Drugs in sport: You the sports fan

10th October 2013

By Empirica Research

Dear Sport,

It’s not me, it’s you… it’s just, well, I don’t trust you anymore. You thrill me with amazing feats, but then it turns out it was all a lie. I want that excitement and awe I used to have when things were honest and real…now, I just don’t know what to believe. You’ve stolen my wonder away and replaced it with skepticism.

We’ll still keep in touch, but it’s just not the same anymore.

Your disappointed fan. 


Recently we worked with SKINS on a large-scale survey of sports fans across the globe to take a “pulse check” on the issue of drugs in sport. It’s an issue that is complicated, complex, and confusing. In the survey, we asked questions about banning athletes, whose fault drug use in sport is, what’s OK and what’s not, what sports they are most skeptical of, and what impact it has on the fans. We gathered the opinions and reactions about a topic that has – as one of our survey respondents said – “taken the joy out of sport”.

The survey was done for SKINS as part of their #ChooseTheRightTrack campaign. This campaign is aiming to establish an Athlete Support Council to help athletes choose the right track and to help tackle the cultural issues of drugs that seem to be systemic in some sports. The campaign also seeks to increase funding to WADA in order to strengthen the global processes required to combat doping. 

We had 1838 people take the survey and here is a snapshot of the results. Strap yourself in.

The essence of the results is captured in the “break up” letter above that we penned as a summary of the key findings. Fans are disappointed, distrusting, disillusioned – they believe that drugs in sport are rife and that spectacular performances are likely to be drug-aided.

But why do they think athletes take Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs)? And what punishments do they want to see? That is what we wanted to explore…

It’s the desire to win that is thought to drive use of PEDs. For many of the fans, it was thought that it was an athlete’s extreme desire to win that leads them to take PEDs (63% agree), but some also thought that it was an athlete’s desire to keep earning money (52% agree). However, there were some stark country differences to this issue – fans from the USA (72%) were much more likely than fans from the UK (48%) or Australia (49%) to think that it was the desire to keep earning money that leads to PED use.

Fans don’t trust the current testing system. Most agree that the current strategies are not working (72% agree) – in fact, there is not much confidence that the current strategies can detect athletes who are taking PEDs (31% agree).

Fans think that PEDs are a huge threat to the future and integrity of sport. Most fans agreed that PEDs are the greatest threat to the future and integrity of sport (73% agree), but this statement also had 19% of fans sitting on the fence and 8% disagreeing with this statement – their reasons were that while they agreed PEDs were bad for sport, they also thought that betting and match fixing were issues that threatened the future and integrity of sport.

Fans think athletes have the resources to make informed choices. Fans believe that the resources are there for athletes to make informed decisions about what is allowed or not allowed to be taken (77% agree).

Fans want to see drug cheats penalized – harshly.  There was extremely high endorsement for stripping athletes of their titles/wins (82% agree) and that sporting codes must enact zero-tolerance stances and ban guilty athletes (80% agree). There was also strong acceptance that sponsors should cut off financial support of guilty athletes (79% agree). Half of the respondents also supported one of the harshest penalties – banning for life from any type of competitive sport (51% agree). Interestingly, Australian (80% agree) and UK (90% agree) fans were much more strongly in favour of stripping titles than the US (71% agree) fans.

Fans feel cheated as supporters by drugs in sport. Fans said they would feel “cheated” if their club/team was found guilty of using PEDs (80% agree) – to the point where some would strongly consider cancelling memberships (55% agree).  Fans also think that any PED use ruins the reputation of the entire club/team (77% agree). Fans are crying out for clean completion – they were much more in favour of seeing excellent (clean!) competition (70% agree) than seeing spectacular (drugged!) performances (8% agree). Importantly, there was near universal agreement that athletes who take illegal performance enhancing drugs set a bad example for kids (91% agree), ruin the true spirit of the game (90% agree), and ruin the fairness of competition (91% agree). However, fans also think that PEDs put the athletes’ health at risk (86% agree). PEDs are lose lose lose as far as the fans are concerned.

The Essendon impact. Given the timing of the survey, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask the Australian fans about the Essendon saga.  There was strong agreement that regardless of the result of the AFL/ASADA investigation that the reputation of the club has been damaged (69% agree), and the value to sponsors has been diminished (63% agree).

“Dirtiest” sports are perceived to be bodybuilding, Tour De France, Gridiron, and Sprinting. We asked respondents to estimate the percentage of athletes they would suspect to have used illegal performance enhancing drugs in a range of events. What is clear is that the sporting fans are skeptical – with even the “cleanest” sports still getting double-digit percentage estimates of drug use.

Percentages following each sport represent the estimate of how many athletes fans think have used PEDs.

International Bodybuilding Competition – men (71%) 
International Bodybuilding Competition – women (65%)
Tour De France (59%)
National Football League (gridiron, USA) (48%)
Men’s 100m running final at the Olympics (47%)
Major League Baseball game (USA) (41%)
Women’s 100m running final at the Olympics (40%)
NRL Grand Final (Australia) (37%)
Men’s 50m freestyle swimming final at the Olympics (36%)
AFL Grand Final (Australia) (36%)
National Basketball Association final (men, USA) (35%)
Men’s Marathon at the Olympics (33%)
Premier League Final (soccer, UK) (31%)
Women’s 50m freestyle swimming final at the Olympics (31%)
International Rugby Union Grand Final (31%)
Women’s Marathon at the Olympics (29%)
A-League Football Final men (soccer, Australia)  (26%)
Women’s National Basketball Association final (women, USA) (24%)
Wimbledon Tennis singles final – men  (23%)
Wimbledon Tennis singles final – women  (22%)
National Football Final women (soccer, Australia)  (19%)
Test Match Cricket – Australia vs. England men  (17%)
Trans Tasman Netball Grand Final – women  (15%)
Test Match Cricket – Australia vs. England women  (14%)

US fans think that US athletes are more likely than athletes from other countries to use PEDs. US fans are incredibly skeptical – with 53% of US fans thinking that US athletes are more likely than athletes from other countries to have used PEDs. Only 6% of Australian fans think that Australian athletes are more likely than athletes from other countries to have used PEDs. Only 5% of UK fans think that UK athletes are more likely than athletes from other countries to have used PEDs.  

