ELITE sport these days is riddled with stories of athletes doping in an attempt to gain an edge over their rivals. And while those athletes are, quite rightly, heavily castigated, I would say it’s not always quite as straightforward as the headline of ‘cheating athlete takes drugs to win’ suggests.

While each athlete is ultimately responsible for their own actions, there are often a number of other factors in play when it comes to crossing the line into the world of doping. Watching peers excel is one, knowing that the rewards for reaching the top are huge is another; having a mentor who pushes you in that direction is a third.

This week’s revelations about US track and field coach Alberto Salazar highlight the part a coach can play when it comes to an athlete’s decisions over whether to play fair or not. Salazar, was banned for four years from athletics for “orchestrating and facilitating prohibited doping conduct”. And while it is the responsibility of each athlete to remain clean, the Salazar case highlights the pressure an athlete can come under to comply with what their coach wants them to do.


READ MORE: Susan Egelstaff: Salazar ban shocking but not surprising

During my time as an elite athlete, I never experienced any pressure from coaches to dope. But I heard many rumours of coaches from other nations pressurising their players to take illegal performance-enhancing substances and I also experienced first-hand the pressure to comply with what coaches suggested – and not question it. I faced competitors who I am almost certain were doping. I have no evidence to prove it. But it’s a gut feeling.

The majority of the time, the pressure coaches exert upon their athletes is merely to try out a training technique or undertake a session they may not be too keen on. But at the most extreme end of the spectrum, that pressure can be more sinister.

From the outside, it seems like an easy decision for an athlete to make; you get asked to take a banned drug, you say no. But if it is your coach making these suggestions and that coach has almost complete control over your career, saying ‘no’ may not always be as easy as it initially seems.

When it is a well-respected coach in question, the pressure to go along with what they want is even greater. That may be as innocent as doing a training session that you may not be entirely convinced about. But the more sinister side is when that coach is hinting that taking a certain substance may move you on to the next level. It’s easy to say that every athlete should say no without thinking twice. But when your entire athletic future lies in the hands of this coach, it’s not always easy to throw that away, despite the fact that saying no is the right thing to do.

The pressure to go along with a coach’s nefarious suggestions are even more extreme if you suspect many of your peers are doping, too. That the Tour de France became riddled with dopers was, as much as anything, down to the pressure within teams to dope in order to keep up with the rest of the peloton.

Scotland’s hour record holder, Graeme Obree, has talked about his experience of signing for a pro team in 1995 before having his contract terminated a mere 12 hours later for refusing to join the team’s ‘medical programme’. While it is an extreme example, the pressure to comply remains present to this day. Those in charge rarely take to athletes who have too much to say for themselves.

In the end, it is down to the athlete to make the right choice. If winning is dependent on doping, is it really worth it? But when an individual’s livelihood is on the line, it’s not hard to see why sometimes athletes fold and coaches get their own way.