A Guilty Act or a Guilty Mind?

As the world’s media turned to Rio in anticipation of the 2016 Olympic opening ceremony, the sporting community was rocked by a major doping scandal. The accusations of doping which led to the ban of the Russian Olympic and Paralympic teams are just another on the long list of anti-doping violations which have engulfed world-renowned elite athletes and national anti-doping authorities. These incidents cast a dark shadow over sports, and call into question the effectiveness of the current anti-doping policies. This problem has been further exacerbated by the seriously falling standards of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) accredited testing labs.

The global spread of these doping scandals suggests that, as the pressure to perform at a higher level increases, rapid technological advances in biomedicine raise the ‘altius, fortius, citius’* standards even higher until elite athletes seem to be left with no choice than to try something which might increase their performance, even sacrificing long-term health benefits for short-term career-related gains. This is not intended as a justification for the acts of a few bad apples but rather an attempt to understand the conditions which contribute to their corruption.

My law colleagues in Sheffield Hallam University’s Department of Law and Criminology talk about the distinction between “mens rea”, a guilty mind and “actus reus”, a guilty act. The existing anti-doping policies seem to be largely focused on the latter, while neglecting, or dangerously overlooking the former. The detect-and-punish approach that dominates anti-doping policies worldwide is unable to fulfil the expectations of society to protect the spirit of sport and the principles of fair play. This prohibitionist paradigm views doping use (actus reus) as the real culprit and intends to eradicate it without understanding its underlying causes (mens rea).

Thankfully, since 2005, WADA has recognized the need for a paradigm shift in doping prevention and has invested in studies which aim to better understand the causes of doping use in athletes, and inform anti-doping policies and interventions. This investment has paid off; it has spawned a large body of empirical research on the psychological, social and ecological correlates of doping behaviour across different levels of sports. New evidence has arisen regarding the motivations, personality traits and the reasoning and decision-making patterns that may lead young and adult athletes to the “dark side” of performance enhancement. However, evidence-based anti-doping interventions are still in their infancy and we have a long way to go before scientific evidence is meaningfully integrated and transformed into effective anti-doping policies. Nevertheless, shifting the focus from punishing a criminal act to better understanding what makes a criminal mind signals the dawning of a new and promising era where scientific evidence can directly inform, improve, and even reframe policies against doping in sports.

*The Olympic motto: faster, higher, stronger.

Written by Dr Lambros Lazuras Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University

Editor, The Psychology of Doping in Sport & Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology, Department of Psychology, Sociology & Politics, Sheffield Hallam University