According to new research by a Kingston University academic, athletes using banned drugs but deny taking them are likely to manipulate their answers on questionnaires to make themselves fit the image of "clean" athletes who are strongly against doping.
This study was funded by the World Anti-Doping Agency and carried out by a team headed by Professor Andrea Petroczi from the University's School of Life Sciences. Eighty-two athletes, who were competed at different levels, were surveyed by Professor Petroczi on an anonymous basis. Petroczi found patterns in the answers of those who denied using any prohibited performance enhancing drugs that indicated athletes who were doping were deliberately trying to cover their tracks. She remarked this has major implications for research where the aim is to establish the reasons why athletes take illegal drugs since the vast majority of such studies are based purely on questionnaires.
The self-declared 'clean' status of athletes on the questionnaire was checked using hair analysis and those participating in the questionnaire process were asked to provide a hair sample which was tested for commonly used anabolic steroids, erythropoietin (EPO), and major recreational drugs. Professor Petroczi remarked having the opportunity to combine social science techniques with analytical chemistry in this way was a real advantage and it is an approach we will definitely be using again. Petroczi said the really interesting group included those people who denied using any drugs but then tested positive and added this group appeared to have manipulated every aspect of the questionnaire they filled in to fit the typical profile of what they thought would be a non-user.
The athletes were asked questions about their attitudes towards doping such as the kind and level of pressure they felt to use performance enhancing drugs. The team of Petroczi found distinct patterns in responses to suggest that they had faked their answers in accordance with how they believed someone who was 'clean' would have replied. Professor Petroczi said large-scale doping behavior research needs to change because the clear message is that you cannot trust what individuals say about themselves on questionnaires -- just because it is anonymous doesn't mean people will be honest and added people may be deliberately lying or even unwilling to admit things to themselves and this whole field would benefit greatly from using different research methods -- for instance by using such indirect approaches as the Implicit Association Test (IAT) computerized test which use alternative measures that go beyond questionnaires completed by individuals.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)'s Director of Education and Program Development, Rob Koehler said WADA welcomes research that helps in the fight against doping in sport. We expand our knowledge-base from a wide variety of sources, and research like this is extremely useful. WADA provided more than £25,000 towards the study.
Professor Petroczi will now be developing the computerized word-sorting test and will carry out further research to help refine the methodology. She said the hope is that in future this could lead to better ways of identifying why athletes take drugs, which in turn could help put a stop to doping in sport.