How can we use moral arguments to discourage doping in athletes?

Sports psychologists are researching the effectiveness of moral interventions in reducing doping likeliness.

Goldie Sayers won bronze for javelin at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, yet she never climbed the podium in China’s famous Bird’s Nest Stadium. She only received her medal in 2019. A retest of drug samples led to the disqualification of a rival competitor, and Sayers’ position was retrospectively improved from fourth to third.

“Receiving my medal the way I did was, of course, not how I dreamed it would be. But it is important that athletes receive justice, no matter how long that takes,” Sayers said when her achievement was finally recognized.

Goldie Sayers at 2008 Beijing OlympicsGoldie Sayers competing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Image credit: Alamy.

But many athletes never receive justice at all. After a lifetime of preparation, they may miss out on glory to an athlete who has cheated but is never caught.

A group of academics at the University of Birmingham is trying to turn such stories into a force for good. Working with athletes in both the UK and Greece, Dr Maria Kavussanu has pioneered the use of moral arguments to discourage doping—asking athletes to come up with reasons to support the case that honesty and fair play are important in sport and to imagine how they would feel if they missed out on a medal, trophy, or record, because of a rival’s cheating. Highlighting such real stories also draws attention to the consequences of doping for others.

A study her team published last year showed such arguments can work. Athletes who went through seminars that focused on moral arguments against doping reported that they were less likely to cheat than before. This was the case not only immediately after they completed a course, but six months later.

A carrot to complement the stick

Although the number of athletes who test positive for banned substances is relatively low, various studies have indicated that doping may be more widespread in elite sport, possibly touching half of all competitors. Yet the mechanisms used to discourage it have changed little over time.

Global standard-setting organizations have become more attentive to drug cheating in recent years, after being rocked by scandals, including allegations of state-sponsored doping in Russia. But their programs continue to emphasize two very traditional messages to athletes.

Anti-doping control kitsAnti-doping control kits. Image credit: Alamy.

First there is the potential to be caught, banned, and lose access to activities that athletes love and through which they earn a living. Second is the potential damage to an athlete’s health from performance enhancing drugs. The fact that doping has continued suggests that both messages have had a limited impact.

Dr Kavussanu was motivated to study the current anti-doping tactics by the stories of competitors like Sayers: “I came across quite a few athletes who were talking about how they felt cheated when they worked very hard to achieve a medal in the Olympics but didn't make it. And then they found out later that [the athlete] who won the medal was doping.”

But she wanted to try something different from the conventional methods.

Dr Kavussanu’s background is in sports psychology, and in the past she studied traits that lead elite athletes towards aggression and cheating. As her research developed she realized that some of the same factors that predict those behaviours are also linked to a willingness to dope. And so she began to study if techniques used to discourage aggression or conventional cheating could also discourage athletes from taking performance-enhancing drugs.

Essentially what she has pioneered is the use of a carrot to discourage doping—making athletes accountable to themselves and teaching them to embrace the values of honesty and fair play. And she has shown that this carrot can complement the existing sticks—the threat to an athlete of being caught or falling ill.

The team, not just the athlete

Dr Kavussanu’s study took the form of two six-week seminars provided to athletes in the UK and Greece to discourage doping. Control groups in both countries were given a traditional curriculum emphasizing health risks from using supplements and the benefits of healthy nutrition, while the experimental groups were asked to consider the moral implications of doping and the value of wining "the right way" rather than "at any cost," which characterizes athletes who dope.

Before attending the seminars, both groups were asked to state whether they would consider doping in a variety of hypothetical scenarios. That provided a baseline level of susceptibility, against which the impact of the seminars could be measured. The use of groups in two countries was designed to filter out cultural factors.

Cycling competitionUse of performance-enhancing drugs in cycling has been evidenced for over a century. Image credit: Rob Wingate.

In earlier research Dr Kavussanu had uncovered three moral factors that were predictors of a likelihood to dope. First was the individual’s own moral identity—the stronger an athlete’s sense of moral responsibility, the less likely she or he is to dope. The second was how able the athlete is to morally disengage and ignore the moral implications of the act of doping. Finally the study focused on the culture of the team, squad, or group to which an athlete belongs. In a culture that emphasizes winning at all costs, an individual is more likely to cheat. They were also taught to identify and challenge the justifications commonly used by dopers such as, "the doctor is telling me to do it" and "everybody does it."

This study helped inform the curriculum for the morality based seminars. As well as highlighting each athlete’s personal responsibility to fairness in sport, the sessions also sought to prevent moral disengagement. Stories such as Sayers’ missed bronze were crucial here. Participants were shown video stories of athletes who had received their medal retrospectively to make them understand the consequences of doping for others. The athletes were asked to imagine how they would feel about missing out on a life goal to a cheat.

The results were positive. The control group, offered a traditional curriculum that emphasized the negative health impact of performance enhancing drugs and sports supplements, showed a decline in propensity to dope. But this was matched by the group offered the morality based curriculum.

In both Greece and the UK, there was a decline in professed willingness to dope both immediately after the conclusion of the morality based seminars and again six months later. And, Dr Kavussanu notes, those results were achieved without engaging coaches, who have the most power to change the team culture, which can be a major facilitator of performance‑enhancing drug consumption.

The research showed, according to Dr Kavussanu, that doping “is essentially a moral issue even though many people don't see it that way.”

From research to practice

Rules now make it a requirement for athletes to attend anti-doping education classes before participating in many high-level sports events, providing an obvious avenue to implement the techniques of moral persuasion that Dr Kavussanu has pioneered.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), a funder of her study, has shared the results with national athletic associations that are responsible for delivering such classes. A stumbling block, however, has been a lack of funding from governments for associations to invest in new teaching methods.

Like any modern academic, Dr Kavussanu has also used her own hustle to promote her findings. Through her personal network of sports science contacts, she managed to present her work to some national anti-doping organizations. She has gained some traction, but associations in general have been “a little slow to change,” she says.

She found that many national anti-doping organizations use mandatory anti-doping classes to warn their athletes off over-the-counter medicines and supplements that contain substances banned for elite competitors, thus aiming to prevent un-intentional doping. Associations are naturally keen to avoid losing athletes for global competitions through such mix-ups.

University of Birmingham hockey matchUniversity of Birmingham hockey pitches, an official venue of Birmingham 2022.

The Tokyo Olympics and Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, for which the University of Birmingham is an official venue and partner, are on the horizon and athletics can ill afford another drugs scandal. Yet most nationally delivered anti-doping education still does not ‘necessarily pay much attention to the moral aspects of doping,’ Dr Kavussanu summarizes. At least with her latest research there is now a solid argument for changing that.


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