Expert Opinion | Blog

Less bad apples but a bad barrel

In this blog post Professor Susan Backhouse, Dr Lisa Whitaker, Dr Laurie Patterson, Kelsey Erickson and Professor Jim McKenna react to the World Anti-Doping Agency commission report which examines claims of doping, cover-ups , and extortion in Russian athletics.

Less bad apples, but a bad barrel; that’s the conclusion of findings of the independent commission investigating widespread doping in Russian athletics. The report, commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and lead by former WADA President Dick Pound, makes difficult reading for those involved in the sport.

Pound and colleagues conclude that the situation was “worse than we thought” and that, unlike other forms of corruption, drug-taking in sport “directly affects the results on the field of play”. The report points to ‘sabotage’ of London’s 2012 Olympics; competing athletes were deprived of medals because doped Russian athletes won final and podium places. At a time of growing public mistrust in sport governance, the report conclusions will be a further blow to anyone committed to protecting the rights of athletes to compete in clean sport. It also revises the contemporary preference to assign bad behaviour to malevolent or misguided individuals acting in their own self-interest.

Professor Susan Backhouse, who leads the research team examining doping in sport at Leeds Beckett University, once again reiterated “the dual inadequacies of contemporary athlete-centred prevention and of approaches based on detection and deterrence have been laid bare by this report. They clearly need to be overtaken by approaches that tackle the deep-seated culture of cheating found at all levels of the Russian system”. In this vein, another of the team, Dr Laurie Patterson, has investigated anti-doping efforts from an organisational perspective. Her research with individuals from national and international sporting and anti-doping agencies revealed numerous systemic shortcomings; including under-investment and a lack of ‘buy in’ from many key stakeholder groups.

If the 335-page report really does represent ‘just the tip of the iceberg’ – hinting at issues in other countries and other sports – there is much work to be done to restore trust and credibility in elite level sport and all its support agencies. In the Russian report, coaches covered up positive drug tests while doping control officers were bullied into hiding test results.  It showed all the coercion and ugliness of a ‘state sponsored programme of doping’ at work. Research from another of Backhouse’s research team, Dr Lisa Whitaker, underlines how pressure to dope can seem overwhelming to athletes.  She argues that athletes within the system might already believe it is imperative to dope, not only to succeed in sport but also to ensure their longevity within sport. “Our research with athletes regularly highlights this risk factor for doping in sport and today’s allegations will only serve to reinforce those perceptions”.

Although Professor Backhouse agrees that this report might represent a turning point in the pursuit of doping-free sport, she also subscribes to the need for urgent responses.  “The report signals a pressing need for sports authorities to develop and deliver effective prevention programmes. These must profoundly influence athletes, athlete-support personnel, sports administrators and sport leaders”.

The background that established this report is also relevant to future research and anti-doping policy directions. Stemming from the commitment of a German broadcaster, “Hajo” Seppelt, it began with an investigation into the allegations put forward by Russian ‘whistleblowers’ Yulia Stepanova and Vitaly Stepanov. Pound has underscored the need for better support for individuals with doping intelligence to come forward and speak without fear of retribution.

Professor Backhouse also notes “even in doping research where anonymity and confidentiality are emphasised, participants are often reluctant to say what they know and have experienced. Indeed, our research over the years has provided powerful evidence that justifies exploring radical and alternative approaches”.  Early work by Dr Whitaker highlighted that some athletes will adhere to a code of silence and refrain from speaking out about doping to protect their sport, even though they believe doping to be morally reprehensible. Similarly, Kelsey Erickson’s recently submitted PhD thesis highlighted that student-athletes are often reluctant to report doping use, although they would be willing to confront known doping users.  These findings have proven interesting to the International Olympic Committee, as they have funded an innovative education programme that applies the principles of bystander intervention. The research team at Leeds Beckett University will soon be designing, piloting and evaluating this novel intervention. Given the findings of the independent commission, this shift in direction is both necessary and timely.

About the Authors

Dr Laurie Patterson

Laurie is a Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology and active researcher informing the development of preventive education to promote Clean Sport.

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Professor Susan Backhouse

Sue is the Director of Research for Sport and Exercise Science, Leisure and Tourism, leading our REF2021 submission. Sue is an interdisciplinary academic serving as a Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Nutrition in the Carnegie School of Sport.

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Leeds Beckett University

Dr Kelsey Erickson

Dr Kelsey Erickson is a former Research Fellow at Leeds Beckett University. Her primary research interest is the social psychology of doping in sport. Her PhD research was titled "Doping in Sport: a cross-national (US and UK) analysis of track and field athletes".

Professor James McKenna

Jim McKenna is Carnegie Professor of Physical Activity and Health and Head of the Active Lifestyles Research Centre in the Carnegie Faculty.

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