‘Drugs in sport – the carrot not the stick’

  Sporting Compass: With Dr Pippa Grange and Paul Oliver

Dr Pippa GrangePaul Oliver

As a sports psychologist and founder of Bluestone Edge, I am fortunate to have many conversations with people about the substance and meaning of sport.
My colleague Paul Oliver also engages with people at all levels across the sporting sector to keep his finger on the pulse of the latest news, views and issues.

In this space each fortnight, we will share some of these stories, insights and possibilities in relation to people, culture, ethics and leadership in sport. I hope you enjoy the conversation and we look forward to hearing your thoughts.

All the best, Pippa and Paul


‘Drugs in sport – the carrot not the stick’

28 November 2013
Category:   ETHICS AND INTEGRITY – what should we do?

Drugs in sport are back in the news of late. In fact, since Lance Armstrong came clean it seems the issue has never been out of the spotlight.

Armstrong admitted in January to years of using performance-enhancing drugs to help him in cycling. He claimed he competed on a level playing field because many of his rivals doped and feels he was unfairly targeted for punishment. “I’m the one who is serving life and others who made the same choices get a complete pass,” he said earlier this month 1. Some are worried that controversies such as the Armstrong doping admission could dangerously affect the minds and attitudes of our young sports stars. Associate Professor Stephen Moston, from the University of Canberra, did a study with children on attitudes to drugs in sport and found that they may be beginning to see them as normal. “They could start to say `if they are using it, why don’t I?’” he said. 2

Earlier this year we found out that doping and the use of illicit drugs is not only an issue for professional athletes, but was also prevalent at the grassroots level. The Australian Crime Commission report (2013) revealed how ‘in addition to elite athletes using peptides and hormones, these substances are also being used by sub-elite athletes competing at various levels of competition, for example at the state and club level’ 3. The Daily Telegraph’s Anthony Sharwood went so far as to say at the launch of the ACC report: “Today, Australian sport is Lance Armstrong. Our sportsmen are both individuals cheating to get ahead, and orchestrators of the scam in collusion with shadowy suppliers and doctors”. 4

The report’s findings are alarming on many levels: not only because of the health implications for athletes, but the use of Performance and Image Enhancing Drugs (PIEDs) serves to undermine the principles of fair play, and weakens the community’s enduring faith and belief in sport. But like many aspects of sport, seemingly black and white decisions around performance, values, ethics and decision-making merge into a foggy ‘grey area’ that is not so clear and often polarizes opinion.

Take tennis player Marin Cilic of Croatia, who is serving a four-month ban for ingesting a prohibited substance contained in supplements bought by his mother from a chemist in Monte Carlo. Or leading New Zealand women’s sevens rugby player Lavinia Gould who has been suspended for two years after testing positive to a banned stimulant which she explained was in a contaminated dietary supplement that didn’t list this stimulant as an ingredient. Should we ban athletes who have ‘inadvertently’ taken prohibited substances?

Or what about Australian javelin thrower Jarrod Bannister, who was banned earlier this year for 20 months after missing three drug tests, claiming there was a mix up over the whereabouts of the test. This is despite the Court of Arbitration for Sport recognising that there was no deliberate action by him to avoid being tested. Does missing a drugs test amount to cheating? Should we rub people out of their sport for several years for missing drug tests due to ‘extenuating circumstances’?

Tougher sanctions, more vigorous testing and a drive to catch the cheats and those who aid them, including coaches, trainers and sports scientists, was strongly supported by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), sports federations and national doping organisations at the World Conference on Doping in Sport in South Africa earlier this month. It is obvious that there is a clear focus on punitive tools of investigation, detection and punishment at present, but what about a focus on enablement and prevention?

While few would agree that Armstrong is a victim, perhaps anti doping rules approaches need to look more at empowering athletes not entrapping them.

For instance, in the Bannister case, Athletics Australia chief executive Dallas O’Brien said the ban was disappointing, but acknowledged that his organisation needed to look at how it could help athletes further. ”It is the individual athlete’s responsibility to notify the World Anti-Doping Agency of all international travel arrangements and precise accommodation arrangements. We acknowledge this can be challenging once the athlete is already overseas and perhaps we need to look at how we can do a little more to assist the athletes in those circumstances,” he said. This type of attitude is encouraging as it puts an emphasis on deterrent, prevention and harm minimization. If somebody cheats using drugs, then I am in no doubt that they should be held accountable to the rules, but an effective approach needs more than rules and the power to enforce them.

Sports journalist Tracey Holmes believes that we are pushing young athletes into a corner. “We idolize them and demonise them in equal measure. When they fail to live up to expectations that most of us would never subscribe to, we vilify them,” she says. 5

I’m with Tracey – we can’t just keep waving the stick and blaming the athletes alone; the culture we create in sport has something to answer for too. The pressure is mounting on talented kids at younger ages these days – from their parents, coaches and friends to be the best or to make the next level. They need to excel very early in their ‘careers’ if they want a future in sport, which leaves me asking whether this thirst to excel is heightening a ‘win at all costs’ culture and a seriously unhealthy fear of failure or missing out in young athletes? The prevailing attitude ‘if you don’t take it, you won’t make it’ arguably makes drug and supplement use the rational thing to do for many at the sub-elite level.

When you also consider that elite athletes exist in a world where ‘medication’ is normalized or rationalized in various ways; for example jabs to fast-track injuries to get right for the event, to manage chronic and acute pain, using surgery to ‘clean things up’ as a matter of course, getting to sleep when a game finishes late or you are travelling, using caffeine to energize and sharpen up pre-performance; it’s perhaps not the enormous mental leap it might seem to reach for the next ‘little bit of help’. Elite athletes get used to treating their bodies in all sorts of ways that would more than raise eyebrows for other people. Regardless, there are no excuses for cheating, however the solution should be multi- faceted.

To tackle drugs in sport effectively we must first understand the values, beliefs, and motivations of those who take them. We need to have a conversation with sportspeople about the ‘why’ – because this offers the strongest anchor on attitudes, and subsequently, behavioural choices. The objective should be to influence people to make good choices based on consequences, health, and not least, what it is that they want sport to mean to them and to others, including a broadened definition of winning.

Dr Pippa Grange



1 Lance Armstrong questions fairness of cycling life ban for doping, 8 November 2013.

2 Drugs in Sport: Study suggests children beginning to see them as normal, 6 October 2013,

3 Australian Crime Commission, Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport report, 2013.

4 Anthony Sharwood. We are all Lance Armstrong today, 7 February 2013.

5 Tracey Holmes, Outrage on steroids: our obsession with drugs in sport, in The Drum Media, 8 February 2013,




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Categorized: ETHICS AND INTEGRITY – what should we do?