Howman calls for more vigilance as 80 sportsmen and women face hearings over alleged drugs use.

The former head of Wada says today's revelation about anti-doping violations in New Zealand should end any naivety about the scale of the problem in sport.

Close to 80 sportsmen and women affiliated to national sporting organisations are expected to have cases heard before either the New Zealand Sports Tribunal or NZ Rugby Judiciary after being caught allegedly buying banned substances, mainly fat-stripping steroid clenbuterol, off an illegal website.

Read more: Sport shock - 80 athletes suspended in doping probe

The website, clenbuterol.co.nz, has since been shut down by medical regulatory agency Medsafe, and its owner Joshua Francis Townshend was jailed after admitting to 129 offences under the Medicines Act.

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David Howman headed the World Anti-Doping Agency from 2003 to 2016 and said the fact New Zealanders were involved would come as no surprise to those who worked on the front lines of the fight against performance-enhancing drugs in sport. And if it was happening on this scale in New Zealand, then you can imagine the scope of the problem in other countries where there is not such an expectation of fair play.

Sport New Zealand chief executive Peter Miskimmin has already briefed new Minister for Sport and Recreation Grant Robertson about the issue and described it as a "massive wake-up call", a phrase repeated by Howman.

"We need to be more alert," Howman said. "If we find this many people in one sting over one short period of time, imagine what you'll find in 10 or so similar operations. The scary thing for me is that New Zealanders are willing to buy this stuff, including supplements, on the net. They don't know what they're buying, or whether it's contaminated."

Many of the alleged cheats are understood to be below elite level. Several may be "gym bunnies" who just happen to be affiliated to other sports through membership of clubs or teams.

This will likely raise the question of whether it is the appropriate use of resources to track down and effectively prosecute low-level offenders.

"The question is do we want drug-free sport or not?" said Nick Paterson, chief executive of Drug Free Sport NZ, the national anti-doping agency. "Anecdotally we know that New Zealanders hate drug cheats."

Paterson said while today's news will hurt New Zealand's reputation, long term it might help. "There must be an impact on our reputation at large. It must do," he said. "One is that we're perceived being not quite as clean as we used to be, but other is that we're actually policing it better. It reflects our capacity and capability to do this sort of work.

"Sport in this country is so important to all of us in the way it works and the way we go about it. We want to compete hard on a level-playing field and we want to win because we're better. If we don't win we weren't quite as good as the other team and we'll go away and come back and try to do better. That's done without the addition of drugs."

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While no names have been divulged, or a specific breakdown of sports offered, the Weekend Herald discovered a high proportion involve rugby and the cases will be heard at New Zealand Rugby's judiciary. No All Blacks or Super Rugby players were identified.

It comes at a delicate time for the national code. This year there were eyebrows raised when it was announced that random drugs tests would be taken at the national Top Four schoolboy rugby tournament.

Head of the New Zealand Rugby Players' Association Rob Nichol decried the move as a "slippery slope".

"We're incredibly disappointed. This is school; an educational environment for kids to learn. "Now we're talking about policing them under an anti-doping regime which is extremely staunch," he said at the time.

With some schoolboy players allegedly caught in this sting, it is conceivable there will be a push to increase the testing at this level.

This will be debated and decided in the coming months.

For the moment, New Zealand must deal with the idea that we're not as squeaky clean as we hoped.

As Howman concluded: "If you scratch the surface anywhere in the world you're going to find things you don't want to find."