations to 34 current and former players from the Australian Football League (AFL)," the agency said in a statement on Friday.
"Based on the advice of our legal counsel and a review of the evidence ... I have reached the conclusion that these players have a case to answer under the World Anti-Doping Code," ASADA CEO Ben McDevitt said.
The AFL disqualified Essendon from the competition's playoffs last year, banned the club's head coach James Hird for 12 months and slapped the team with a record fine for bringing the game into disrepute.
The punishments followed an independent probe commissioned by the club which found governance failures had contributed to a "disturbing picture of a pharmacologically experimental environment".
The scandal has sent shockwaves throughout Australia's AFL community, with local newspapers reporting grisly details of players being injected with peptides in private clinics under the supervision of club officials.
Peptides are short chains of amino acids which athletes can take in supplement form to aid muscle growth and re-generation.
A number of them are banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, including growth hormone and Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1).
The scandal threatens to bring Essendon to its knees, with a majority of those charged still active players on the club's 47-man roster.
The club lies ninth in the 18-team table, halfway through the AFL's regular season.
The players have 10 days to respond to the charges, which ASADA refer to as 'show cause notices'.
"This information along with the evidence collected by ASADA will be put to the independent Anti-Doping Rule Violation Panel for consideration," ASADA said.
Essendon declined to comment, but issued a statement that chairman Paul Little would face the media later on Friday.
ASADA is also investigating the administration of banned supplements to multiple players at one of the country's top flight rugby league teams, the Sydney-based Cronulla Sharks, and are expected to lay charges in coming days.
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)