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Deviance Features In Sport

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Sport, both for participants and spectators, has grown rapidly over the last few years and has become more accessible to people across the whole world at many different levels. At the same time, technological innovations and huge financial investments in equipment, facilities and resources, mean that sport has taken on an essential role in society (Audickas, 2017). There have been record numbers at elite events, from the previous Rio Olympics in 2016 (Curton, 2019) to more amateur levels, such as ‘Parkrun’, where runners taking part have increased dramatically since the establishment of the event in 2004 (Ingle, 2019). For many, sport provides an essential release – an escape from the daily stressors and rules which dictate our lives – however, when certain boundaries are crossed, deviance may occur; deviance, which may be regarded in the wider society as harmless, has much greater effects and consequences in sporting arenas. In this essay, I will attempt to analyse the unique perspective sport gives us in which to study deviance. There are four main reasons why sport provides us with this special context, which will be elaborated on further below. After examining these, the focus will be on the use of performance enhancing substances as a form of deviance, their history and dangers, as well as evaluating the theories as to why athletes may take these drugs.

Deviance is a term employed when certain rules and regulations, which are regarded as socially acceptable by society, are broken. Sociologists employ the term ‘norm’ meaning “a shared expectation of what is (un)acceptable in the social world” (Coaxley and Pike, 2014). Therefore, when someone’s feelings, thoughts or actions are perceived as being outside of the ‘norms’, deviance occurs; this “violates established normative rules. It demands punishment and that the authority of rules be restored” (Karen and Washington, 2010). The functionalist theory states that without deviance, society would not be able to co-operate, so punishment for crossing boundaries is required to maintain the status quo, as it enforces normative standards.

As explored above, deviance may not always be regarded as a negative phenomenon. Certain behaviours may be subjectively seen as ‘wanted’ by society in certain sporting events and is understood to be controversial, but is part of the excitement for spectators (Atkinson and Young, 2008). An example of this is in rugby if an athlete sustains an accidental hit by another player and has a concussion. Since these actions are within the rules of the game and was carried with the intention of winning, this is seen in a positive manner. On the other hand, when behaviours are not socially desired this is ‘unwanted’ deviance, which is deemed unconventional. These actions violate the official rules and can have many punishments; as believed by the Functionalist theory, it is required to remind people of what is allowed and what isn’t within sport. Deviance can take multiple forms and will be elaborated on further within the essay with the focus on sport.

Sport provides a unique situation to examine deviance due to four main reasons as analysed by (Coaxley and Pike, 2014). Firstly, the behaviours, thoughts and actions which may be seen as acceptable in sport, may in contrast, be defined as deviant within the remainder of society and vice versa, what is allowed in society, may in turn be viewed as deviant within sport. So, there is very different view on the perception of deviance from either society or sports. Secondly, the multiple forms deviance may take across different sports means we cannot apply the same theory to explain them all, as deviance is contingent to each individual sport. Thirdly, deviance in sport may not always involve rejection of the rules and norms, however unquestioned acceptance and adherence to them. In other words, over-acceptance of norms. Finally, rapidly changing medical and technological advances in sport means there has not been the opportunity for norms yet to be created. I will now explore each of these areas in further detail.

On the first point, within sport, certain behaviours which are part of the game and are encouraged by fans as they are exciting, might be seen as deviant and controversial within wider society. For example, a boxing combat punch would incur criminal conviction within normal society, however, it is acceptable within the rules of the sport. On the other hand, behaviours such as taking various performance enhancing substances that are illegal for athletes, would not be an issue at a non professional level in wider society. For instance, an archer taking a beta blocker for reducing physical effects of anxiety before a competition is not allowed (Clarkson, 2012), however, for a musician before a concert, it would be acceptable (Savulescu, Foddy and Clayton, 2004).

To elaborate on the second point and unwanted behaviours as mentioned above, deviance can take many forms across multiple different sports. For example, acts of violence, aggression, intimidation, use of performance enhancing substances and cheating (Coaxley and Pike, 2014). Depending on the particular sport, certain actions may be viewed as deviant or not according to the social group and governing body who set the rules of the games. Therefore, deviance is contextual to the specific sport and culture.

Regarding the third point, most high level athletes will engage in behaviours to go above and beyond what is normal, in order to become the best. They may participate in deviant overconformity, which is, “supranormal ideas, traits and actions that occur when people uncritically accept norms and conform to them without recognising boundaries” (Coaxley and Pike, 2014). Athletes will strive for perfection by training to excess, and not stopping to consider the consequences. They adopt norms set by society related to working hard, being dedicated and overcoming hurdles to reach their goals by taking these values to the extreme. This is differentiated from ‘under-conformity’ (or the rejection of the rules) by the social constructionalism theory. This theorises that boundaries which are seen as acceptable and norms are socially constructed and may change over time depending on the context (Coaxley and Pike, 2014). Furthermore, as stated by Brissoneau’s model (Spitzer, 2007), athletes training at a high level require more and more in order to succeed in sport. An example of this, is when athletes resort to using performance enhancing substances when their bodies can no longer cope with punishing training schedules and the demands of high level competitions.

