Better education may help minimise doping incentives

Photo: shho/Free Images

Photo: shho/Free Images

10.03.2016

By Madita Schröder
A better understanding of athletes’ needs is important in order to address the problem of doping and ensure a more effective anti-doping effort. Researchers point to education as one factor that may reduce the use of performance enhancing drugs.

Why do athletes decide to take performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) with the risk of getting caught? And what can be done to minimise factors that lead to a willingness to dope?

So far, the sports community and society at large have advocated for a tough line built on testing and punishment. For instance, WADA’s independent commission reports ask for harder sanctions for the use of doping and closer observations of athletes. However, implementing these changes could be fighting the symptoms rather than the cause, some researchers say.

PhD student Kelsey Erickson from Leeds Beckett University in the UK believes there is a need for tailor-made, population-specific anti-doping interventions.

“There is a danger in us going purely to a moral focus,” Erickson describes her concern. She points to the need for considering the grey areas in anti-doping rules and to athletes’ moral dilemmas before judging on individual cases.

“We have a tendency as society, not just sports, to label somebody as [a] doper and that lasts forever and no matter what they do they can’t eradicate that.”

Erickson finds that when giving athletes a voice, their explanations for using PEDs open up for a more complex response.

Factors that lead to a willingness to dope
In a study on athletes’ willingness to dope, research official Lisa Whitaker, also from the Leeds Beckett University, interviewed nine athletes about their beliefs and perceptions of willingness to dope. The research included track and field athletes and players on a rugby team.

The study revealed that the feeling of not having any choice but to dope was the main trigger among the athletes. Especially the rugby players were trying to extend their career through doping. A common explanation for their decision to dope was existential fears due to the fact that they have no other qualifications than rugby to fall back on.

The study found that the assumption among athletes that it is very common to dope, as well as injuries that affect the ability to train, race, and remain competitive can also push an athlete to use illegal doping substances. Whitaker's study also revealed that another main factor that increases the willingness to dope is pressure put on athletes from those around them.

Within a scholarship program, Andrew McCracken, a cricket player from New Zealand, got the opportunity to study abroad and do his sport at the same time. In an interview with Play the Game, he describes “a high self-expectancy, the coach and financial insecurity” as main pressure elements to perform well in sports.

“If your whole life depends upon getting to the next tier or level, there is a lot more motivation to take PED’s,” McCracken agrees when confronted with the statement that the likeliness to dope and the amount of pressure are related to one another.

Education could help tackle the doping problem
According to the ‘EU Guidelines on Dual Careers of Athletes from 2012’ dual career programmes help to reduce stress levels, ease the athletic retirement and adaption in life after sports, carry positive socialisation effects and increase general well-being.

One of the main challenges is the “balance between sports training and education and, at a later stage of life, the balance between sports training and employment”, the EU Guidelines say. The prevention of situations where athletes have to decide for one or the other is a fundamental thought of the dual career system.

Several researchers agree that education in the sense of having a job to fall back on is elementary to minimise pressure while competing and to maximise job opportunities after the career has ended. Lisa Whitaker is one of them. She highlights the fact that if athletes saw alternative options they would choose them rather than doping and she suggests that promoting dual careers could be an effective anti-doping approach.

German pro-cyclist and PhD student (WWU Münster), Daniel Westmattelmann, profits from his completed master’s degree: He makes his money by working at the university and identifies this as the main reason for a decreased pressure and thus a decreased willingness to dope.

“Cycling is just my hobby and I am happy to be able to ride on a quite high level. But if I had to stop tomorrow that would be okay as well,” he said at the Play the Game conference in October 2015.

Adding to that, New Zealand cricket player McCracken reveals how education allows him to keep a certain distance to the sport, which is something many athletes fail to do.

“Once you feel you have enough time to focus on sports but also focus on academics that definitely decreases the pressure, because you are not consumed by the sport the whole time,” he says.

Too time-consuming
Correlating to what researchers have found, athletes seem to agree on the general assumption that an education decreases pressure to perform well in sports. Nonetheless, many of them consider a combination of education, leisure activities and a sports career impossible.

This is reflected in the EU’s dual career guidelines. There, it says that “one-third of all participants between the ages of 10 and 17 withdraw from sports each year as they consider that sport takes up too much of their time”.

That, on the other hand, means that a significant number of athletes who do decide for a sporting career may have done so at the expense of a proper education.

An athlete, who wishes to remain anonymous, talks about the training routines of his cycling friends:

“Normal training hours are up to eight hours a day. […] A lot of [the riders] are really unhappy and admire people with ‘normal’ occupations. The thought that they do nothing else but cycling is consuming them. And if they don’t succeed, that is not worth anything to them."

This suggests that especially those athletes are in risk of taking every opportunity (including doping) into account to extend and increase their sporting career as long and as much as possible.

“The coaches get them up cycling in the middle of the night to exercise,” the insider reveals. “And that’s the semi-professional athletes that try to get into the next level."

An athlete who is deprived of good sleep will have trouble attending lectures in the morning. It becomes apparent why many athletes think a choice of either one or the other is unavoidable.

The need for tailor-made interventions
Also the different characteristics of individual sports call for tailor-made, population- (and sport-) specific anti-doping interventions, as suggested by Kelsey Erickson. Many athletes take performance enhancing substances in situations when doping appears as the only way out or to re-establish fairness and balance in sport since they think everyone else is doing it.

These reasons for athletes to take PEDs might be similar to those suggested in the article but the kind of support they need differs very much.Dual careers could help minimise these reasons and provide athletes with security outside the sport.

Promoting dual careers to raise awareness of their existence could be an effective means in the anti-doping effort. But education is only one piece of the puzzle, Westmattelmann emphasises by pointing to the need of a “balanced mix of anti-doping measures”.

Improving diagnostics, the Anti-Doping Law and a biological passport are just some of the measures he presents in his study, ‘Trustworthiness of high-performance sports and the fight against doping from the athlete’s point of view’, presented at Play the Game 2015. Along with a “transparent presentation of [the] anti-doping work,” Westmattelmann sees a “reduce [of] doping prevalence” as possible.

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