Who can forget the scandal surrounding Lance Armstrong, who – exactly one year ago – publicly and tearfully admitted on Oprah Winfrey´s TV show that he had doped at the time of all his Tour de France victories? Surprisingly, Armstrong wasn’t the only famous athlete who confessed to having used performance-enhancing substances during the past year. In 2013, several athletes admitted to or were found guilty of having taken banned substances: the American sprinter Tyson Gay, the Jamaican sprinter Asafa Powell or the German former professional road cycling racer Erik Zabel. When the German Sport University Cologne questioned 1100 German athletes about potential doping behavior, six percent admitted to regularly using performance-enhancing substances.
To the lay person, the doping controversy seems to be fairly new as for its recent prominence in the media. However, as far back as 1995, American researchers questioned 198 U.S. Olympic (or aspiring Olympic) sprinters, power lifters, swimmers and other athletes about the topic of doping. The athletes were given the following scenario: they had to imagine that they were offered a banned performance-enhancing substance with two guarantees: (a) They would not be caught, and (b) they would win. How many of the questioned elite athletes do you think would cheat with the precondition that they would not be caught? I can guarantee you that the percentage is much higher than you think: A staggering 98% of the athletes answered that they would take this banned performance enhancer without hesitation.
Motives for doping behavior
Why do so many athletes willfully engage – or at least consider the option of engaging – in doping behavior despite the substances’ well-known side effects and the possibility of being banned from their sport altogether if caught? Researchers in the field suggest that there are three motive categories for doping behavior:
(1) Athletes dope for physical purposes: they might want to reduce the aches and pains that accompany injury, accelerate their rehabilitation process, lose or gain weight or – and this might be the most common purpose – they want to increase their endurance, speed or strength capacities and consequently perform better in their respective sport.
(2) The second motive category is psychological: elite athletes are often afraid of failure or suffer from a lack of self-confidence, causing them to abuse performance-enhancing substances in order to gain a competitive advantage.
(3) Doping behavior is further thought to be triggered by social motives. Specifically, athletes might want to win high prize money, be offered attractive contracts, receive or maintain lucrative endorsement deals or benefit from other financial gains caused by their world-class performance. Looking up to wrong role models, who are potentially also taking banned substances, is further thought to increase the probability of own doping behavior. Last but not least, perceiving strong social pressure to succeed – potentially caused by the coach, team mates or the high expectations of fans – is another reason for elite athletes engaging in doping behavior.
How to fight doping behavior
As for these manifold motives in the doping process, one cannot view doping as being exclusively based on societal pressures, politics in sports or the psychological traits of a single athlete, as some media coverage leads us to think. On the contrary, doping behavior is thought to be caused by a variety of reasons and interdependent processes, making it difficult to deduce one specific prevention strategy. Therefore, doping researchers have proposed tackling all three motives of doping behavior in the prevention process:
(1) With regard to the physical motives, it is essential to educate athletes about the effects of banned substances. Here, it is important that athletes receive informative and accurate information, considering both the negative and positive short- and long-term effects of various substances.
(2) Concerning the psychological aspect of doping, it is important to strengthen athletes’ competencies, perceived personal responsibility and understanding of morality. Young athletes in particular should be exposed to the notion that doping is cheating and unfair competition, therefore appealing to and strengthening their morality. Furthermore, athletes need to be taught coping skills early on in order to deal with competitive anxiety and stress in an effective and, most importantly, legal way.
(3) Regarding the social aspects of doping, coaches and team mates should provide athletes with a supportive environment and reduce the pressure to ‘win at all costs’.
I want to conclude this article with a quote by Sophocles who stated that “I would prefer even to fail with honor than to win by cheating.” Let´s hope that this quote will serve as a motto for many athletes now and in the future.
Anshel, M. H. (1991). A survey of elite athletes on the perceived causes of using banned drugs in sport. Journal of Sports Behaviour, 14, 283-307.
Kleinert, J. & Jüngling, S. (2009). Psychologische Gesichtspunkte des Dopingverhaltens. In: R. Nickel & T. Rous (Ed). Das Anti-Doping-Handbuch. Grundlagen (pp. 228-242). Aachen: Meyer & Meyer.
Weinberg, R. S. & Gould, D. (2007). Addictive and Unhealthy Behaviors. In R. S. Weinberg & D. Gould (Ed.), Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (4th ed., pp. 205-225). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.