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Sports organisations need to provide more support to prevent athletes doping


The use of prohibited substances and methods, known as doping, is one of the most hotly debated issues in sport, but by taking simple steps such as providing more support, athletes could be dissuaded from using performance enhancing substances.

Athlete training

Researchers from Leeds Beckett University have been carrying out a study about what drives an athlete towards doping. A group consisting of national level rugby players and track and field athletes were interviewed about their views on doping and what may persuade someone to use performance enhancing substances within their sport.

The results, which have been published in Performance Enhancement and Health, showed that doping is influenced by multiple factors including personal, social, emotional and situational circumstances. The situations that are most likely to result in an athlete developing a willingness to dope are:

  • Suffering an injury and struggling with recovery
  • Believing everyone else is doping
  • A contract or funding being under threat

Charlie (not his real name), a track and field athlete who was part of the study, talked about the pressures athletes can find themselves under: “You’ve been performing well for a few years. You’re actually on a salary, that’s your life, and then you have a bad year and you think if you have another bad year next year you’re going to lose funding and you’re going to lose your contract…I think that’s when the pressures start.

“If you’ve had a goal to get Olympic gold and you’ve dedicated the last 25 years of life to try and get that thing, some people just can’t let it go and can’t accept defeat…they have to do something about it and take drugs.”

Harry, a rugby player, said concerns about team selection affect other aspects of a player’s life: “You go home and you’re worried. You’re worried about your position, you’re worried about how the coach views you, whether he’s going to pick you this week…some lads are on pay as you play so they get a lot of money if they play. If they don’t play, they’re on hardly anything and struggle to pay their mortgages so obviously there’s pressure from home.”

Another rugby player, Simon, said his friend started doping to keep his career going: “He could feel his performance going down and from being one of the best players to going down…I think that it hit him. He obviously started taking human growth hormone, I think it was, and it just made him feel better, let his body recover and he felt just strong again and great and his performances were getting better…he wasn’t doing to it to try and cheat, he was trying it to help him prolong his career if you know what I mean.”

The research findings identified two key groups in athletes’ networks that could create a pressure to dope – coaches and peers.

Nathan, a track and field athlete, said too much pressure to succeed put on an athlete could lead to doping: “If the coach has got high expectations of the athlete and if they don’t achieve the expectation…that pressure would definitely lead to people considering using drugs.”

He added that it doesn’t tend to be the athletes themselves who first think of doping: “I was having a conversation with my strength and conditioning coach and he was saying what’s to stop someone? In athletics, you only get drug tested when you’re at the top of the game like when you’re on proper funding, whereas if say you’re not on the list then you can go take drugs for two weeks or a year and then train, just train and not compete and then leave it a year and then start competing. By the time you start competing, the drugs are out of your system but you’ve obviously got the advantage.”

Peer pressure is another factor influencing whether athletes become willing to dope. If athletes believe others are doping, it becomes more normal and in their view acceptable even.

Charlie added: “If you happen to be with a drug dealer who is going to supply you with some drugs and everyone in your group’s doing it, you get all the pressure of your group. Like you either leave that group or you do what they’re doing and it becomes more normal. It’s more acceptable ‘cos if they get caught we all get caught and it takes some of the pressure off you, whereas if you’re in a group and it’s just you doing drugs then you’ll feel wrong every day.”

Rugby player Harry described a conversation he had with his Mum when he felt he had lost out on playing for England because of other players doping. In the conversation, his Mum suggested doping: “She said, if everyone else it taking it, the risk of getting caught is virtually none, so why shouldn’t you be on it? Why should you be doing everything right and not on a level playing field?”

Yet all athletes who took part in the research felt that an athlete would always choose an alternative to doping if they felt they had a choice to make. Alternatives to doping were suggested by all the athletes who took part in the research included resting, rehabilitation like physiotherapy, training harder as well as extra training sessions and changing coach.

Leeds Beckett University’s Research Officer, Dr Lisa Whitaker, who led the research from the Carnegie School of Sport said more help is needed for athletes to help prevent doping: “Moving forwards, sports organisations should have a duty of care towards their members to optimise the environment within which they operate to ensure that all members are supported and have the resources needed to cope effectively with the demands placed upon them.

“Equipping athletes with coping skills, such as self-control, resilience and decision making and providing greater access to resources including sports science support, social support and rehabilitation, and putting actions into place can help prevent athletes from developing a willingness to dope.

“There is also a need for professional rugby players to have an identity and qualifications beyond rugby to protect them from doping. The promotion of dual careers and training opportunities would help athletes to pursue their sporting talent while also preparing them for a career once they retire from sport.

By providing athletes with alternative options or skills they will be less likely to feel that they have no choice but to dope.”

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