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Old 08-10-2006, 04:02 PM
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Default Re: Discussion: Why are steroids considered cheating 100% but supps like creatine not at all?

Doping in Sport: Normalisation and the Athlete from a Sociological Perspective

The objective of this paper is to a) provide a brief overview of the literature pertaining to doping and cheating in sport from a sociological perspective and b) to offer an opinion on the position of the athlete, within society, in relation to doping.


Doping can be defined as the use of any aid, supplement or ingested substance that is prohibited by the letter or the spirit of the rules but is used to garner an advantage in the sport experience. Evidence suggests an increase in doping since the 1950s. Coakley sees two developments as instrumental in this increase. Firstly, the official use of amphetamines in the military during WWII and secondly, the increasing ability of the medical profession to synthetically create human hormones (2). Coakley contends that the increase in doping since the 1950’s is not as a result of defective socialisation of athletes nor of an erosion of morals and ethics. Instead the author proposes the increase is predominantly due the wide availability of performance enhancing drugs. “If today’s drugs had been available in the past… it is likely that athletes would have taken them” . This Substance Abuse Hypothesis leads the author to believe what drives the offending athlete to cheat is “an over-commitment to the sport ethic itself” (2). Worryingly, research suggests that unless an athlete devotes “total commitment” to his/her sport, (defined as ranking the sport as the most or second most important factor in their lives), then success at the highest levels is unlikely .

Over-commitment and availability, however, cannot be the sole reasons for such deviant, potentially hazardous behaviour. Examination of the literature reveals developments in society have led to the normalisation of such behaviour for the athlete and athletes themselves can develop viewpoints and support groups, which help further normalise such deviance.

According to Zola, ours has become a medicalised society. In the early 1900s, virtually all pregnancies and births took place outside of the hospital and with little or no medical supervision . Nowadays that is, of course, not the case. Traditionally drug-addiction and alcoholism were viewed as foibles or weaknesses but this viewpoint has radically evolved and they are now perceived as illnesses. Medical specialities have resultantly emerged to meet these needs. The physician is “increasingly becoming the choice for help with personal and social problems” .

The medicalisation of society is paralleled by a medicalisation of sport . Society has increasingly become dependent on professional care and on drugs (6) and the medicalisation process has also enveloped sport. Sports medicine as a discipline has emerged and team doctors are far more common with increasing influence and responsibility. The medicalisation of society has lead athletes to become part of a pill-dependent society and according to Houlihan “it is unrealistic to expect athletes to insulate themselves” from such a culture.

Voy lists the amount of legal drugs (legal in terms defined by both the state and the IOC) which some national athletes intake: Vitamins E, C and B-6, Amino Acids, B-Complex capsules, Calcium, Magnesium and Zinc tablets and more. Such intake, which is perfectly legal and often supervised and encouraged by coaches and doctors, and is part of a common athletic culture, develops “the expectations and patterns of behaviour that might initially parallel illegal drug use” (8).

However it is not just social constructs which serve to normalise deviant behaviour but also constructs of athletes’ own makings. Monaghan 2001 , states that athletic groups, in this case bodybuilders, can form tightly knit communities in which drug use is both widely accepted as not only legitimate but even as “pre-requisite for success”. Such groups enable the members to “normalise and rationalise” activities which mainstream perception would deem “deviant, dangerous and risky”. It is not far-fetched to assume that if such circles have developed in professional sports such as bodybuilding then they are likely to exist in other athletic endeavours.

Along with “normalising” support groups, athletes can develop normalising viewpoints and opinions. “When a hero such as Ben Johnson is exposed for cheating everyone… feels repercussions from this blow” . Sports and federations lose money, public interest, support and face “sharp, intense scrutiny” from the media (10). Such impacts can cause many to be seemingly willing to ignore positive tests. Unreported positive tests have been common (Helsinki 1983, Rome 1987) . Such cover-ups negatively reinforce deviant athletes’ behaviour and can perpetuate the athlete’s opinion that doping is the norm and is even essential to the sport. Furthermore, if the disgrace of high profile athletes, such as Johnson, can cast a sport into severe disrepute then it is likely the success of similar high profile stars can be of benefit to the sport. It is through such thinking that high profile athletes can equate their cheating and success to an essential need for the good of the sport.

Athletes who take excessive doses of illegal performance enhancers, put themselves at risk to many life threatening health problems . These health risks are a dominant reason such synthethics are banned. However, to the drug-using athlete this is often just one calculated risk among many they take. Athletes are encouraged to take risks all the time. Few are lauded more in the media than the footballer who “plays hurt” for the good of his team or the racing car driver who takes death defying risks in the pursuit of victory. The promotion and celebration of such deviant behaviour by society allows athletes to “internalise values associated with a culture of risk” and subsequently they can easier accept the risk associated with the use of drugs.

Increased availability of performance enhancing drugs coupled with over-committed athletes has contributed significantly to increases in the occurrences of doping since the 1950s. The taking of such potentially harmful substances has been somewhat normalised by an ever growing medicalisation of society. Athletes live in a society where medical supervision or drugs are increasingly prescribed for common maladies or conditions yet they are expected to insulate themselves from such behaviour. Key hypocritical actions by persons in authoritative positions, has not helped. The official prescription of amphetamines during wartime and their subsequent illegalisation is one such action. Furthermore, athletes can be encouraged to take countless dietary supplements by sports physicians yet are expected to instantly draw a line at supplements which maybe legal in terms of state legislation but banned by sporting governing bodies. Negative reinforcement, in the form of sporting governing bodies ignoring and covering up positive tests further heightens the double standards and hypocrisy with which athletes are faced. Double standards are also prevalent in the media. Deviant behaviour such as playing with injury “through the pain barrier” is proclaimed as a courageous sacrifice, while athletes guilty of doping, which may be no more deleterious to health, are castigated. Athletes also contribute to the normalisation process themselves, however. Athletes form support groups of other like-minded athletes where doping is seen as common-place and key to success. In such an environment, drug taking athletes can also convince themselves that doping is essential to their success and that their success is of potential benefit to the sport as a whole.


Blum, R.H., (1974), Society and Drugs, Jossey-Bass Publishers, London
Coakley, J.J., (1998), Sport and Society: Issues and Controversies, McGraw-Hill

Kirk, D, Hanrahan, S., Nauright, J., (1996), The Sociocultural Foundations of Human Movement, MacMillan Publishing Company

Lumpkin, A., Stoll, S.K., Beller, J.M., (2003), Sport Ethics: Applications for Fair Play, McGraw-Hill

Orlick and Partington, 1988, Mental Links to Excellence, The Sports Psychologist, Vol. 2, pp. 105-130

Voy, R., (1991) Drugs, Sport and Politics, Leisure Press, Champaign, Illinois

Waddington, I., (2000), Doping in Sport: Problems of Involvement and Detachment, delivered at the Centre d’Etudes Olympiques, International Olympic Committee, Lausanne, Switzerland.
(accessed: 24/02/04)

Waddington,. I., (2001), Doping in Sport: A Medical Sociological Perspective, delivered to the Research Workshop on Doping in Sport at the Norwegian University of Sport and Physical Education.
(accessed 24/02/04)

Zola,I., (1972), Medicine as an Institution of Social Control, Sociological Review, Vol. 20, pp. 487-504
The virtue of all achievement is victory over oneself. Those who know this can never know defeat.

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