Why do tennis players take drugs?

Last month, the world of athletics was rocked by a truly extraordinary sound: as the name “Justin Gatlin” was announced on the loud speaker following the 100-metre final at the World Championships in London, a large proportion of the crowd voiced their discontent.

The deafening boos were a sign of frustration from fans who felt that their favourite, the inimitable Usain Bolt, had been cheated by a man who had, well, cheated in the past. Although Gatlin served a four-year ban after testing positive for testosterone in 2006, certain fans feel that he has irrevocably tarnished the image of the sport – just as road cycling was torn apart by the revelations of Lance Armstrong’s long-term doping in 2012.

For a long time, tennis and its governing bodies have tried to rise above these sideshows, presenting a wholesome, squeaky-clean image of the sport. Apart from the odd “recreational” drug scandal – think cocaine and methamphetamine – tennis seemed to be free of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). However, there had always been quiet whispers and rumours that all is not exactly as it seems.

“Naivety says that tennis is clean, the way it’s been all the way through,” Roger Federer told CNN back in 2013. “It’s pretty good, of course every sport always has some cases. But I think our sport needs to do the upmost to try to make sure the integrity stays and that the fans don’t tune into different sports just because they don’t trust the players anymore.” Federer’s comments came after Novak Djokovic, who was then the World No.1, told journalists that he hadn’t been tested for six months.

However, that naivety finally came crumbling down after the shock news that Maria Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam champion, had failed a drugs test at the 2016 Australian Open. She had tested positive for meldonium, a substance normally used in heart medication that increases the oxygen supply in the blood. It was added to World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list of banned substances at the start of that year.

Despite Sharapova’s protestations that she had been taking the drug to combat magnesium deficiency, she was widely condemned by the leading lights of the sport: in typically forthright style, Andy Murray said: “If you’re taking a prescription drug and you’re not using it for what that drug was meant for, then you don’t need it, so you’re just using it for the performance enhancing benefits that drug is giving you. And I don’t think that that’s right.”

Sharapova was banned from the sport for two years, a sentence that was later reduced to 15 months. She returned to the WTA tour on 26 April this year.

But key questions still remain: why would an ultra-talented sportsperson such as Sharapova turn “to the dark side” in the first place? Do the physical benefits really outweigh the risk of being banned from the sport you love and have dedicated your life to playing?

Moreover, what psychological factors are at play? How do the players justify their drug-taking to themselves?

The drugs

The use of performance-enhancing substances dates back to the days of Viking warriors (allegedly) consuming hallucinogenic mushrooms to enter a trance-like “berserk” state and, even earlier, Roman charioteers drinking “herbal infusions” to gain the upper hand during a race.

While modern athletes no longer guzzle shrooms while raiding Northumbrian monasteries, there’s still a range of banned drugs that offer a physical “legs up” – without any of the hard work. The five main types are as follows:

  • Anabolic steroids. Perhaps the most famous performance-enhancing drugs, anabolic steroids allow athletes to both build muscle more quickly and train harder. Anabolic steroids were used in East Germany’s state-sponsored doping programme, which resulted in the communist country punching well above its weight at the Olympics.
  • Stimulants. While you naturally produce a stimulant (adrenaline), other drugs such as amphetamines, ephedrine, cocaine and caffeine can be used for an unnatural energy boost. In the word’s of the International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) anti-doping portal: “Stimulants are used by athletes to attain increased alertness, reduce tiredness and to increase competitiveness and aggression.”
  • Diuretics. By increasing the amount of urine and excretion, surely one of the least pleasant words in the English language, that the body produces, diuretics allow nefarious athletes to lose weight very quickly (for example, if they’re a boxer before a weigh-in) and even hide other illegal substances in the body by diluting them.
  • Human growth hormone (HGH). Used to build muscle, this PED has a history in tennis. In 2010, American and then World No.98 Wayne Odesnik pleaded guilty to importing HGH into Australia, which led to a two-year ban by the ITF.
  • Narcotic analgesics. These drugs affect the central nervous system, masking pain and even producing a feeling of euphoria. Consequently, they allow athletes to train harder and ignore injuries that would otherwise put them out of action.

However, whatever the reason for taking the drugs, their impact on the body is undeniable. The physical side effects of anabolic steroids, for example, can be lingering and gruesome. In men, they can cause acne, impotency, baldness and even impaired liver function.

For women, the side effects include hair loss, a deeper voice and facial hair growth. In extreme cases, taking the drugs can even cause heart attacks, high blood pressure and blood clots (all of the above symptoms are listed on the NHS website).

If that wasn’t enough, PEDs also take a psychological toll, with players that misuse the substances exhibiting mood swings, very aggressive behaviour (see Diego Maradona’s infamous ephedrine-fuelled celebration after scoring against Greece in the 1994 World Cup) and even hallucinations.Yet players, even those on the amateur tennis circuit, still choose to throw all caution to the wind and take the drugs. Why?

Yet players, even those on the amateur tennis circuit, still choose to throw all caution to the wind and take the drugs. Why?

The thinking

While the physical reasons for doping are obvious, the psychological reasoning is less obvious. It often gets lost amongst the public outcry and dopers rarely speak out after the event. So what are the deeper-seated reasons why players resort to a chemical boost? Is it simply peer pressure? Or does it all stem from a feeling of inferiority or even invincibility?

So what are the deeper-seated reasons why players resort to a chemical boost? Is it simply peer pressure? Or does it all stem from a feeling of inferiority or even invincibility?

In Oprah Winfrey’s notorious interview with Lance Armstrong, she asked the disgraced cyclist whether it was humanly possible to win the Tour de France seven times without doping. She received the following, very telling, answer: “Not in my opinion… I didn’t invent the culture, but I didn’t try to stop the culture.”

Culture is the key word here: just as teenagers can be pressured into trying drugs such as cannabis for the first time, tennis players may come into contact with people who offer a boost in performance – without any of the hard work.

It’s a common theme in the stories of many athletes who have previously doped. For example, an ex-bodybuilder told the BBC that , “in all honesty it was a cheat and something to get ahead of the other guys in the gym. I looked around the gym and the other guys were getting ahead of me and I wondered why. Peer pressure was one of the reasons I took them.”

However, Dr Paul McCarthy, who is a sport and exercise psychologist with the British Psychological Society, offered an ulterior explanation to Tennis Talent:  “In simple terms, the athlete believes in the rewards offered by these substances. The rewards outweigh the drawbacks and so the decision is made. The athlete moves beyond legal, moral and ethical principles and perhaps justifies the role of drugs in sport.”

McCarthy’s argument, therefore, shifts the focus firmly from the “culture” to the individual: the player isn’t a childish figure forced to take steroids by “school bullies” – they know exactly what they’re doing, tell themselves that it’s morally right and move beyond the boundaries of what’s acceptable in the sport.

It’s quite a bleak assessment, but there are still plenty of positive signs. For example, the ITF’s new Junior Education Programme aims to better prepare talented young players for a career in the sport. The scheme includes an anti-doping module comprised of “documents, videos and a quiz to provide a more effective combination of education tools for players around the subject of anti-doping”.

Consequently, if tennis is to remain comparatively untroubled by high-profile instances of PED use, education of up-and-coming players, regular tests and no-holds-barred comments from idols such as Andy Murray are important tools.

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