An anti-doping tribunal has thrown out drugs charges against 34 professional Australian Rules footballers who were swept up in a sweeping probe that has overshadowed the country's top-flight competition for more than two years.
The 34 past and present players for the Melbourne-based Essendon Bombers, one of the Australian Football League's oldest and most successful clubs, were found not guilty by the league's anti-doping tribunal of taking Thymosin Beta-4, a banned supplement believed to aid in tissue repair and regeneration.
"The tribunal was comfortably satisfied that the substance Thymosin Beta-4 was at the relevant time a prohibited substance under the Code," tribunal chairman David Jones said in a statement.
"The tribunal was not comfortably satisfied that any player was administered Thymosin Beta-4."
The 34 were alleged to have been injected with banned supplements in a detailed and highly organised regime during the 2012 championship season.
"The tribunal was not comfortably satisfied that any player was administered Thymosin Beta-4"
Australia's peak anti-doping watchdog charged the players last June, some 16 months after a joint investigation was launched with the AFL.
The ruling is likely to prove controversial, given the AFL slapped a record multi-million dollar fine on the club in 2013 and disqualified the team from the play-offs for bringing the league into disrepute.
The head coach James Hird was banned for a year, while a number of other club officials were handed suspensions and fined.
An independent review commissioned by the club in 2013 also castigated the club's management for governance failures that produced a "disturbing picture of a pharmacologically experimental environment".
The decision means 17 players with Essendon and a handful at other AFL clubs will be able to line up for the season-opening round this weekend after previously being under a cloud.
The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency said it was disappointed with the outcome for the 34 players.
"What happened at Essendon in 2012 was, in my opinion, absolutely and utterly disgraceful," ASADA CEO Ben McDevitt said in a statement. "It was not a supplements programme but an injection regime and the players and the fans were so poorly let down by the club."
An ASADA spokeswoman said the governing body was yet to decide whether to appeal the decision.
The ASADA probe also found wrongdoing in Australia's top-flight rugby league, with 17 players accused of using banned substances when playing for the Sydney-based Cronulla Sharks in 2011.
Last August, 12 current and former Cronulla players accepted one-year bans from ASADA, which were controversially backdated to November 2013, ensuring that most of them would only miss a handful of regular season games.
Meanwhile, the new Ireland manager for this year's International Rules Test against Australia is due to be announced today.