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Research examines rugby union doping sanctions


Increasing the reach of anti-doping education and a better understanding of the conditions that encourage doping are vital in reducing the number of anti-doping rule violations committed according to experts at Leeds Beckett University.

Researchers have examined the decisions published by UK Anti-Doping for doping sanctions in rugby union in the United Kingdom since the introduction of the 2009 World Anti-Doping Code.

Dr Lisa Whitaker and Professor Sue Backhouse, from the School of Sport at Leeds Beckett, analysed 49 rugby union players and one coach, sanctioned between 2009 and 2015. Their results challenge the common view that ‘doped’ athletes are all the same and demonstrate that a deeper understanding of the social and cultural conditions that encourage doping remains a priority.

The research, published in the latest issue of the Journal of Sports Sciences, found that over 50% of the cases involved players under the age of 25, competing at sub-elite levels. Reasons given in defence of the anti-doping rule violations (ADRVs) focused on functional use and lifestyle factors rather than performance enhancement.  Players didn’t generally evaluate the risks and consequences of using a substance, strengthening the calls for increasing the reach of anti-doping education.

Speaking about the findings, Dr Whitaker, said: “We decided to focus on rugby union given the exponential increase in rugby union players serving a ban for committing anti-doping rule violations. The violations that we have analysed mainly occur in the amateur level of the sport, where external rewards are limited, as are previously identified drivers for doping, such as sponsorship, financial rewards and contract renewal.

“Although current anti-doping regulations do not take into account knowledge and intention when determining that an ADRV has occurred, it is important that wellbeing is at the forefront of prevention. Ensuring that athletes and coaches are fully aware of the anti-doping regulations not only equips individuals with the ability to conform, it will also prevent defence cases being constructed around ‘innocence’.

“This research shows that a deeper understanding of the social and cultural conditions surrounding doping behaviour is necessary for the development of tailored interventions designed to address the rising tide of ADRV’s in the sport of rugby union.”

Thirty-four of the 49 players analysed were sanctioned for the presence of a prohibited substance, while 10 were sanctioned for use or attempted use of a prohibited substance. Of those that were sanctioned for use or attempted use, three were brought to hearing after ordering human growth hormone or steroids online, five were found with needles and/or a prohibited substance in their possession and two were uncovered by club coaches. Three were sanctioned for possession and trafficking, whilst three players were sanctioned for refusing and failing to comply with testing procedures.

Twenty-seven of the players sanctioned for the presence of or attempted use of a prohibited substance had used anabolic agents, 15 had used stimulants, whilst six had used metabolic modulators. Typically, these individuals received standard bans (two years under the 2009 WADA Code and four years under the 2015 WADA Code). However, 11 players received reduced bans; six for the presence of a specified substance, three following immediate admissions, one for unintentional use due to learning difficulties and one for exceptional mitigating circumstances. Two of the players received lengthier bans of eight years for trafficking and possession of anabolic agents.

The sanctioned players gave a range of explanations for how and why the anti-doping rule violations had occurred, ranging from enhancing recovery from injury, coping with work and sports demands, to aiding weight management, personal reasons and the naïve use of nutritional supplements.

Eight of the cases involved players who suggest that they had used a substance to help them recover from an injury, with six of those players aware that the substance they were using was prohibited.  Three of the cases involved players who were juggling the demands of their job with competitive rugby and used supplements to reduce fatigue and enhance recovery from training. These three players were not aware that the nutritional supplement they were taking contained a prohibited substance and had received little, if any, anti-doping education.

Eight of the players sanctioned suggested that their use of a substance was for weight management purposes, with three players looking to aid weight loss/burn fat and four players looking to increase in size. Three of the cases relating to increasing in size involved adolescent players who stated that they felt under pressure to bulk up for rugby, whilst three of the cases relating to weight reduction were for vanity reasons. Six of these players admitted that they knew the substance they were using for weight management was prohibited for rugby.

Nine of the cases involved the use of a substance for personal reasons that were not directly associated with playing rugby union. Two players reported taking substances to deal with sexual dysfunction, while five of the players had used cocaine, with four reporting use on a night out when they were not due to be playing rugby.

Six of the cases involved players who had been seemingly naïve and careless when using nutritional supplements. A professional player stated he mistakenly drank from a bottle he believed to contain only water but in fact contained Anabolic Nitro. The other five cases involved players who consciously chose to ingest the supplement that led to their anti-doping rule violation.

Sue Backhouse, Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Nutrition at Leeds Beckett, added: “There is still a tendency to label athletes who commit an anti-doping rule violation as ‘dopers’ regardless of the context and circumstances around their use of a banned substance. For example, an athlete who unintentionally and unknowingly consumes a banned substance by ingesting a nutritional supplement is often labelled a ‘doper’ in the same way as an athlete who has deliberately used an anabolic steroid to gain an unfair advantage over others.

“Yet while both cases violate the anti-doping rules, the former would not constitute ‘cheating’ as the athlete in question was not intentionally seeking to gain an unfair advantage over others. Other athletes may be using chemical assistance to recover from injury, cope with stress and return to play, for recreational use, or mistakenly ingesting a prohibited substance via medication or nutritional supplements.

“We need to continue to deepen our understanding of how and why individuals fail to comply with anti-doping policy and focus future research into investigating all the behaviours that constitute doping.  More focus needs to be put on creating supportive environments that foster positive behaviours to help athletes deal with periods of instability. This may include providing players with functional alternatives such as individualised nutrition plans based on a food first approach and strength training programmes, which may prevent young players from habitually using chemical assistance in order to achieve a ‘quick fix’.”

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