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Research reveals the potential risk of young rugby players doping is real

12 Feb 2015

Research commissioned by Drug Free Sport NZ into the attitudes of high school rugby players reveals that the potential risk of young players doping is real.

The research was carried out by the University of Otago’s Dunedin School of Medicine and canvassed 142 elite high school rugby players from seven New Zealand schools.

It questioned the players on their attitudes and exposure to doping as well as their use of prohibited drugs and nutritional supplements.

The authors concluded that “the potential risk of high school rugby players being engaged in doping is real.”

Drug Free Sport NZ chief executive, Graeme Steel, says the research is an important step forward in understanding young players’ attitudes to doping.  

“This research is crucial in helping us to understand what motivates young athletes and how they think about, not only, taking prohibited substances, but supplement use and reporting doping.

“The research provides valuable insights that will help us to tailor our education programmes and information in a more targeted fashion to increase anti-doping knowledge and understanding among young people,” he says.  

The survey respondents reported widespread use of nutritional supplements, although only two of the 142 players admitted to taking prohibited substances.  However, a much larger group (20 per cent) felt they were “at risk” of using prohibited drugs.

Other key findings included:

  • times of personal stress correlated with a potential risk for the use of prohibited drugs
  • more than 70 per cent of respondents used more than four nutritional supplements either daily, weekly or monthly
  • around 90 per cent were concerned about the safety of these nutritional supplements
  • about 50 per cent would not report a teammate or opposition player who was doping
  • only 20 per cent are receiving information about substances that are prohibited in sport.

Further analysis was also carried out using the international Performance Enhancement Attitude (PEAS) Scale to determine the risk of athletes actually doping.  Higher scores on the PEAS scale (up to 102) indicate more positive attitudes towards doping.

The average score for the NZ high school rugby players sat at around 41, compared with a score of 31 for NZ university athletes, while American, Canadian, UK and Australian high school athletes scored 38, 38, 36, and 40 respectively.

Players were also asked when they would be most likely to consider using a prohibited drug. This revealed:

  • 20 per cent would consider doping to recover faster from an injury
  • 15 per cent to win a critical game
  • 10 per cent to increase muscle size.

The report authors noted that the pressure for young men to look good may impact drug use in sport.  They also observed that anecdotal evidence from needle exchange programmes indicates that more young men are requiring needles for steroid use.

The research also raised concerns about the use of nutritional supplements (defined as any food, drink, tablet or powder taken to enhance sports performance or recovery) among the players surveyed.  

Supplement use is reported to increase the risk of doping by a) helping to initiate a future habit and b) through inadvertent doping when a supplement is “contaminated” with a prohibited substance.

More than 70 per cent of the players regularly used supplements, with one player reportedly using up to nine supplements daily.  

Respondents seem to be aware of the risk of supplements, with 90 per cent of them acknowledging some risk associated with these products.  Players were keen for more information on supplement safety, effectiveness, labelling and general nutrition.

Finally, the report found that only 42 per cent of players would report a teammate who was using banned drugs, while 52 per cent would report an opposition player for doping. Around a quarter of the players questioned believe that other high school athletes were using banned substances.

Mr Steel says further research is now needed to establish whether the attitudes of young rugby players are reflected in other high school sporting codes.