Why do athletes take performance enhancing drugs?

Is this a way of regaining or losing control over their bodies?


Athletes and performance enhancing drugs – Do they want to lose or regain their control?

Since around the 1960s, Professional Athletes taking performance enhancing drugs has been a huge problem when ensuring fairness within the sporting world. In the run up to the 2012 London Olympic games, a staggering 21 Athletes from various sporting disciplines were suspended due to failed drug tests. These drugs can take many forms and have many different purposes, dependent on the nature and performance indicators of the sport. Some are stimulants, such as amphetamines which are designed to increase the Athlete’s energy levels beyond their natural capacity, meaning that they can run for longer periods of time. Others are steroids, such as Tetrahydrogestrinone, which are designed to increase strength and build muscle mass rapidly. Such practices are known as drug doping and are taken extremely seriously. Perhaps the most famous case in recent history of an athlete doping was the case of former World Cyclist Champion Lance Armstrong who in 2012 was stripped of his prestigious titles after being found to be taking, and distributing, performance enhancing drugs.

Before this scandal, Armstrong had been a role model and a hero for many people across the world; both for his sporting accolades and for his charitable work for those suffering from testicular cancer. He had seven Tour De France Titles to his name, a bronze Olympic medal and was a well respected and liked public figure. It is therefore incredibly difficult to understand why he would choose to irreparably tarnish his reputation in such a manner for the sake of performance enhancing drugs.

I’m possibly the least sporty, least athletically competitive person that I know. The level of commitment and drive that it takes Professional Athletes to get up whilst it’s still dark and train with such unrelenting drive and determination is something that is physically and mentally beyond my personal understanding. Sometimes I nearly collapse with exertion when running too hard for the bus. To train to keep fit and to look socially acceptable in a bikini is one thing, but to shape your body to superhuman globally competitive standards, that is something that takes a very rare and special mindset.

I think that one of the reasons why I myself am so hopelessly unathletic is that I have no sense of self control. I will happily snooze my alarm for that extra ten minutes in bed rather than go for a morning run. I would much rather curl up with a box set and a huge mug of sugary tea than attend a spinning class. Being a Professional Athlete is all about self control. Unlike other jobs where you can switch off after a shift, an athletic career influences and dictates your every decision. Eccentric Olympic Gold Medalist Usain Bolt may confess a liking for the odd cheeky big mac, but for most athletes their diet is planned and regulated right down to the chemical atom. Their sleeping patterns, social lives and water intake are strict and regimented, often planned to the minute by a team of experts. They are never “off the clock” so to speak. I often imagine how strange it must be to have such an enviable amount of power over your own body but at the same time, so little control.

Alongside this intensive lifestyle, there is the continuous pressure. The pressure to be a role model for thousands of children and young people. The pressure to represent and be an ambassador for your country. The pressure to be the absolute best, to win, and the added pressure to be a brave loser with diplomatic levels of tact and discipline, even if your heart is breaking. This is bearing in mind that many athletes are painfully young; some are even teenagers. This is also bearing in mind that professional levels of training can be an emotional and very personal process. Defeat or the possibility of defeat can be seen as a devastating prospect.

It is perhaps not surprising therefore that some Athletes turn to drugs to improve their performance. This is despite the fact that to do so can lead to a very public and prolific scandal which will irreparably damage the legacy that they are seeking to build. Perhaps for some, chemically enhancing their performance is a way of gaining some measure of control over their bodies which has essentially become public property. At the same time, perhaps it is a way of shifting their responsibility, and therefore is a means of losing control. According to Sports Psychologist Joel H Fish, attitudes in the sporting world have changed somewhat in recent decades with winning being more important than ever rather than the manner in which you play the game.

According to Fish: “Vince Lombardi’s ‘winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’ has become the dominant philosophy that is shaping the attitudes of athletes of all ages and skill levels”. Fish explains that the prevalence of doping within the modern sporting world has meant that some athletes now believe that they have to take performance enhancing drugs in order to keep up, with the fear that if they don’t then other athletes who are using doping will gain an edge over them. Therefore, some athletes are willing to risk long term dire consequences for the sake of short term gains that might help them rise more quickly to the top of their game.

I don’t for a minute condone Professional Athletes who use doping as a means of getting ahead. I wholeheartedly believe that sport should be about fairness and the celebration of natural talent and hard work. However, perhaps we need to gain a deeper understanding as to why Athletes make the decision to take performance enhancing drugs rather than the fairly reductionist reason “to win”. Perhaps we all need to take a minute to think about the pressures that modern Professional Athletes are under before we judge them too harshly.


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