Much of the literature investigating the relationship between sports participation and substance use has focused upon student populations, with little focus being given to athletes who participate at elite levels. Identifying why some athletes may be at a greater risk for substance use can help in the design and implementation of prevention initiatives. Data for the current study was from 1684 self-complete surveys with elite Australian athletes.The authors comment that -
Eight percent (n=134) of the sample reported the use of at least one of the six illicit drugs under investigation (ecstasy, cannabis, cocaine, meth/amphetamine, ketamine and GHB) in the past year. Having been offered or having had the opportunity to use illicit drugs in the past year, knowing other athletes who use drugs and identifying as a ‘full-time athlete’ were significant predictors of past-year illicit drug use, while having completed secondary education or a post-school qualification was associated with a lower likelihood of past-year illicit drug use.
Athletes are part of a sportsnet that includes family, coaches, support staff and other athletes, and these relationships may encourage the use, supply and demand for drugs. The current findings suggest that relationships with some of those in the sportsnet may play an important role when understanding illicit drug use among elite athletes. As education appears to be associated with a lower likelihood of illicit drug use among this group, initiatives should encourage athletes to engage in offfield pursuits which may also help prepare them for life after sport.
Athletes do not live in isolation. Even athletes who compete in so-called ‘individual’ sports are part of a sportsnet that includes family, coaches, support staff and other athletes, and these relationships may encourage the use, supply and demand for drugs. In high profile cases where athletes have been found to have engaged in banned substances use, such as track and field athlete Marion Jones, it has been shown that those in the sportsnet are either knowledgeable or actively complicit in the athlete's substance use. As such, those in the sportsnet are now subject to penalties under the 2009 World Anti-Doping Agency Code (World Anti-Doping Agency, 2009), as well as being identified as an important target group for education. The current findings suggest that relationships with some of those in the sportsnet may play an important role when understanding illicit drug use among elite athletes.
Among the current sample, those who used illicit drugs were more likely to be male, older, know other athletes who used illicit drugs and had been offered or had the opportunity to use drugs. Previous research among other athletic populations have found that gender, other substance use, type of sport and personal factors such as sensation seeking and religiosity are just some of the factors found to be associated with drug use. However, these relationships are not simple and are further undermined by the possibility that the factors that relate to “illicit drug” use may differ from those related to “performance enhancing drug” use, and even then, factors may vary. For instance, in discussing why cyclists might engage in doping behaviour, one participant in a study conducted by Hardie, Shilbury, et al. (2010) stated “I'd like to give you one straight answer but I can't. Amateurs do it to turn professional. Professionals do it to keep a job. But then you've also got the high end guys like guys who are winning Tours and are on multimillion dollar contracts are still doing it. You can't say it's for the money. You have to look a bit deeper and say it's probably not peer pressure but pressure to perform and pressure they put on themselves and pressure to win.” (pg. 63).
Identifying as a “full-time” athlete was associated with an increased likelihood of engaging in illicit drug use, while completing post-secondary education was associated with a lower likelihood of illicit drug use. Increased focus has been given to athletes' on- and off-field lives and how these interact. For athletes, career termination may occur suddenly and involuntarily and sporting organisations are persuading their athletes to undergo training and education to prepare for life after sport. This, in turn, may have positive benefits for the athlete while they still have an active sporting career. Price, Morrison, et al. (2010) found that 90% of elite athletes actively engaged in non-sporting pursuits to help lengthen their sporting career; that these non-sporting pursuits provided an outlet from sport; and that 72% of those athletes undertaking work outside of sport or studying believed that this aided their performance. Further research should explore the relationship between off-field pursuits and on-field performance.