Finally, evolution in technology and medicine is playing an increasingly important role within sports. Due to this rapid growth, social norms are not formed quickly enough to guide athletes as to what is socially acceptable or not. An example of this is the Nike Vaporfly running shoes. This ground breaking design has springs inserted into the carbon insoles which enhance race performances by up to 4% (Woodward, 2019). This has lead to the breaking of both the men’s and women’s world best times in subsequent marathons (Suggitt, 2019; Douglas and Nakamura, 2019). It is clear from the evidence (Barnes and Kilding, 2019) that these shoes give an advantage to wearers. So are these shoes a violation of the rules as they give the athlete an unfair advantage?

I will now be focussing specifically on the use of performance enhancing substances as a form of deviance within sport, related to the above points. I will discuss the history and importance of studying drug use within sport and why athletes may resort to taking them.

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There is a long history of performance enhancing drugs and of athletes pushing themselves beyond human limits of endurance (Dimeo, 2007). Back in 4th century BC, sportsmen were supplied with drugs to give them extra strength and combat fatigue whilst engaging in sport. By the middle of the 20th century powerful drugs were being used to enhance performance, such as the use of amphetamines to prolong time to maximum exhaustion during the 1952 Olympics. Similarly, in the 1976 Olympics, the East German swimming team won 11 out of 13 events (Savulescu, Foddy and Clayton, 2004). Upon investigation up to 48% of athletes were found to be guilty of blood doping (Sottas, 2011) Perhaps it was not until the famous case of Ben Johnson winning a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics, using steroids, (Blackwell, 1991) that awoke the general public’s awareness of drugs in sport (Sugden and Tomlinson, 2012). The use of varying kinds of drugs has increased dramatically over the past decades at all levels from amateur and professional (Savulescu, Foddy and Clayton, 2004).

There are multiple uses of drugs within sport which are categorised into four areas (Wagner, 2014); therapeutic, recreational and performance enhancing uses, as well as drugs to mask the detection of other drugs. The most important drugs include stimulants, anabolic steroids, human growth hormone and erythropoietin (EPO). This is a complex area as some drugs used for medicinal uses such as decongestants for a common cold or the flu, may contain substances which are on the banned list, leading to a positive test for athletes. Whilst, ‘blood doping’ describes how blood was intentionally transfused to increase the red blood cell mass artificially, in order to boost performance. EPO is a naturally occurring hormone in the human body which promotes synthesis of new red blood cells (RBCs). The more RBCs, the more oxygen can be taken up into the blood and thus delivered to working muscles and increases capacity during endurance sports. Since the 1980s, a recombinant human form (rHuEpo) has been used to replicate these effects with tablets which are hard to detect (Cazzola, 2000). This is an example of how rapidly medicine and technology are evolving, and how difficult it is for the sporting bodies to constantly update their test kits to match the innovative new drugs.

There are many physical and mental long term health consequences for athletes as a result of taking these drugs. For example, when sprinter Florence Joyner died of ‘natural causes’ aged 38, after an early retirement from athletics, this sparked further interest into the controversies of doping (Turnball, 1998) as she was presumed to have been taking drugs. Since in this decade, testing was under-developed and unable to detect such substances, these world records in the 100 and 200m remain controversial. Drugs such as EPO have many side effects, such as causing strokes and heart attacks. This was speculated to be the cause of death of professional Dutch cyclists in the 1990s when the drug was abused and not controlled (Savulescu, Foddy and Clayton, 2004). It is important for sporting bodies to be aware of the harmful side effects of these drugs and what signs to look out for in suspected athletes.

Despite the many health risks of using drugs, there are a lot of athletes who still use them due to a number of reasons. There are various frameworks and theories which attempt to explain the case. An encompassing model of drug use in sport (Donovan, 2012) may be summarised as having six major inputs into an athlete’s intentions and attitudes. These include threat and benefit appraisal, personal morality, legitimacy, personality aspects and finally their reference group and social norm influences. The two most important factors which may dictate an athlete’s choice are the affordability and availability of drugs. To further understand this model each component will be discussed.

