Alternative medicine and doping in sports

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Journal Article
Australasian Medical Journal, 2012, 5 (1), pp. 18 - 25
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Athletes are high achievers who may seek creative or unconventional methods to improve performance. The literature indicates that athletes are among the heaviest users of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and thus may pioneer population trends in CAM use. Unlike non-athletes, athletes may use CAM not just for prevention, treatment or rehabilitation from illness or injuries, but alsofor performance enhancement. Assuming that athletes' creative use of anything unconventional is aimed at "legally" improving performance, CAM may be used because it is perceived as more "natural" and erroneously assumed as not potentially doping. This failure to recognise CAMs as pharmacological agents puts athletes at risk of inadvertent doping. The general position of the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) is one of strict liability, an application of the legal proposition that ignorance is no excuse and the ultimate responsibility is on the athlete to ensure at all times whatever is swallowed, injected orapplied to the athlete is both safe and legal for use. This means that a violation occurs whether or not the athlete intentionally or unintentionally, knowingly or unknowingly, used a prohibited substance/method or was negligent or otherwiseat fault. Athletes are therefore expected to understand not only what is prohibited, but also what might potentially cause an inadvertent doping violation. Yet, as will be discussed, athlete knowledge on doping is deficient and WADA itself sometimes changes its position on prohibited methodsor substances. The situation is further confounded by the conflicting stance of anti-doping experts in the media. These highly publicised disagreements may further portray inconsistencies in anti-doping guidelines and suggest to athletes that what is considered doping is dependent on the dominant political zeitgeist. Taken together, athletes may believe that unless a specific and explicit ruling is made, guidelines are open to interpretation. Therefore doping risk-taking behaviours may occur because of the potential financial, social and performance gains and the optimistically biased interpretation (that trying alternatives is part of the "spirit of sport") and doping risk-taking behaviours may occur. This discussion paper seeks to situate the reader in a world where elite level sports and CAM intersects. It posits that an understanding of the underlying motivation for CAM use and doping is currently lacking and that anti-doping rules need to be repositioned in the context of the emerging phenomenon and prevalence of CAM use.
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