The New Scientist this week (30 July 2008) contains an article with the sub-title, ‘Finding out why some competitors take drugs while others stay clean may be the key to deterring doping’.
As the figures suggest that testing does not deter athletes from cheating, Andrea Petroczi’s (Kingston University) recommendation is that the way to stop doping is to focus upon the psychological reasons why athletes take illegal supplements. This, she argues, is due to an athlete’s belief that s/he is unable to compete without taking these supplements: it is not the fact that athletes are attracted to such supplements because they are illegal, nor do they generally consider consequences on their health, but rather because of their drive to win and their belief that such supplements will aid them in this quest. Petroczi suggests that coaches should therefore work on psychological techniques to change this attitude from one which promotes winning at any cost, to one that encourages a 'mastery' of their chosen sport.
When the lure of big-time success in sport is driven by a competitive attitude towards others, it isn’t surprising that some athletes will do whatever they believe it takes (from training on Christmas Day to taking the latest flashy-marketed nutritional supplement to illegal methods). Those in favour of this psychological intervention, such as Smoll and Smith, from the University of Washington, maintain that performance would not necessarily be adversely affected with a change in attitude, although they do concede that it is difficult to gather the evidence to support this due to the reluctance of elite level coaches to change their methods. Yet even if were able to justify such psychological intervention from an ethical standpoint, I doubt that it would not have an effect on elite-level sport; arguably sport as we know it today is only that because of the mindset athletes’ have. If we take away that attitude then we may well be changing the nature of sport.
The New Scientist article touches upon many of the perennial questions surrounding the issue of doping in sport (which I haven’t covered in this contribution), but it also raises a new one, in what effect would a change in athletes’ attitude have on the nature of elite sport? I'm not suggesting that even if it were possible to change the attitude of every athlete in the world that it would have an adverse effect on top-level sport, but merely disagreeing with the presumption that performances, and therefore elite sport, wouldn’t be affected.
If Petroczi and others are correct in their view that doping can only be eradicated through a change of attitude, then we might need to accept that elite level sport would no longer be as we currently know it. It is either that, or change our attitude towards doping, which might be easier… but then that’s another debate to be had.