Why cyclists cheat: seven possible reasons for doping

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There’s a consensus in road cycling circles that the sport is cleaner than it was 10 to 15 years ago and yet barely a fortnight seems to go by without news of another positive test. So just how prevalent is doping in road cycling and, perhaps more importantly, why do riders insist on cheating? Psychologist Dr Justin Coulson investigates.

“Pack of flamin’ cheats, the lot of ‘em.”

My uncle and I had been discussing my passion for cycling. He was convinced that while none of his beloved football teams would ever cheat, cycling was corrupt to the core and as such he would never be a fan.

While no sport is immune, cycling’s record on doping is awfully tarnished thanks to decades of cheating. Fans of the sport hate the idea that the integrity of cycling remains in question because of doping, but the steady stream of reports continues with current drug violations detected or suspected at local, Continental, and WorldTour levels. But how prevalent is doping?

Doping prevalence

In 2013 WADA conducted close to 24,000 biological passport analyses, with nearly 7,500 of them in cycling (approximately one third). The next closest sport tested was athletics (approximately 23%) — a sport battling its own ongoing doping issues. Only about 0.25% of the cycling blood tests (ABP) showed “adverse analytical findings”.

In 2013 the UCI conducted a combined total of 9,430 tests (urine tests and Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) tests – see page 6 here) with just 2.2% showing atypical findings, and only 1% leading to adverse outcomes. (The difference between atypical and adverse outcomes relates to the percentage of atypical findings that were a result of therapeutic use exemptions.)

While doping checks in cycling eclipse all other sports, and detection rates suggest prevalence is very, very low, not all data point in the same direction. This 2011 study shows (via blood tests) that doping prevalence may be as high as 48% or as low as 1%, and that doping is predictable based on country of athlete and type of activity. Countries were not identified in the study.

Additionally, the recent CIRC report makes it clear that doping practice continues at all levels of cycling, with increasingly sophisticated strategies being used. There is no question that cheating via performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) is happening.

But why do people cheat? And how do they justify it? Here are seven reasons cyclists might cheat:

Cui bono? Who benefits?

Campbell’s law (while not conceived for the sporting context) states that “The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

In other words, if decisions are made based on some kind of measure like winning, people will cheat that measure to their own (or their team’s) benefit. So the first reason cheating is justified is that “If I cheat, I benefit.” From an Atlantic article on the topic:

“In the context of professional sports like racing, moral choices are perceived as economic decisions, and the stakes are simply too high for it to be rational not to cheat.”

The self-fulfilling prophecy

A recent study by Stephen Moston and some Griffith University colleagues showed that high school students and high school athletes perceive PED use to be around 30% in elite athletes.

It may seem inconsequential to ask kids what they think about PED use, but the rationale is wise: if students (non-sporting) and adolescent representative-level athletes perceive doping to be occurring, then it stands to reason that PED use becomes part of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The most-talked-about cyclist of all time was a victim of this thinking, according to his own story.

Moral disengagement

Another significant contributor to a cheating culture is the moral disengagement athletes exhibit. Cheats switch off normal moral processes, justify the cheating, and do the wrong thing. They don’t think it makes them a bad person. It just excuses them in this context.

Educator and author Stephen R. Covey described the rationalisation process as one where we tell ourselves ‘rational lies’. We say things to ourselves that are not true, but convince ourselves that they are, and in so doing we justify what would otherwise be inappropriate behaviour. Examples include: “Everyone else is doing it”, “It’s not cheating; it’s levelling the playing field” and “It’s not hurting anyone else; it’s a victimless crime”.

Such rationalisations only promote the self-fulfilling prophecy and moral disengagement that pushes people towards cheating in whatever form they choose.

Social norms

If everyone around you is doing something, it is normal to follow suit. Stanley Milgram’s classic psychology experiment in the 1960s (replicated as recently as a few years ago) showed that people will conform with an authority figure’s demands, even when no external contingencies (coercion) are implied.

Imagine being a 19- or 23-year-old athlete whose dream is to race in Europe. You get there and the team doctor tells you to take something. Do it, and pursue your dream. Don’t do it, and it’s time to come home early – and unsuccessful.

Goal orientation

People with a performance goal orientation are focused on proving competence. In cycling races, this means winning – or doing your job better than anyone else (perhaps as a domestique). Those with a learning goal orientation focus more on mastery of a task. Process, discovery, and improvement are their goals (compared to ‘results’).

Studies convincingly demonstrate that individuals with a performance goal orientation are more likely to cheat when compared with someone with a mastery/learning goal orientation. (A person’s orientation can be manipulated by context. If a DS applies heavy pressure for results, a person with a mastery orientation may experience a shift to a performance orientation.)

Many athletes use drugs, not so much to get ahead as for maintenance. They work hard to get to the top, but when they sense they might be under pressure, they take it to maintain their edge.

They’re used to being a winner. Their identity and goal orientation combine to promote the rationalisation that “the sport is exhausting me. I got to the top on my own, so I’m not cheating by taking something to keep me here.”

Beliefs about ability

Some people believe that they only have so much ability. They perceive ability level as a fixed entity. Others perceive ability as something that can grow and develop. If a person has a fixed entity belief, they may see cheating as the only viable way to improve. After all, talent will only get you so far.

Entity and growth beliefs about ability correspond closely with performance and mastery orientations respectively. Unsurprisingly, entity and performance goals correlate positively, while growth and mastery goals correlate positively.


Some have argued that elite athletes feel a sense of narcissistic superiority. They feel they are beyond reproach and above the law. Their success (financial and otherwise) leads them to feel a lack of constraint, and a belief they can get away with anything.

This sense, combined with a need to protect their identity as a superstar (fixed mindset and performance orientation) may promote the ‘need’ to use PEDs to enhance the probability of success.

Additionally, they’re young and nothing can hurt them. They’re immortal. It goes with the territory.

While there may be more going on than we have space to consider in this article, these seven psychological processes may provide key mechanisms that lead to cheating behaviour in athletes.

Protective factors

One interesting recent study suggests that more can be done to reduce doping prevalence. In a small qualitative study, protective factors that guarded against athletes cheating included: seeing more to life than just sport (and having an identity beyond sport), having strong support mechanisms in their lives through sound relationships with parents and coaches, and having a strong personal moral stance against cheating as well as an incremental/growth mindset and a learning/mastery goal orientation.

PEDs and other forms of cheating are, and likely always will be, a part of sport. But understanding the risk factors that increase the likelihood of cheating, and the protective factors that guard athletes against cheating will help athletes, coaches, families, institutions, and governing bodies increase the integrity of sport, and boost our appreciation of how remarkable these athletes can be – naturally.

Dr Justin Coulson would like to thank Stephen Moston PhD at Canberra University, and Stewart Vella PhD at Wollongong University for their input.

About the author

Dr Justin Coulson speaks to professionals and parents about positivity – at work, at home, in life. He and his wife are the parents of six children. He rides less than he used to – and he’s finally ok with that. You can read more of his work at his website and you can connect with him on Facebook and on Twitter.

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