Doping and the cult of performance, an inseparable couple


The Rio Olympic Games are taking place against the backdrop of a doping scandal in Russian sport and suspicions targeting several African and Caribbean countries. Rumours and doping scandals are inseparable from sports competitions. Already at the 1904 Games, runner Thomas Hicks would probably not have won the marathon without the injection during the race of doses of strychnine, a product that has been banned ever since. The first proven case of doping dates back to the 1968 Games in Mexico City, when the anti-doping tests were inaugurated.

Since then, the fight against doping has developed considerably, but the phenomenon does not seem to be receding. How can we explain the persistence of doping despite the action taken to eradicate it? What leads to doping? Does the fight against doping really get to the roots of the problem?

Controlling sportsmen and women more and more

The fight against doping mainly consists of identifying and punishing athletes who take illegal substances in order to improve their performance, and punishing those around them (sports, technical and medical supervision) if they are accomplices. This control policy is supplemented by preventive action, aimed at informing athletes, especially young athletes, of the health dangers of doping and making them aware of the ethical rules of sport. However, this prophylaxis remains diffuse and not very visible, while the repressive aspect, which targets the most successful athletes, has been continuously reinforced.

The coordination of anti-doping efforts reached a milestone in the late 1990s when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) initiated the creation of a World Anti-Doping Agency (AMA) independent. In 2004, a World Anti-Doping Code was introduced, harmonizing the policies and regulations of sports organizations around the world.

This code sets out standards in various fields: the organisation of controls, the protocols of analytical laboratories, the list of prohibited substances and methods, the regulation of therapeutic use exemptions, etc. The code also sets out the rules for the use of the products in question. Since 2005, athletes have been required to enter in a database (the ADAMS system) information on their location, in order to be permanently accessible to potential controllers. The surveillance of sportsmen and women is therefore constantly tightened.

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In 2012, at the London Olympics, half of the athletes were tested. Alistair Ross/Flickr

In addition, the performance of the tests is constantly being improved - allowing the detection of new substances, or intakes administered according to sophisticated protocols that previously made them undetectable. In addition, urine and blood samples are now stored for the purposes of retrospective testing using methods that were not available at the time of sampling.

The Doping Race

Currently more than 200,000 samples are tested annually under the auspices of WADA, of which approximately 1 % is positive. Athletics leads the list of anti-doping rule violations (17 % cases in 2014), ahead of bodybuilding, cycling and weight training. This ranking does not reflect the weight of doping practices, as each discipline has a different number of elite athletes (priority testing targets) and the extent of the anti-doping fight varies greatly.

Since the introduction of controls, positive cases have been detected at every Olympiad. The only exception was the 1980 Moscow Games, however known as the "Pharmacists' Games" in reference to the state doping discovered after the fall of the Eastern European socialist regimes. Surveillance of athletes has now been tightened: at the 2012 London Games, more than half of the athletes were checked, and they were warned that controllers could burst into their rooms at any time.


In 1988, in Seoul, Ben Johnson "won" over Carl Lewis. DPMS/Flickr

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At the same time, doping practices are constantly being reinvented: blood doping is marked by the different generations of EPOs right up to blood transfusions; the steroids behind the Balco affair - forcing Marion Jones to return her five medals won at the 2000 Sydney Games - have nothing to do with those of the first major doping scandal, that of Ben Johnson, winner of the 100 metres at the 1988 Seoul Games.

Behind the race for performance there is a race against doping, which uses constant innovation (in terms of products and protocols) in order to escape increasingly effective tests. The key is innovation, which involves financial investment, and which reserves access to safe and (almost) undetectable doping for elite athletes, for those who can afford the economic costs.

Individual cheating?

The fight against doping does not succeed in eliminating the scourge. But it does draw its legitimacy from the targeting of athletes, who are the object of surveillance, controls and sanctions. Two figures of the doped athlete emerge from business.

The first is the unintentional rule violationby mistake, inattention or lack of knowledge. Athletes who test positive sometimes mobilize this figure, claiming that they have ingested polluted food, that they were unaware that the product was banned, that they have been abused by those around them, that they have failed to change their whereabouts declaration due to unexpected events, etc. The argument is one of good faith. And it is sometimes deemed admissible by sports justice.


Maria Sharapova, excluded for two years from any competition for taking meldonium, which she contests. Ian Gampon/Flickr

The second figure, against which the fight against doping is constructed, is that of wilful deviance, deliberate cheating, intentional fraud. The doped athlete must be sanctioned because he or she violates the principle of equality of competitors before the sporting event. By transgressing this fundamental rule, he threatens the whole edifice of sport. Sporting competition is based on a meritocratic ethic: everyone must compete by mobilising his or her personal qualities alone and developing them through training. Performance is then the result of talent and hard work.

According to this morality, it is the most deserving who wins, whereas doping provides an immoral and illegitimate competitive advantage. Democratic equality is the foundation of competition and the sports system. And the fight against doping maintains this idealization, because by focusing attention on a breach of equality designated as illegitimate it conceals, and legitimizes, other inequalities, economic for example. That is why doped athletes must be punished. That is why the fight against doping mainly takes the form of the fight against dopers, who are designated as cheaters.

A systemic constraint

But the roots of doping are deeper, more structural and less individual, more systemic and less isolated. It is not an addition of deliberate deviances practised by cheaters; it is a consequence of the search for sporting performance and the work it involves. However, the conditions of sports work are largely ignored by the anti-doping movement, even though they weigh heavily on the lives of elite athletes.

Doping is not simply deliberate individual deviance, because the demands of performance and results overwhelm the experience of sports work. In order to comply, one must resist high training loads, push back the pain thresholds, face injuries, go through "free" periods, dominate moments of doubt, maintain a rigorous lifestyle, respond to coaches' injunctions, achieve objectives, etc.

These constant trials must be overcome in order to maintain oneself in the sporting world where performance is pervasive, where it is the measure of value, and where it is the condition for survival. And this cult of performance is all the more demanding because employment conditions are fragile and contractual commitments are precarious. Consequently, doping is not only a practice that directly targets performance. More broadly, it supports commitment to high-level sport by promoting physical recovery, psychological remediation, social integration and resilience. It is a response to a set of physical, psychological and contractual constraints.

In this respect, sport is not very different from many other professional circles where the pressures are high and where the use of psychoactive substances (drugs, alcohol, medicines, the products vary) makes it possible to hold on or perform well: the list is long, from traders to workers, through artistic circles or students of hyper-selective courses, etc. The sociology of work teaches that strong professional constraints favour the use of support products, which in the sports world are labelled as doping.

This is not an excuse or justification for doping, especially since doping exposes athletes to serious health risks. However, only a better understanding of the reasons behind the use of doping can improve a largely ineffective law enforcement response. This requires a break with an individualising and moralising vision that erects the doped athlete as a cynical cheat, to take into account the properties of sports work in order to debate what it does to top-level athletes. Unless the idealised sporting meritocracy is a cultural and institutional obstacle to considering doping in a different way.

Didier DemazièreSociologist, research director at the CNRS (CSO), Sciences Po - USPC

The original text of this article was published on The Conversation.

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