Drugs In Sport Survey: Abuse widespread, say sporting elite

Nick Harris
Tuesday 08 December 1998 00:02 GMT

THE DAY that Ben Johnson was stripped of his 100m gold medal at the Seoul Olympics remains, 10 years on, a most vivid and tragic reminder of the effects of the explosive cocktail of drugs and sport. There was a world outcry, calls for tighter regulations and more testing.

Yet, according to The Independent's survey of Britain's sporting elite, the largest ever undertaken into the use of drugs among competitors here, the same questions and arguments are being raised. A decade on, the nation's sport - which is grappling with the voracious demands of television, sponsors and much greater commercialism - still has not cracked the drugs problem.

A majority of leading sportsmen and women believe their field has a problem with drugs. Despite significant advances in drug testing, most believe that cheats are continuing to beat the system. While just a small number admit to taking illegal drugs, only one-quarter believe their own sport is "clean".

Coming after a summer when the Tour de France was disrupted by doping scandals, world swimming had a spate of prominent drug-test failures, and allegations of drug-use in British rugby resurfaced, a large number of respondents said they believed controls in their sports needed tightening.

The Independent sent out questionnaires to more than 1,300; only in cycling and rowing did the governing bodies decline to co-operate with the survey, which produced more than 300 replies. Most respondents were anonymous.

A male athlete of 34 echoed the sentiments of many. "What we saw from this year's Tour de France is that doping is rife among European cyclists. This suggests - judging by the fact that certain doctors and team managers actually advocate doping as a means of `safeguarding health' - that it is probably not confined to cycling."

The use of anabolic steroids, which help build muscles and allow intensive training, has long been one of the most serious problems. Very few British sportsmen and women have ever failed drugs tests for steroids, but three respondents to The Independent's survey admitted using them, which suggests that many more may still be beating the system. Five respondents also admitted to illegal use of testosterone, which has similar benefits to those provided by steroids.

Three per cent of respondents said they used stimulants such as amphetamines, which are used to improve mental sharpness and can help athletes through pain thresholds; 5 per cent used narcotic analgesics, which help eliminate pain; and 16 per cent admitted "caffeine-loading", which increases alertness.

Yet perhaps even more significant is the widespread belief that cheating is rife. Across all sports, 54 per cent believed that up to 30 per cent of those in their sport were using drugs illegally; 5 per cent believed between 30 and 60 per cent were doing so; and 4 per cent believed more than 60 per cent were cheating.

No respondent in rugby league and weightlifting believed their sport to be clean, while only 3 per cent of athletes did so. Among all respondents, 13 per cent cited steroids as a problem, which rose to 16 per cent in athletics, 40 per cent in weightlifting, 46 in rugby league and 31 per cent in rugby union.

Overall, 43 per cent called for better testing and harsher penalties, with the figure rising to 64 per cent in athletics, 46 per cent in rugby league, 61 per cent in rugby union, 48 per cent in swimming and 80 per cent in weightlifting.

Another indicator of the prevalence of drugs was that 9 per cent had been offered them by team mates, other participants or professional dealers. This figure rose to 46 per cent in rugby league.

The survey suggests the fight against drugs has some way to go, and it also shows a substantial minority have no ethical objection to taking drugs. More than 20 per cent said they would take drugs if they were legal, rising to 46 per cent in rugby league, 38 per cent in rugby union, 26 per cent in football, 22 per cent in tennis and 17, 15 and 13 per cent in cricket, swimming and athletics respectively.

"If others were improving as a result of taking performance enhancing drugs and they were allowed, it would be silly not to use them to improve one's own performance and enhance the chance of international selection," said one cricketer of 24.

However, a swimmer reflected the views of many when hewrote: "The relaxing of drug laws would put tremendous pressure on people to take drugs, or else they would be driven from the sport and we will be left with a hard core of people who ... will depend entirely on the correct cocktails of drugs rather than the correct combination of training. To me, this is not what sport is about and it should not be encouraged."

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in