Why did Maria Sharapova cheat and what should sports’ authorities be doing about it?

20/06/2016  -  4.23

Professor Andy Lane and Tracey Devonport

“Seeking a competitive advantage” mind-set is embedded in modern sport with athletes following lifestyles, training methods and diets aimed at giving an extra edge.  Supermarket aisles are filled with ergogenic aids (anything that gives you a mental or physical edge while exercising or competing), taking supplements becomes the norm. This is not helped by a lack of clarity on some substances – caffeine’s acceptability has changed over the years and most athletes are guilty of drinking tea!  

Similarly, advances in technology designed to give a competitive advantage are outstripping sports ability to keep up. The introduction of performance-enhancing, non-textile (polyurethane) swimsuits led to 29 world records being smashed in the first five days of the 2009 swimming world championships before they were banned in 2010.

And so what was Sharapova doing? Badly advised and mixed up in beliefs that supplements are part and parcel need to get a competitive edge, she takes products. The beliefs have two parts; one part is that taking the ergogenic makes a difference. For example, if we take steroids we can train more, get stronger and through getting stronger, you perform better. The evidence for taking steroids for getting strong is powerful. The second part of this is the psychological advantage that taking something that you think helps you perform better has. If you think that taking substance X makes you stronger, this will improve your confidence when doing takes requiring strength; persuade you to try harder and persist for longer. Beliefs of being strong and being able to persist are sometimes labelled mental toughness. And so let’s suppose an athlete takes a drug that does not work, but where the athletes believes it does, then there can still be a benefit. Academics would describe this as a placebo effect, but being the beneficiary of a placebo intervention can still be useful for an athlete. If Sharapova gained anything, she would have most likely gained a placebo effect; confidence in her preparation, belief in her body to withstand the demands of competition. We are less sure of the biological benefit; there might be one. However, an importantly, there is nothing illegal about a placebo effect; it’s better described as a belief effect. There is something not quite right about the process how it developed.

Does Sport need to take a firm hand? Yes, but it needs to be firm and fair and do so from an informed position. Sport authorities need an appetite for stopping drugs; for knowing what ergogenic aids are being used, testing them and testing them in a way that leads to policy and guidelines; testing them in a way that helps athletes pursue excellence safely. The size of ergogenic aids markets, the powerfully persuasive messages on product labelling engenders beliefs that usage helps. Whilst there might be evidence supporting such claims, there are usually question marks about the rigour of the research. Published research funded by products is likely to be supportive; unsupportive research is unlikely to be published, most likely a part of the initial agreement. Of the research published, often its applicability to the athletes who use it weak. For example, if the product it meant to enhance performance of elite athletes, were elite athletes used in the sample. And if so, does it apply equally to male and females? What athletes and those who advise athletes need is better knowledge at how to read the supporting evidence provided by manufacturers. They need better knowledge at knowing what the effects should be, why they occur, and what the side effects are, if any. The likely effect of such a process is that the belief effect that runs alongside most ergogenic aid would be limited, if not disabled. As a consequence of this, athletes would less likely to be duped into a blind chase of substances that would help, and with this mind-set dampened; the mind-set underpinning taking substances to help performance is challenged.

But what about drugs? The biological effects? There needs a serious testing programme of effectiveness and this will cost; but the cost of investment in a serious programme of understanding why and how athletes want to do better - and what they are prepared to do - would be for the betterment of both the athletes themselves and the reputation of sport in general.