Lessons in morality help steer athletes away from doping, finds study

Scientists in Britain on Thursday unveiled a new approach to reduce doping in sport.

Academics at the University of Birmingham found in a new study that elite athletes can be persuaded not to take banned substances, either by appealing to their sense of morality or educating them about the risks of using performance-enhancing drugs, reports Xinhua news agency.

Researchers developed two separate intervention programs, one targeting moral factors associated with doping likelihood, the other introducing doping and providing information about the health consequences of banned substances and the risks of sport supplements.

They tested both programs on young elite athletes from Britain and Greece, and found both approaches were equally effective at deterring the sportspersons from taking banned substances over a six-month period.

Led by sports science experts at the University of Birmingham and funded by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the international research group’s findings were published Thursday in Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology.

“We must take action to reduce doping in sport – evidence suggests that banned substances are being used at alarming levels, particularly among elite athletes, where over 50 per cent of competitors may be using these drugs based on some estimates,” said Dr Maria Kavussanu, from the university’s School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences.

“Our research group is the first to develop and evaluate an intervention focussing on moral variables and compare it with an educational intervention of equal duration. Both programs were effective in reducing doping likelihood in two countries — effects which were sustained six months after the interventions finished.”

The university explained that moral intervention targeted three variables known to be associated with doping likelihood: moral identity — focusing on honesty and fairness; moral disengagement — how individuals absolve themselves of responsibility; and moral atmosphere — whether doping was likely to be condoned or condemned by teammates.

Researchers formulated the educational intervention to introduce the doping control process and discuss healthy nutrition, whilst providing information about the consequences of taking banned substances and sport supplements. Whistle-blowing was also covered.

“Our findings suggest that alongside their typical content such as providing information about the harms of banned substances, anti-doping education programs should consider targeting moral variables,” Kavussanu added.

“That the two interventions produced sustained changes across the UK and Greece suggests that they contained highly effective elements that cut across cultures and are relevant to athletes from different countries.”

The ‘moral’ program saw young athletes comparing different approaches to success – winning at-all-costs versus being the best-you-can-be. They learned about the importance of honesty and fair play in sport and how doping undermines this.

Participants reflected on justifications athletes use for doping and the consequences of doping for others, stories of athletes awarded medals retrospectively such as Kelly Sotherton, Adam Nelson and Valerie Adams.

The ‘educational’ program introduced participants to WADA and its role in regulating doping in sport, setting out the doping control process and introducing banned substances and the consequences they can have on athletes’ health.

“Risks associated with common types of banned performance-enhancing substances such as anabolic steroids, stimulants and erythropoietin were explained. Athletes also learned about risks associated with sport supplements such as protein, energy drinks and creatine,” the study reported.