A threat appraisal this is the perceived likelihood an athlete has that they will be tested and that the drug will be detected. It also includes the perceived health risks of taking the drugs and severity of the consequences of a positive test. It was found in a study (Tricker and Connolly, 1997) that the main reasons why university students did not use drugs was fear of getting caught and the consequent legal actions. This is used as the simplest deterrence model in modern day sport. On the other hand, the benefits of using drugs may be apparent to athletes when it will help them reach their desired goals, and if this will lead to considerable rewards. This relates back to the overconformity displaying in athletes, where they will do whatever it takes to be the best and gain the respect of their peers.

Normative factors which guide people’s actions and their compliance with rules include their personal morality, where people will obey what they believe to be laws; and legitimacy, where they believe that the body enforcing laws has the right to do so. (Donovan, 2012). This focuses on the attitudes and personal beliefs of athletes with their actions being of a particular manner ‘because it is the right thing to do’ regardless of the punishment. This aspect is now seen as the goal of most educational programmes which aim to shift the cultural attitudes on performance enhancing substances (Anshel and Russell, 1997). Sport and values have always been considered to go hand in hand, where sport is believed to teach people positive values such as honesty, resilience and respect (Butcher and Schneider, 1998).

Lastly, an athlete’s reference group and social norms are vital influences to their behaviour. When an athlete perceives that others are using drugs, it will increase their likelihood of taking them and becomes a normalised behaviour within their group. It creates a unique sense of bonding, making athletes feel special and they view outsiders as not understanding the multiple stressors they are under. This “expression of self importance and sense of being separate from and above the rest of the community” is defined as hubris (Coaxley and Pike, 2014). This sense of specialness may be re enforced by overconformity. Athletes become so consumed in their sport that all other aspects of their lives, such as relationships, personal physical and mental well-being, are ignored and consequently suffer. This was the case of Lance Armstrong, when he revealed his drug usage and the inevitable engagement due to the prevalence within cycling and the environment athletes are surrounded by (Dimeo, 2007).

There are further theories which attempt to explain why athletes may engage in using performance enhancing drugs. Waddington theorised that drug usage is due to normalising trends including the “medicalization of sport, subcultural traditions and technologization of training”, (Waddington, 2010). Athletes may self experiment with their bodies and build up as much speed, strength and endurance as possible. They may do so using any means which become available with new advances in medicine and technological aids, this could mean resorting to drug use. Subcultural traditions occur when athletes form special bonds with other team mates where their actions are normalised and athletes over-conform together so it is no longer regarded as deviant to them. Furthermore, Cashmore (2010) supports that the growth of the drug culture in sport to intensify levels of competition may drive athletes to use of drugs in sport to be able to survive and perform at a particular level.

The use of drugs in sport due to intensifying levels of competition is reflected in the case with Festina Watches in the 1998 Tour de France. The whole team were arrested after it was found that most of the athletes, managers, coaches and supporting staff had been supplying EPO and human growth hormones to the cyclists to aid performance, because the athletes were performing so well. This behaviour had become so ‘normal’ in the environment for many of these athletes, that they didn’t even question taking the drugs when it was advocated by everyone around them (Moller, 2015). The conflict theory may further explain the situation in which athletes are seen as having no choice in what they do, and are ‘victims’ of of corrupt profit making system in which those with economic power and money act in their own interests in order to make profit. If the athletes are encouraged by sponsors, team managers and their surrounding influencers, they may have no choice but to take these drugs if they want to stay as part of the group and receive funding and support. Those in power want athletes to become stronger and more powerful for a more exciting spectacle for fans, which in turn will bring more money into the system and further commercialise the bodies of athletes.

In my critical opinion, sport provides us with a unique context to study deviance due to various reasons. Deviance may be viewed from two main perspectives: from the outside, in the wider society; or from the inside, within an athlete’s peer training group. As mentioned above, some behaviours may be acceptable from one point of view, but not from the other and vice versa. Also, within sport, due to the varying rules between particular sports, behaviours may be viewed as deviant in one sport but not another, which further provides a unique perspective on what is allowed and what isn’t. Furthermore, due to the individual nature/personality of athletes, such as an obsessiveness or maladaptive perfectionist traits, they will be more likely to engage in deviant behaviours when they strive for distinction, and will do whatever it takes to reach that level regardless. As many athletes also believe they are a unique and separate group, certain behaviours may become normalised to them, although they are viewed as deviant within society. In order for the athletes to continue to train and compete at a particular level, they may view this as a necessary step rather than a form of deviance. From a societal point of view, deviant behaviour within sport may be enhanced by the pressures of putting on ‘an exciting show’ or living up to the Olympic motto of ‘faster, higher, stronger’. In an ever changing world, norms will be constantly be evolving, however deviance will always be an inevitable part of the world of sport.

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Deviance Features In Sport. (2021, September 20). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 29, 2023, from
“Deviance Features In Sport.” Edubirdie, 20 Sept. 2021,
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