We’ve reached the end of another successful European Athletics Championships, this year held in a warm and rainy Zurich, Switzerland. Many athletes have competed for Great Britain across a range of events from the 100m to the high jump, with the excitement of the Commonwealth Games still lingering in the air aiding the motivation and determination of many athletes.

Alongside the vast buzz and conversation regarding the sport of athletics currently, there is also an increased awareness of the controversial topic of drug use. Most recently, the former 400m world champion Amantle Montsho has been provisionally suspended due to failing the A and B sample in a doping test after finishing 4th in the Commonwealth Games 400m final this year. In addition, the Welsh 400m hurdler Rhys Williams and Welsh 800m runner Gareth Warburton have both failed doping tests prior to the Commonwealth Games this year.

Unfortunately this is just a very small amount of athletes who have failed doping tests in the last few years. You only have to go on the internet and you can bring up an alphabetical list of all the athletes who have tested positive and been banned for drug use, a list of which is huge and includes coaches too (see website below).

Of course, not all positive drug tests mean that the athlete has purposely taken drugs to enhance their performance. There are times when an athlete may need to take medication that inhabits a substance on the World Anti-Doping Agency prohibited list. Or due to the intense training programs and lowered immunity that leads to the common cold, with the complicated banned substance list it’s not surprising if you don’t realise that the tiny amount of Phenylephrine in decongestants such as Lemsip is actually banned. If you’re a normal human being though it’s hardly likely that whilst you’re suffering from a cold and knocking back Lemsips you’ll also be breaking world records.

However, the use of performance enhancing drugs to specifically improve physical sporting performance is as old as the history of sport itself and is consistently a feature of human competition (Ehrnborg & Rosén, 2009). Whilst it is easy for individual’s to slate athletes who have purposely taken drugs to improve their performance, it is important to acknowledge any reasons as to why many athletes may partake in this type of behaviour.

Athletes encounter pressure from numerous sources to perform their best in competition and encounter pride and honour associated with successful results. This can tempt the athlete to short-sighted solutions, such as doping, to achieve the expectations of coaches, parents and themselves (Ehrnborg & Rosén, 2009).

Many athletes may find themselves in an environment where there is pressure to distinguish oneself as elite athletes compared to other groups of athletes. In addition, economically motivated reasons including the enormous amounts of money and other benefits involved in elite sport today, may act as a driving force pushing athletes to use drugs in order to have ‘the edge’ over their competitors (Berentsen, 2002; Haugen, 2004).

A relatable theory regarding the driving forces surrounding doping in sport has been described as “the doping dilemma”, stemming from the classical prisoners’ dilemma (Haugen, 2004). Briefly, the prisoners’ dilemma involves the action of one individual having a consequence for another individual. A common, successful goal for both individuals is hard to reach as both individuals do not have the information or trust in each other about their actions. In the context of sport and doping, the dilemma gives reason for using drugs due to the suspicion or conviction that everyone else is doing it and therefore one must use drugs in order to compete under the same conditions, thus creating a level playing field.

Elite athletes tend to have an extreme win-orientation where an individual’s attitude may be to ‘win at all costs’ (Ehrnborg & Rosén, 2009). Many athletes will have heard at some point or another during their sporting participation the common phrases “Winning is everything”, “This is what sport is about” and “There are no prizes for second place”. This adds to the external achievement pressures streaming from coaches, parents and friends. This can indicate to an athlete that losing is a failure or a personal shame, giving explanation as to why athletes may be pushed towards extreme behaviours such as that of doping.

Interestingly, a survey including US Olympians or aspiring Olympians who were asked if they would use a banned performance enhancing drug were given two scenarios:

  • You will not be caught and you will win.

98% of the athletes said they would use the banned performance enhancing drug in this case.

  • You will win every competition you enter for the next five years but will then die from the side effects.

50% of athletes said they would use the banned performance enhancing drug in this case (Bamberger, 1997).

The results show just how strong the ‘win at all’ costs attitude is across sporting individuals, only enhanced by the social pressures encountered by every athlete across every sport and level.

The psychology behind doping in sport is very much related to the associated costs and benefits from taking the drugs to enhance performance. Acute side effects are more effective towards the decision to stop taking doping agents than the threat of long term side effects, and a high risk of getting caught also prohibits the use of drugs in sport (Ehrnborg & Rosén, 2009). Relating back to the prisoners’ dilemma, it is easier to motivate oneself to use doping agents as long as there is a great risk that your opponents are using them.

Unfortunately, the consequences for the athlete, the loss of honour, respect, loyalty, and income  following a positive doping test, is never fully understood and acknowledge by the athlete until they are proven guilty of doping, by which time it is too late.

The doping ban will forever be connected to the athlete. Every time they compete at the international level, maybe even appearing on television with an introduction that includes an insightful fact regarding their previous doping ban, people who follow the sport will know they have cheated in the past. And with the famous saying ‘once a cheat, always a cheat’, the athlete will be tarnished with a doping reputation remembered by their competitors and spectators, giving rise to a loss of trust and respect.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to be able to trust any athlete that runs even close to a world record now, with speculation coming from all angles as to whether they have only been able to achieve that because they’re on drugs. Even whilst reading this I imagine most people can come up with more than a few performances that have lead them and many others to question whether the athlete has taken performance enhancing drugs. You don’t have to be master statistician to see when an athlete performs outside of their normal range of performance or progression, such as an endurance athlete replicating a 1500m time that would only be associated with the best 1500m athletes in history, disbelief of their ‘clean’ performance is often justified.

In addition, the amount of money going into the sporting industry to improve an athlete’s performance, physically and mentally, is enormous compared to the amount of money going into drug testing. And unfortunately, drug testing will always be one step behind drug taking. You can’t detect a new drug if it has never been detected before.

As wrong as it may be, it is important to acknowledge the reasons as to why athletes may choose to take performance enhancing drugs. There are many driving forces behind it (Petroczi & Aidman, 2008), and many people will forget that when they see a new headline addressing the most recent athlete being banned.

Finally, ask yourself this: “If you could take a drug that would ensure you were the best in your sport, the best in the world over the distance you run, enable you to achieve the times you have always dreamt of, but you would never get caught, would you take it?”.

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