Expert Opinion

"The ripples are big": Storying the impact of doping in sport beyond the sanctioned athlete

Dr Kelsey Erickson’s new research has examined the experiences of elite athletes personally affected by other athletes’ doping behaviours, revealing that the effects are both far-reaching and enduring. Dr Erickson interviewed high profile competitive and retired track and field athletes from multiple countries and used the findings gathered to compose two creative non-fiction stories. In this blog post, she reflects on the purpose of her research and the stories she uncovered.

Recent doping allegations within Track and Field include systemic doping (e.g. Russian Athletics), corrupt administration (e.g. the International Association of Athletics Federation; IAAF), and leaked personal data.  No doubt, it is an issue currently affecting a number of individuals, organisations and nations. While the sport scrambles to recover from the growing list of condemning allegations, Track and Field athletes are increasingly drawn in to the conversation(s).

However, one group of athletes has been noticeably overlooked – the self-declared ‘clean athletes’ who have been personally impacted by others’ doping behaviours. To date, the voices of said athletes have been largely unheard. Meanwhile, their experiences and perspectives have the potential to shed important (and novel) light on the supposedly far-reaching and endemic nature of doping in Track and Field.

By collecting the stories of elite Track and Field athletes who have been personally affected by others’ use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), we were able to create two stories depicting their unique lived experiences.  One story is based on the transcripts of two retired athletes and the other is grounded in the experience of two competitive athletes. Participants were influential in shaping the stories presented and provided invaluable feedback during the preparation process.

The stories themselves offer unique insights in to the widespread (and currently undocumented) impact of doping in sport. In particular, they detail financial, emotional, and relational implications stemming from others’ use of PEDs. Critically, the impact is not ephemeral; the retired athletes detailed the long-term implications of their experiences. Meanwhile, the competitive athletes suggest that given the current state of sport, they regularly have to defend their status as ‘clean athletes’. Thus, the ripples of doping in sport appear to be far reaching and enduring.

The published paper is available to you for free until March 30, 2016.

I invite you to read the paper, and then give yourself time to reflect on it. The following is the reaction the stories triggered in me.

What kind of reaction do the stories trigger for you?

“When an athlete breaks the rules by using PEDs, fellow athletes regularly miss out on prize and endorsement money, as well as losing opportunities for public recognition and glory”.

Noticeably, the quote above is a sentence that I originally wrote into the rationale for this research.

At the time, these seemed like really negative implications of PED use for fellow athletes. However, during the first interview I quickly realised how naïve I was. I walked away from that experience with so many more concerns and questions. Certainly the tangible losses (money, medals, glory, etc.) associated with being impacted by PED use must be devastating, but what does that actually feel like? How long do the emotions last? What are the long-term implications of the losses? Do you ever get over it? After just one interview I was acutely aware of how simplistic my understanding was regarding the potential implications of PED use in sport. The emotional and long-term implications of being affected by PEDs are so much greater than I had ever considered.

Now months after conducting the interviews that shaped these stories, I still find myself reflecting on things my participants said. I regularly make random comments to the people in my office, my friends, family; anyone who will listen really. The implications of doping for fellow athletes are severe. The not knowing, always wondering; the ‘what ifs?’ and ‘if only’. For the active athletes, they still have a chance to change things; their careers are not over. Conversely, for the retired athletes there is nothing left for them to do but try and accept what has happened and be proud of what they managed to accomplish despite the circumstances. That is tough. I cannot imagine looking back on my career and wondering what could have and might have happened ‘if only’.

The worst part is, the ‘if only’ was (and is) out of their control. There is likely nothing they could have or would have done differently; rather, it’s something that the PED using athlete would/could have done different. What would have happened then? How different might their situation be now? Chances are, they’ll never know. I can’t imagine what that feels like.

However, I’m grateful that I’ve had a chance to offer these athletes (hopefully!) an opportunity to try and convey just that; what it feels like.  Also, I feel compelled to continue providing this opportunity.

Thank you to the International Athletics Foundation for helping fund the research.  Thank you as well to my participants for trusting me with your stories. It is an honour.

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".

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