We – the public – talk a good game when it comes to doping

Maria Sharapova received honour of parading Australian Open trophy at the draw

Here is a prediction. Every time Maria Sharapova steps on to court at the Australian Open this year she will be greeted with shrieks of: "Come on Maria!" and elongated waves of goodwill.

There will be smiles. And, before even the Russian’s first practice stroke, the unease generated when she received the honour of parading the women’s trophy at the draw last week will be ancient history – much like her positive test for meldonium at Melbourne Park two years ago, and her 15-month suspension.

The thing is, we – the public – talk a good game when it comes to doping. Survey after survey reminds us that high numbers of us think it is bad and those who perpetrate it should be punished. We also know it perverts the spirit of sport – or whatever is left of it – ruins honest people’s careers and can potentially damage an athlete’s health. Yet while we talk the talk the research suggests we do not necessarily walk the walk.

One academic paper, the provocatively entitled Nobody’s Innocent: the Role of Customers in the Doping Dilemma, sets out the issue bluntly. “When fraudulent activities are detected in some organisation, the customers have to make a decision,” it begins. “Either they continue the relationship with this organisation or they boycott it.”


But when our favourite athlete, sport or event is hit by doping, the evidence that we act with our wallets and eyeballs is not as solid as you might think.

A good starting point is the paper Do Fans Care About Compliance to Doping Regulations in Sports? The Impact of PED Suspension in Baseball, which forensically examined what happened every time a player was banned for using performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball from 2005 to 2013.

The conclusions were fascinating – and surprising. Initially the announcement of a positive test reduced the home-game attendance of the player’s team by 8 per cent – a not insignificant margin. This, incidentally, is the first systematic evidence that doping decreases consumer demand for sporting events. However, there was an almighty sting in the tail. After 15 days the effect had decreased quickly to the point where it was no longer statistically significant.

Interestingly a suspension led to a 0.83 per cent drop in attendances across the league – showing that doping damaged the whole sport economically in the short term – but again the effect did not last long.

What of cycling? Surprisingly the doping scandals at the Tour de France do not appear to have a lasting effect on TV figures. True, German audiences did fall after the bans of Floyd Landis and Michael Rasmussen in 2006 and 2007. But the Belgian economist Daam Van Reeth found they remained stable in the Netherlands, Flanders and Denmark following major doping cases at the Tour, while in Spain they dipped in the year after a scandal but then returned to normal.

As Van Reeth told me: “Overall there doesn’t seem to be an important impact on cycling’s TV audiences from doping cases and, if there is an impact, it lasts for only a year. After studying this for 10 years I have the impression that the reaction from sponsors to a doping scandal is always much more outspoken than the public’s reaction.”

Other research suggests that, when it comes to clean sport, people believe in their own country’s athletes more than foreign ones. At least that is one of the conclusions from the paper Doping in Elite Sport – Do the Fans Care? which looked at how prevalent Norwegians thought doping was in 14 elite sports, on a scale of one to 10 (with one indicating it was very rare and 10 that it was very common). Unsurprisingly, cycling ranked top, with athletics second and boxing third. However, in every sport Norwegians thought doping was more common elsewhere. In cycling, for instance, the mean score was a high 7.27 – but it fell to only 3.89 when people were asked if they felt Norwegian cyclists doped.

Two years after the survey was published the Norwegian cyclist Steffen Kjaergaard, a former member of Lance Armstrong's US Postal team, was forced to resign from his job as director of sport for the Norwegian Cycling Federation after admitting doping offences.

There was another interesting finding in the Norwegian research. The more interested people were in sport, the more liberal their attitudes to doping. As the researchers note: “Maybe that for this group the desire to watch sport was stronger than the reluctance towards doping. They also tended to be less motivated to reduce their purchases from sponsors involved in sports where doping occurred than from others.”

Incidentally, last week I heard Katherine Grainger, Britain’s most decorated female Olympian and the chair of UK Sport, talk powerfully about the pain of losing out to cheats and why a strong stand is needed over Russia’s systemic doping problem. “When the public lose trust in a system, a sport or a country, as they have done with Russia, it reflects badly on all sport,” she said, her voice tinged with sadness.

I found myself nodding at every word. But the evidence is clear: when it comes to doping – whether in winter sports or elsewhere – too many people are stubbornly pulling high-tech merino wool over their eyes.

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