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Doping in team sports: You’re doing it wrong

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Written By Dr Christopher Gyngell

The 7th of February 2013 was described as the “darkest day in Australian sport”[1]. On this date the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) released results from a 12 month investigation detailing the extensive use of performance enhancing and illicit drugs in professional sport.

One of the most shocking claims to emerge from the ACC report was the systematic and organised doping occurring in Australian football codes.  The investigation found that high-performance coaches and sports scientists were facilitating the administration of performance enhancing chemicals to entire teams.

In 2011, 17 players at the rugby league club Cronulla were given the hormone GHRP-6 and the peptide CJC-1295. These substances increase the amount of growth hormone circulating in the body and boost lean muscle mass. The AFL club Essendon is alleged to have injected up to 34 players with thymosin beta 4 in 2012. This protein is believed to boost muscle growth and tissue regeneration.

Rather than looking at the broader ethics of team sports doping, I want to examine the methods used. If the goal of the doping programs at Cronulla and Essendon were to boost team performance, they must be considered failures.  In the 2011 NRL season Cronulla finished 13th, with the exact same amount of wins they achieved in the 2010 season. Essendon’s doping program was associated with a worse result for the team; dropping from finalist in 2011 to 11th in 2012.  This suggests that the doping programs at these clubs were unsuccessful on their own terms.

The benefit of using doping agents that improve muscle mass and endurance is clear for some sports. Athletics, for example, is a pure test of speed and endurance. Increasing muscle mass has a direct relationship to speed, and given that a few micro seconds can make the difference between winning and losing, the benefits of using performance enhancing drugs are clear.  In the so-called “dirtiest race in history” – the 1988 Olympic 100m final –   six of the eight finalists either tested positive to performance enhancing drugs, or later admitted being on such drugs.[2] In long distance cycling, where individuals may need to cover over 200 kilometres in a day for weeks on end, even slight improvements in oxygen delivery will provide a significant advantage.  In just one example of the widespread use of doping agents in cycling, 9 out of the top 10 finishers in the 2005 Tour de France either tested positive or admitted to using performance enhancing drugs.

But most team sports are fundamentally different to individual sports. As the saying goes, a champion team will always beat a team of champions. The speed and strength of individuals is often of secondary importance to how team members work together. By focussing only on improving individual performance, sports teams can neglect aspects of collective performance.

An alternative way of improving performance in team sports is to enhance teamwork –to improve the ability of individuals to cooperate with each other. This aspect of team sports could also be targeted by biotechnologies, and this may raise its own ethical issues.

A key factor that influences team performance is group bonding. When team members bond with each other, they more easily empathise with and care about other team members. This facilitates improved communication, as team members can more easily infer one another’s mental states.  Bonding thereby improves collective performance, as teams more easily coordinate actions together and become more united over a common cause.[3]

Chemical changes in the brain influence bonding. By artificially inducing these changes, we could boost bonding between players and thereby improve the collective performance of sports teams. For example, intranasal administration of oxytocin, a peptide which plays a role in pair and family bonding, increases trust and makes individuals more likely to cooperate in simple economic games.[4] Interestingly, oxytocin also makes individuals more likely to be aggressive toward outgroup members. [5]  This indicates hormones like oxytocin could be used to enhance bonding between team members and improve their performance in competitions against other teams.

Another way giving players oxytocin could boost performance is by facilitating the transfer of positive emotions between players. Studies of soccer penalty shootouts show that players who engage in certain prosocial celebratory behaviours are more likely to be on the winning team.[6] One hypothesis for this effect is that the celebratory actions of some team members invoke positive emotions in others. [7] Oxytocin may enhance this effect by facilitating the transfer of positive emotions between team members.

Oxytocin, and other similar hormones, are likely already playing a large role in team sports. Exercise produces oxytocin naturally,[8] and there is likely some variation between individuals in how much oxytocin they produce.  Some individuals will be naturally better team players than others. In addition, some things that teams do may boost the oxytocin levels of the entire team. Performing joint activities and coordinating movement together naturally boosts oxytocin. This might explain why the New Zealand rugby team seems to get a boost after performing the Haka.

The reasons why 7th February 2013 was the darkest day in Australian sport depends little on the fact that the doping programs targeted individuals rather than collective performance. Giving unregulated substances to players without their proper consent is clearly unethical. However, the fact that the doping is nearly always aimed enhancing individual rather than collective performance shows that we sometimes overlook the most important aspect of team sports –teamwork.










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3 Comment on this post

  1. Interesting idea – though, there may be more reason to ban Oxytocin administration among athletes than other sorts of drugs. That’s because of the flip-side of in-group cooperation promoted by Oxytocin: Out-group uncooperativeness. So, one recent study ( found that administration of Oxytocin makes people more likely to lie for the sake of the group and tolerate dishonesty among other group members. This hasn’t been tested to my knowledge, but I expect Oxytocin would similarly increase propensity to cheat in sports for the sake of one’s team, and tolerate cheating.

    If that’s right, the case for banning oxytocin is even stronger than other performance enhancers. Whereas the negative side-effects of traditional doping harms the individual (making health-motivated bans paternalistic), these negative side effects would harm competitors and undermine the competition more generally. It’s easier to justify bans based on third-party harms than self-harm. And while the complaint that doping constitutes cheating can be trivially solved (make doping permitted but regulated), the complaint that oxytocin promotes cheating cannot be so easily addressed – allowing oxytocin will cause athletes to find *other* ways to cheat.

    But all this is really well-worth studying – hopefully someone with a lab and some funds will look into whether oxytocin improves team sports performance and/or increases instances of cheating in sports.

  2. Dr. Gyngell,

    Thank you for your post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your insights on this extremely relevant and pressing topic. As a young girl, I was devastated upon hearing the news of Lance Armstrong & his steroid use. I couldn’t imagine an athlete of such stature, fame and success to be using performance-enhancing drugs. (Sure, I figured a few baseball players here and there, but Lance Armstrong…never.) Soon after the news broke, many more followed and were found guilty of the same crime, leaving us to ask the question: why?
    This week in my Communication Ethics course we are discussing situational ethics. According to B.J. Diggs, “The context or situation is a critical consideration in making the moral judgment…even those who abhor situational ethics still must take situation or context into account” (Johannessen, Valde & Whedbee, 2008, p. 72). In the world of sports, athletes have one job: to win. Could it be that we are placing too much pressure on the aspect of winning that athletes feel they no longer can do so or compete without steroids? Teamwork is certainly a great quality for a team to possess, but I am not sure the answer to doping cessation can all be found within the realms of a high-five or a dinner date with the team. By no means am I saying spectators or the world of sports is the cause of this unethical behavior, but I think it has a great effect on the motivation behind taking such actions, despite their unethical nature.

    Thank you.

    1. Johannesen, R.L., Valde, K.S., Whedbee, K.E. (2008). Ethics in human communication. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

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