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Education key in changing doping culture in sport

Following the latest revelations of doping in rugby surrounding Sam Chalmers admitting to using steroids, anti-doping researcher Dr Lisa Whitaker assesses why sportsmen and women consider prohibited substances in the first place and how sport can ensure that both athletes and coaching are properly educated in relation to doping.

Whilst the news of elite athletes failing drugs tests sparks great discussion amongst the sporting community, less is often said or heard about those who use banned substances whilst competing at lower performance levels. However, this is not to say that doping does not occur beyond elite level. Findings from my PhD research suggest that doping may be more prevalent at the sub-elite level where athletes are striving to make the transition into elite sport.

A question that is repeatedly asked is “what are the pressures and factors facing sportsmen and women which lead them to taking banned substances?” This question relates to one of my key research interests - athletes’ willingness to dope. There are a number of different reasons which may increase an athlete’s willingness to dope including: 1) suffering an injury; 2) struggling with performance; and 3) perceptions that everyone else is doing it. Reasons are likely to be personal to the individual and their situation but there may be factors that relate specifically to the sport an individual takes part in.

Media reports suggest that Sam Chalmers, a Scotland U20 rugby union player, recently tested positive for two anabolic steroids after feeling the pressure to bulk up. This news follows a string of headlines and articles suggesting that adolescent males are under increasing pressure to increase in size. If legal ways of increasing muscle mass or size are not achieving the desired effects, players may feel no choice but to turn to prohibited means in order to give them a chance to succeed in their desired sport.

Equally, the news of Chris Mapletoft - a promising young rugby player who tragically died after taking a fat burning product he bought online - highlights the lengths young men are willing to go to in an attempt to achieve a particular body image. At present, it is unknown how often the pressures of achieving societal image ‘ideals’ lead to the use of banned substances. Certainly from a rugby perspective, this association warrants further investigation, particularly amongst young players who are striving to reach top-level rugby.

As a result of Sam Chalmer’s positive drugs test, he has received a two year ban from rugby. Only 19, Sam still has time to return to the game once he has served his ban. However, accounts of those who have served drugs bans presents a harsh picture of the guilt and shame that can stay with a doper for many years after the ban is served.. Arguably, education is key to preventing others from making the same mistake as Sam. Whilst there will always be individuals who are willing to cheat, it is important to move towards a model of doping prevention that focuses on a community of responsibility approach. Working with the support networks around sportsmen and women to raise awareness of how their actions and perceptions may influence doping decision making is central to this approach.

Within the Institute of Sport, Physical Activity and Leisure at Leeds Metropolitan University, researchers are committed to developing a greater understanding of doping to inform future prevention programmes. Currently a project is underway in collaboration with the Rugby Football Union which sets out to investigate how specific experiences and pressures influence performance enhancing strategies used by male adolescents. The project aims to gain a better understanding of the factors that influence players’ decision making and willingness to use nutritional supplements and performance and image enhancing substances. Through the project, we aim to learn how we can better educate young people about the risks of both nutritional supplements and performance and image enhancing substances, as well as identify the necessary skills young people need to maintain clean sport.

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About the Author

Leeds Beckett University

Dr Lisa Whitaker

Dr Whittaker is a former researcher at Leeds Beckett.

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