An (un)desirable trade of harms? How elite athletes might react to medically supervised 'doping' and their considerations of side-effects in this situation


Overbye M (2018) An (un)desirable trade of harms? How elite athletes might react to medically supervised 'doping' and their considerations of side-effects in this situation. International Journal of Drug Policy, 55, pp. 14-30.

Background The zero-tolerance approach to doping in sport has long been criticised. Legalising ‘doping’ under medical supervision has been proposed as a better way of protecting both athletes’ health and fair competition. This paper investigates how elite athletes might react if specific doping substances were permitted under medical supervision and explore athletes’ considerations about side-effects in this situation. The results are interpreted using a framework, which views elite sport as an exceptional and risky working environment.  Methods 775 elite athletes (mean age: 21.73, SD=5.52) representing forty sports completed a web-based questionnaire (response rate: 51%) presenting a scenario of legalised, medically supervised ‘doping’.  Results 58% of athletes reported an interest in one or more of the 13 proposed substances/methods. Athletes’ interest in a specific product was linked to its capacity to enhance performance levels in the athletes’ particular sport and depended on gender and age. 23% showed interest in either one or more of erythropoietin (EPO), anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS), blood transfusions and/or Growth Hormone if permitted and provided under qualified medical supervision. Male speed and power sports athletes of increasing age had the highest likelihood of being interested in AAS (41%, age 36), female motor-skill sports athletes had the lowest (< 1%, age 16). 59% feared side-effects. This fear kept 39% of all athletes from being interested in specific substances/methods whereas 18% declared their interest despite fearing the side-effects. Conclusion Interpreting results with the understanding of sport as an exceptional and risky working environment suggests that legalising certain 'doping' substances under medical supervision would create other/new types of harms, and this 'trade-off of harms and benefits' would be undesirable considering the occupational health, working conditions and well-being of most athletes. Assessing the risks and harms produced/reduced by specific drugs when considering sport as a precarious occupation may prove useful in composing the Prohibited List and reducing drug-related harm in sport.

Anti-doping policy; drug control model; the prohibited list; harm reduction; health; sport

International Journal of Drug Policy: Volume 55

Publication date31/05/2018
Publication date online28/02/2018
Date accepted by journal22/12/2017