Understanding why elite sportspeople turn to doping

2016 has been labelled as the ‘Summer of Sport’. With Wimbledon now in full flow, this year will be the first championships since 2002 that will fail to see Maria Sharapova participate. This, of course, is due to her serving a two-year ban from competitive tennis for the unsanctioned use of a prohibited substance (Meldonium) at this year’s Australian Open.

As the Sharapova-free Championships approach their mid-point, the grand départ of the Tour de France will commence from Mont Saint-Michel on 2 July. A sport often associated with doping, cycling has again been in the headlines due to an appeal-court ruling in Madrid.

This ruling dictated that 211 blood bags found in the freezer of Eufemiano Fuentes – a Spanish medic labelled 'Doctor Blood' – should be made available to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for further testing. To date the investigation that seized these blood bags, ‘Operation Puerto’, has only sanctioned cyclists.

However, this latest ruling may have repercussions beyond cycling as Dr Fuentes has openly stated that he 'treated' athletes from many sports including athletics, football and tennis with doping products.

We are also on the countdown to the biggest sporting event of 2016, the Rio Olympics. While Wimbledon may be missing one Russian athlete, the Rio Olympics will see the omission of almost the entire Russian athletics team, who have been suspended by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) for failing to meet readmission criteria imposed following evidence of widespread, state-sponsored doping that emerged in November 2015.

But why do so many elite sportspeople turn to doping?

The frequency of doping scandals in sport shows that testing appears to be an insufficient deterrent against doping for many athletes, and there may be a case to be had that they dope simply ‘because they can get away with it’.

However, alongside improving the effectiveness of testing, there is an urgent need for research that aids our understanding of the ‘why’ – the psychological and social factors that lead to doping in sport.

A WADA-funded project that I am leading on is testing a model of doping behaviour that identifies empathy, self-regulatory efficacy and doping moral disengagement as key determinants of doping in sport.

Empathy represents the ability to understand and experience other peoples’ emotional experiences, and increased empathy may inhibit doping because it allows athletes to understand and experience the distress doping causes for athletes disadvantaged through doping.

Next, self-regulatory efficacy denotes an athlete’s capacity to withstand personal and social pressures to dope. Thus, athletes with higher levels of self-regulatory efficacy should be better able to resist external (teammates, coaches) and internal ('win at all costs' mentality) influences that promote doping.

Finally, moral disengagement is a collective term for six psychological and social mechanisms that allow athletes to justify and rationalise doping in sport. Use of these mechanisms is thought to reduce or eliminate anticipation of unpleasant emotions, such as guilt, that should normally deter doping.

Findings to date from this research support the potential importance of all three of these possible determinants of doping, and should inform future interventions aiming to reduce doping in sport. Getting to the root of the cause, rather than simply improving our ability to track those who cheat the system, should be foremost in efforts to clean up elite sport.

Another ongoing project, funded by the International Olympic Committee, is looking at factors that influence both intentional (deliberate) and inadvertent (accidental) doping.

Although the majority of research to date has focused on factors influencing intentional doping, many athletes incur doping sanctions through ingestion of nutritional supplements contaminated with doping substances, or by not knowing which substances are banned.

The most famous example of inadvertent doping to date is the case of Maria Sharapova, who continued to take Meldonium, a prescription drug, even after it had been added to the banned substances list.

One of the main aims of the research is to investigate whether coaches’ preparedness to confront doping issues with their athletes influences athletes’ susceptibility to these two forms of doping. Interviews with athletes and coaches from athletics and rugby – including those operating at Olympic and international level – support the importance of the coach in preventing doping in sport.

This all points to how we avoid future ‘Summer of Sports’ being tainted by doping scandals. Getting to the root of the problem, understanding the reasons behind doping, and educating the sporting community on how to prevent doping, will prove to be considerably more fruitful than relying on problematic testing.

Dr Ian Boardley

Lecturer in Sport Psychology and Education, School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Birmingham