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Researcher’s findings debunk accepted wisdom about athlete doping

Lance Armstrong’s recent confession to Oprah Winfrey that he had been using performance enhancing substances for years may have led some more cynical observers to believe that doping among elite athletes has reached epidemic proportions.

Recent research by a human kinetics professor, however, suggests the willingness among elite athletes to cheat at all costs isn’t nearly as common as many might believe.

Julian Woolf co-authored a paper published last week in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that was based on a study of 212 elite athletes and apparently debunks what’s commonly known as the “Goldman Dilemma.” Based on research conducted biannually with world-class athletes between 1982 and 1995, Bob Goldman’s findings suggest if given the opportunity to take an illegal performance enhancing substance that would guarantee them an Olympic gold medal but kill them within five years, about half of them would take the drug.

“A lot of people have heard of the dilemma and it leads them to believe that cheating must be very widespread,” explains Dr. Woolf, who along with Australian colleagues James Connor and Jason Mazanov, replicated Goldman’s research at a Canadian track and field event and found dramatically different results.

Woolf and his colleagues identified a number of problems with Goldman’s approach including the wording of his questions, his questioning methods and generalizations made about the research over time and across social contexts. In the Woolf team’s study, athletes were randomly assigned to two scenarios – they were either asked a series of verbal questions to replicate Goldman’s study, or sent to a screened-in area where they responded to an anonymous online survey.

Their findings showed that only two people responded positively to the original version of the dilemma. If the drug was legal and death still remained as a consequence, 6.1 per cent of the respondents were willing to accept the dilemma, while 11.8 per cent of them said they would make the deal if the substance was illegal but they wouldn’t die as a result. Woolf said the method of data collection didn’t impact the results.

According to Woolf, Goldman’s research is one of the most cited results in anti-doping literature, and has become accepted wisdom regarding the choices elite athletes make regarding drug use in sport. However, highly publicized cases and increased scrutiny in recent years has changed athlete’s attitudes about doping.

“We know that some are going to dope no matter what, but athletes are generally more aware of the consequences and legality of drug use,” Woolf said.

Woolf will appear Thursday, January 31, on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that focuses on the work of University of Windsor researchers and airs every Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on CJAM 99.1 FM.

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