Exploring the Progressive Use of Performance Enhancing Substances by High-Performance Athletes

Aaron C.T. Smith, Constantino Stavros

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Given implications associated with the use of performance-enhancing substances (PESs), stakeholders must remain informed about usage precipitants and anticipate conditions signaling athlete vulnerability to hazardous exposures. Objectives: To gain deeper qualitative insight into high-level athlete PES usage; explore the variables leading them to escalate their PES use regimens; reveal PES experiences during their careers and, unlike other studies, not to focus exclusively on “doping” as measured by the use of WADA-banned substances. Methods: A macro life course–based framework from which the data could emerge through a thematic coding analysis was utilized. Sixteen narrative life course histories of recently retired high-performance athletes report on the factors impelling their escalation in PES use, including for some, the first use of banned PES. Results: Informant reports, thematically coded, reveal performance maximization urgency to be a central factor in escalating PES use, driven by four variables: Requirements, Opportunities, Influencers and Outcomes. These variables each comprise two key components that stimulate an urgency ecosystem affecting an athlete’s proximity to an escalation threshold. Conclusions/Importance: Such a comprehensive investigation of PES use precipitants has not previously been undertaken. Advances in PES use were instantiated by a substantive, sometimes radical and often sudden increase in urgency to improve performance related to output requirements, specific demands, knowledge and access, timing windows, the competitive landscape, loyalty to coaches, efficiency expectations and likelihood of detection. This study informs incremental models of doping, the use of which is encouraged in order to analyze life course narratives to better understand athlete behaviors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)914-927
Number of pages14
JournalSubstance Use and Misuse
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes


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