USADA survey: U.S. athletes believe doping is being better controlled

Researcher working with chemicals

In late July, the World Anti-Doping Agency released its 2017 report on testing that indicated a total of 1,682 adverse and atypical findings out of 205,405 tests of 0.82%. That’s a pretty low number, although certainly not perfect.

It turns out that U.S. athletes also think the anti-doping systems in the U.S. and elsewhere are generally good.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency shared the results of its own 2017 survey, in which 886 athletes who are part of the USADA testing pool, including Olympic-sport and Paralympic competitors, answered an online questionnaire anonymously and received a $20 gift card for participating. It was a long exercise, with 83 separate questions to be answered.

The survey did not have universal participation among the testing pool, but is a good indicator of attitudes and the athletes who did respond were firmly against doping and feel the situation has improved.

In fact, 89% answered “no” to the question of whether they know of anyone in their sport currently using performance-enhancing drugs. More highlights:

  • How many times have you been drug tested?

The largest number, 36%, replied between 1-5 times, but 31% had been tested more than 10 times. Only 4% had not been tested at all in their sports careers. Asked only about 2016, 72% replied they had been tested 1-5 times; there were 4% who said they were tested from 11-20 times!

  • Are athletes encouraged to “win at all costs”?

This was asked several ways. Asked if “commercial influences” promote this attitude, 28% said yes, but 42% said no and the rest didn’t feel there was pressure one way or the other. But asked if the “USOC and/or NGBs put pressure on elite athletes to win,” 65% agreed or strongly agreed, only 13% disagreed and the remainder were neutral.

  • Are others doping while U.S. athletes are not?

Interestingly, there was a question about whether athletes felt pressure to dope “because there isn’t a level playing field in my sport and I want to succeed,” and only 4% agreed with the statement. Some 86% disagreed or disagreed strongly, a tacit endorsement for the improved state of testing today.

In response to the question about whether other competitors in their sport used drugs, 21% said none and 75% said “Some” or “Very Few,” which is in line with the WADA report figures. Only 3% felt that “Most” of their competitors were doping.

But 35% felt foreign athletes were not tested “adequately” while 24% agreed and 41% had no opinion. And 61% of respondents felt that the USADA had improved its activities and programs in recent years.

  • Is doping harmful?

U.S. athletes scored pretty well here. Some 81% said anabolic steroids are harmful, 82% said narcotics were harmful and 73% were sure that hormone therapies like HGH (Human Growth Hormone) were harmful. However, 43% held that marijuana did no harm vs. 44% who said it did.

  • Why do you compete clean?

Very high numbers of respondents agreed that maintaining a positive reputation (95%) and avoiding shame (92%) are reasons to stay clean. But only 67% felt compelled to stay clean because if they did dope, they would be caught.

  • What would tempt you to start doping?

There were six questions on this topic and the overwhelming answer was “we’re not doping,” even if recommended by a coach (93% against), doctor (82% against), it if would help financially (83%) or if the chances of being caught were slim (90% against).

In fact, 45% of athletes responded to a question about the number of times they were willing to be tested as “Come and test me as many times as you want!” There were 36% who preferred about once a calendar quarter.

  • Should banned dopers be allowed to compete in future Olympic Games?

The athletes were pretty harsh on dopers. A total of 73% felt dopers should be excluded for all future Olympic Games if caught doping, with the preferences spread out on what length of ban would trigger a permanent exclusion. There were 20% who felt a doping violation of any kind merits permanent exclusion, 18% for bans between 6-18 months, 15% for bans of 2+ years and 20% for bans of 4+ years.

However, 27%, felt that once a ban is served, the athlete can return to competition as before.

A majority – 54% – said that current penalties for doping were “adequate,” while 20% found them weak and 13% felt they were severe.

  • What about supplements?

Supplements of varying kinds have been blamed for many doping positives and there seven pointed questions about supplement use. In six instances, the vast majority of respondents replied that these were not used. But on the question of vitamin, mineral or herbal supplements, 52% indicated they used them “frequently” and 33% said occasionally … that’s 85% in total.

  • Attitude toward failure

This was a really interesting closing set of five questions dealing with how the athlete feels when they are not succeeding. Will failure drive them towards doping?

Asked if their own failure made them believe others were doping, 63% disagreed and only 20% agreed. Asked if a lack of success made the athlete worry about “what others think of me,” 48% agreed and 32% disagreed.

The third question, about whether their failure disappointed “important people in my life,” 63% said no and only 19% said yes. And 41% said failure “upsets” their future plans, while 36% said that it did.

The final question was an important look into athlete perceptions of their success affecting how the public looks at them. Asked “When I am not succeeding, people are less interested in me,” 61% agreed or strongly agreed and only 22% disagreed; only 16% had no opinion.

So U.S. athletes get that winning – at some level – matters. But the overriding view of the athletes surveyed was that doping was something they wanted nothing to do with.

That’s good.

American drug positives continued to crop up, but if the survey is to be believed – and 886 is a statistically significant number – the culture has turned against doping.

That was not always the case, and it’s a positive development for the future. As always, where one problem appears to be receding, others are presented to take their place, like the sex abuse scandal.

Doping has been a scourge of Olympic sport for decades, and U.S. athletes were at the heart of it for many, many years. But as the WADA testing report and the USADA survey showed, perhaps the corner has been turned. Let’s hope so.

Rich Perelman