Fans are putting the blame mostly on the individual athlete, but others are in the firing line too. We asked fans to indicate how much of the blame they attributed to a range of people if an athlete has been found guilty of using illegal performance enhancing drugs. The sponsors, national/international governing bodies, and anti-doping authorities are thought to have little blame (each with under 11% of fans saying all/most of the blame), moderate amounts of blame are attributed to team management, nutritionists, and coaches (each with 19-26% of fans saying all/most of the blame), higher amounts of blame to the trainer/sports scientists and the doctor (each with 33-34% of fans saying all/most of the blame)…but by far the most blame lies with the individual athlete (with 73% of fans saying all/most of the blame).

Masking drugs were deemed to be the “worst” PEDs, followed by anabolic steroids and human growth hormone.  We gave fans a long list of drugs and methods – from steroids to vitamin supplements – and asked them to categorise into “this is OK for athletes to use” “this is not OK for athletes to use” and “I don’t know enough about this to make a categorization”. Interestingly, the top of the “NOT OK” list was “masking drugs to cover the use of other drugs” – it seems that the deception involved in taking a drug purely for covering up the use of another drug was the worst offence in the eyes of fans. This was followed by anabolic steroids and human growth hormone. Things that were seen as OK for athletes to use included vitamin supplements, high altitude training, and protein powder. 

Many fans believe Lance Armstrong simply had access to better science and was able to stay ahead of the testers. While most of the fans agreed that drug use was simply part of the culture of cycling at the time (81% agree), they also thought that Armstrong was just smarter than the testers – always two steps ahead so that he never got caught (76% agree). Most agreed that the saga just highlighted the flawed process of drug testing (78% agree) and some even thought that it was something that was systematically covered up because of Armstrong’s value to the sport (48% agree).

There is strong support for increasing funding to WADA. The skepticism of the fans is evident – they feel that we are at a point where they can’t trust the sporting events they watch to be clean. But do they think there is a solution? There was strong support for providing more funding to WADA if it will reduce the use of PEDs (75% agree), but what is clear throughout this survey is that fans have lost faith and trust in sport. A truly disappointing state of affairs.

What do you think? Are you a disillusioned fan? Is sport always going to have drugs issues? Can we fix it? We’d love to hear your views – join the #ChooseTheRightTrack conversation online.

Fans were also given the chance to type in their feelings about the topic… some of the responses simply confirmed the level of disappointment and lack of trust fans have in sport, some point to the fear they have for their kids going into sport, and some speak to some very dark issues. We have included some selected quotes here…

I hate them. I feel cheated because they lied to me. I watch sport so I can see it played well, not so I can see someone getting a sponsorship or trying to stay in the game when they aren't up to it. If you're injured, stop playing. If you're not good enough, go home. You don't get to follow your dream at the expense of my dream. Male, 45-54, Australia

I was a football trainer and massage therapist for over 15years in country football.  I have seen players injected with pain killers during games by nurses with substances that I have been told were stolen from operating theatre waste bins.  This problem is far far larger than anyone knows and is at all levels of sport. Female, 45-54, Australia

I'm always disappointed to learn of dopers, but rarely surprised. Female, 45-54, USA

Has jaded my view of ALL elite competition regardless of sport. Has turned me from avid fan to casual fan. Boyhood heroes stolen away. Male, 35-44, Canada

To quote one of the greatest parent to child lines ever, "I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed."  I've developed my love of sport over my entire life and to see the prevalence of doping across the spectrum of sport and from the highest to the lowest levels is truly disappointing. Male, 45-54, Canada

It certainly doesn't surprise me as people cheat in all areas of life. The main problem is that when ever something spectacular happens on the sporting field there will always be a hint of doubt even if it involves the cleanest of athletes. Sadly sport as a whole is now tainted. Only a zero tolerance approach can fix this. Male, 35-44, Australia

I still remember the Olympic games 100m final when Ben Johnson was found to be cheating on steroids, it completely tarnished my view of athletics and I have never watched the Olympics with the same passion since. Male, 45-54, Australia

Makes sporting achievements seem unattainable because these athletes seem to need drugs to perform at that level. It makes the competition unfair for the clean athletes. The penalties need to be much higher to discourage athletes from taking drugs. If my teenage daughter playing basketball at state level (and us as parents) have to be aware of what medication she can/cannot take, why are professional athletes blaming the club doctors/trainers? There is more than enough information and support available to make the correct choice. The ultimate responsibility comes down to the athlete to ensure what they are taking is legal. Male, 35-44, Australia

Resigned disappointment. It does not stop me striving to train more effectively and I do use things that might enhance my performance even as a amateur e.g. beefwood juice or caffeine gels- these are all legal but if I were a professional would I be tempted/forced down the illegal channels. Would I be strong enough? I have sympathy for the Pelaton but still think it should be clean and seems to be cleaner each year. Male, 45-54, UK

Either Chris Froome is a cheat or I just doubted every pedal stroke of the greatest performance of all time. The fact that we won't know for sure for 10 plus years (if we ever know for sure at all) is heartbreaking to me as a fan. Why spend my money supporting a sport when I don't know how genuine it even is anymore? Female, 26-34, US

Empirica Research is a social and consumer research firm based in Melbourne and Miami. For more info check out empiricaresearch.com.au

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