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Pushing Limits

Pushing Limits: Sport, Spectacle and Performance Enhancement

Prof. Jay Coakley (Honorary Fellow, University of Chichester)

23rd April 2013, University of Chichester

The fourth and final event in the AWF 2013 Seminar Series was a first look at new research by Professor Jay Coakley (Honorary Fellow, University of Chichester) on the role of Performance Enhancing Substances (PESs) in the careers of elite athletes. Jay used a model currently being developed in collaboration with a French sociologist of sport to analytically frame the use of PESs as a career choice made by elite athletes as they deal with the demands and expectations of today’s high performance sports. His assumption was that we must understand the culture and context of high performance sports to understand the choices made by athletes.

Jay introduced his presentation to fifty undergraduate and doctoral students, former and current staff and guests with a brief historical overview of sport training regimes used in the USA and German Democratic Republic from the 1970s through the 1990s. These programmes were constantly affected by greater investments in, and media impact on, sport which was becoming more commercialised and professionalised during this period. Athletes were subject to more frequent and intense training schedules in order to compete at the elite level. This intensity impacted athletes’ bodies causing the athletes to seek support from medical and training personnel who were experts in the “science of performance”.

Prof. Jay Coakley (Honorary Fellow, University of Chichester)

The majority of Jay’s presentation was based on a model developed by French sociologist of sport Christophe Brissonneau. The model outlines the career of elite cyclists and other top athletes (interviewed by Christophe over the past 15 years) and focuses specifically on how the use of PESs fit into in high performance sport career. The model is based on three distinct phases of involvement (ranging from initial interest and participation to the post-sport career): Common World   –   Extra-Ordinary World   –   Common World


Brissonneau's model of how the use of PESs fit into the high performance sport career elite cyclists

The model indicates that when athletes enter the extra-ordinary world of high performance sport, their whole frame of reference changes: sport participation becomes a job and success becomes essential for keeping the job, and training and competitive performance must meet the expectations of coaches, teammates and sponsors.

Jay outlined how athletes may move between each career phase, with those who learn to use PESs in the third or fourth stage sometimes returning to non-elite competitions while still using the highly rationalized, scientific training regimes they used as professional. This creates a complex relationship with athletes who have not come across PES use before, and may be influenced to take them should their desire be to advance through the stages. This is further facilitated by the fact that drug-testing and prevention programmes are too expensive to implement at the lower levels of sport.

Elite athletes who train for 20+ hours a week are forced to lead a medically-oriented life because of the damage being done to their bodies and the need to recover rapidly. This leads athletes to depend on sports medicine doctors rather than general practitioners because they want to work with a professional who has specific knowledge of their needs.

This is not a new issue by any means, and Jay described how different forms of PESs have been used since the 1870s. But PESs have been defined as a problem since they were banned and retrospective judgements of performances are made. Before being banned, using PESs was the norm for many elite athletes. This is fundamentally linked into the sport ethic, and how elite athletes push these ethics and norms to the extreme (such as intense monitoring of food intake, sleep patterns, and training measurements) in order to be the best.

Prof. Coakley was the fourth and final presenter in the AWF Seminar Series.

Coakley noted that it is difficult for researchers to gain access to information about the choices made by elite athletes. The athletes realize that they must use a discourse to explain their lives in terms that will be understood and accepted by people in the everyday world. Therefore, they emphasize sport as a force for good, when in reality there are many issues to be highlighted. This example was seen very recently with professional cyclist Lance Armstrong.

The final phase of the model is the post-career. This can be very difficult for athletes to negotiate because they have lived for so long in the extra-ordinary world of high performance sports where frames of reference, normative standards, and medical/pharmacological practices are unique. Sometimes, alcohol and recreational drug intake can be one way to deal with this.

The stakes for young athletes entering elite sport are higher than ever before: more pressure, more influence, and more money. Taking PESs allow athletes to be part of a collective and receive key forms of acceptance from their peers. Jay questioned how interventions for elite athletes (phases three and four) may not work because the norms and practices used in high performance sports are difficult to change. Instead, socialising younger athletes may be more beneficial to stop the culture. Doing this is very difficult as sport as an institution grows ever-powerful and the barriers to the media and researchers become stronger.

Dr Elizabeth Pike (AWF Chair) thanked Jay and the audience in attendance before allowing Dr Anita White to briefly reflect on her experiences as an elite athlete and give an outline of the AWF and its recent achievements.