Expert Opinion

Education strategies key as anti-doping testing results rise by 20% in 2013

Dr Lisa Whitaker, Research Officer in our Institute for Sport, Physical Activity and Leisure reflects on a report published this week by the World Anti-Doping Agency which indicates the number of abnormal test findings recorded by anti-doping authorities worldwide is on the increase.

A report released by the World Anti-Doping Agency this week highlights that the number of abnormal test results for 2013 was 20% higher than 2012 despite the number of tests conducted only increasing by 0.8%. One reason that may account for this is that advances in detection methods have also been made in the past year.

Sports such as football and tennis have embraced the use of the athlete biological passport programme which allows comparisons of an individual’s data to be made longitudinally, enabling abnormal profiles to be detected and further investigated. Equally, whereabouts rules amongst particular sports such as cycling have been tightened so that information is provided more regularly to authorities responsible for carrying out tests.

Both these advances are a positive step in the quest for clean sport and are welcomed even though they may lead to an increase in abnormal findings. With the continual evolution in detection methods, it is likely that statistics may increase, but rather than this being an indication that the number of athletes using prohibited substances is increasing, it could be an indicator that fewer athletes are managing to evade the testing system.

Although figures indicate a rise in abnormal test results from 2012, it is important to recognise that these may not all translate into anti-doping rule violations (ADRVs). When an adverse analytical finding or atypical finding is reported by a laboratory, further investigation is required before it is recorded as an ADRV. For example, abnormal findings are compared with therapeutic use exemptions to ensure that any athlete who has permission to use a substance that is otherwise prohibited is not recorded as performing an ADRV. Therefore, from the increase in abnormal results, we cannot be sure whether the number of ADRVs have also significantly increased over the past year.

Despite this, it is still important to take notice of the abnormal test results. In particular, rugby was highlighted as recording 1.3% of adverse results from just over 6000 tests. Alongside this statistic, rugby union accounts for 50% of athletes who have been sanctioned by UK Anti-Doping in the past year. Recognising the need to try and reduce doping in rugby union through prevention and education, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) have commissioned researchers at Leeds Metropolitan University to conduct a project investigating performance and image enhancement amongst adolescent males. The rationale for the study came from a lack of knowledge regarding the prevalence of performance and image enhancing substances amongst adolescents combined with a number of ADRVs amongst young English rugby union players. Analysis of the first phase is underway where players’ knowledge, perceptions, attitudes and willingness towards performance and image enhancement techniques used within rugby union were qualitatively explored.

In the quest for clean sport, it is important that athletes are exposed to anti-doping messages as early as possible. Gaining insight into the performance enhancement experiences of those we wish to target education at is necessary if we are to develop preventative education that is relevant and effective. As a result, the findings from the project will enable the RFU to develop young player welfare programmes which are evidence-based and use up-to-date education strategies to target young players and discourage doping in sport. In addition, the findings can help to inform the RFU on how to better educate young people about the risks and dangers of supplementation without making supplements more appealing to young players.

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