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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Deterrence, doping and right actions in sport

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has responsibility for the World Anti-Doping Code (the Code). New Zealand’s own Drug Free Sport New Zealand is a government agency with responsibility (in law) for implementing the Code. If you’ve never seen the Sports Anti-Doping Act, you can find it here. And if you have never thought about Drug Free Sport, visit its website here.

All coaches should have some awareness of our anti-doping policy. But the coaching movement would be better all round, if coaches had a sound grasp of what deterrence means. In our everyday lives, we avoid acting criminally because we have all agreed that’s better for society and therefore ourselves. We are so committed to that idea, we agree to the government police force (New Zealand Police) to deal with those who break the law – policing by consent. The prevention of doping in sport is based on a form of deterrence theory: the threat of sanctions deters prohibited behaviour. We all know that deterrents mostly fail to deter serious criminal actions. Performance enhancing drugs are mostly sourced through criminal networks. So the supply-side isn’t too interested in deterrence – they are not deterred. Why not?

Well, criminology researchers point out that deterrents are effective with certain types of offences or offenders. New Zealand’s anti-doping law and the highly intrusive nature of providing urine samples was put in place (in 1994) with the support of New Zealand’s elite athletes. So as a group, those athletes not only reject the rule breaking of dopers but agree that the law should empower government to deal with them, and in a robust way. Unfortunately, deterrence theory –the greater the likelihood of detection and severity of consequences, the deterrent effect increase – is largely incorrect. It does appear that non-legal sanctions have the greatest deterrent effect e.g. disapproval of peers, family and fans, loss of income and/or sponsorships.

So with this powerful set of forces as a backdrop, how many coaches spend time with their athletes impressing on them the importance of adhering to right behaviour – “right” meaning what we agree about how something should be done or how people should behave. All sports have rule books and most make a point about the importance of moral behaviour i.e. fair play. Most coaches address the technical side of rule breaking ‘thou shalt not double dribble, or put your foot on the line or touch the net’. And we practice assiduously to give our athletes the capability to execute those skills.

It is not clear to me that coaches, as a rule, place an emphasis on making right or moral choices in the game, shirt pulling, pushing down on the tackled player’s head as you the tackler get up, pretending to have been pushed out of a lineout, and so on. There’s wider point here. Do we coach athletes to go to the edge of the rules envelope to gain an advantage, or do we coach them to use the rules to enable the fullest execution of their game skills? If the technical rules of the game do not act as a strong deterrent to play within them, then it’s not such a big step to take, what cyclist Tyler Hamilton referred to, that first little red pill (watch a short clip of Hamilton here).

There’s some emerging research on this subject. Early findings suggest that coaches see deterrents as less credible than athletes. Other research indicates that athletes are interested in making moral decisions. They report that guilt and shame are in themselves a deterrent. But also that the culture of the team or training group and ‘critical incidents’ during an athletes career precipitated the decision to dope. I would argue that the stronger the moral code in training and regular competition, the stronger the deterrent effect of the Code.

(photo source: Tabata Times)


Kirby, K., Moran, A. & Guerin, S. (2011). A qualitative analysis of the experiences of elite athletes who have admitted to doping for performance enhancement. International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics. 3(2), pp205-224.

Moston, S., Engleberg, T. & Skinner, J. Athletes’ and coaches’ perceptions of deterrents to performance-enhancing drug use. International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics. 7(4) 623-636.

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