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From Ben Johnson to Lance Armstrong, with countless others in-between, there has been no shortage of high-profile doping scandals to shake the sporting world in recent decades.

But while sport’s governing bodies have made significant strides in combating the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) at the top level, more needs to be done to tackle the problem further down the ladder – including among our budding stars of the future.

A new study published by the University of Birmingham makes for worrying reading, highlighting the environmental factors that could facilitate widespread use of steroids and other PEDs in sport. Particularly concerning is the growing trend for young athletes, still in their teens, to start doping in order to give themselves a chance of making it at the highest level. Getting this under control requires intervention from the governing bodies of all sports – it is not enough for them simply to focus their efforts on a core group of established elite athletes.

Birmingham researchers interviewed athletes from a range of team and individual sports, who either use PEDs or have done so in the past, to gather insight into the psychological and social mechanisms through which they rationalise their actions. Use of these mechanisms – referred to collectively as moral disengagement – has been established across a range of sporting and non-sporting contexts as being a foundation of transgressive behaviour. This includes downplaying the harmful consequences of PED use or shifting the responsibility on to others, such as teammates and coaches.

There is quite clearly a sliding scale of nutritional and pharmacological supplementation at play here. Interviewees in the study talked about how they, and fellow users, would start out by using legal supplements such as protein shakes to help with training. However, over time the effectiveness of such products is perceived to fade as athletes reach an apparent plateau in their development.

It is at this point that some athletes start to seek further forms of supplementation to help their continued development, including prohibited substances such as PEDs. Quite often, athletes will initially use PEDs in the form of pills, before looking for further performance enhancement through injectable PEDs. The fear of not developing is what drives them to take it to the next level.

Also prevalent across all sports is the reliance on fellow users and suppliers as primary sources of information on PEDs, with friends and family being kept in the dark – further evidence of a closed world that makes changing the mentality of individuals increasingly difficult without holistic changes in culture.

Eradicating usage at the elite level fails to address these deeply concerning trends and does little to help the emerging generation of teenage athletes that is becoming comfortable with the use of PEDs as a means of improving training performance.

Ruling bodies must devise strategies to undermine the environmental factors and develop educational programmes aimed at preventing a doping epidemic among young sportspeople. This much-needed change in culture can only be achieved through targeted education of individual athletes, coaches and physiotherapists.

The 2015 World Anti-Doping Agency code rightly emphasises the important role played by those in athletes’ support networks in facilitating PED use, but even family members need to be educated so that they can recognise key periods for intervention – such as training plateaus – when appropriate advice and support may prevent their children seeking out prohibited means of performance enhancement.

Dr Ian Boardley
Lecturer in Sport Psychology and Education, University of Birmingham