"The whole system is based on mistrust towards the athletes"

Mercator Fellow Prof. Dr. Andrea Petróczi talks about the role of trust in elite sports
Prof. Dr. Andrea Petróczi is the first DFG-funded Mercator Fellow to visit the research training group
© Julia Nüllen

In its second funding period the research training group "Trust and Communication in a Digitized World" is looking to strengthen its network and cooporation with international researchers. The research training group is Münster University's only graduate school to host the Mercator Fellowship Programm. The Mercator Fellowship is a visiting professorship funded by the DFG. As its first Mercator Fellow the graduate school invites the world renowned expert for anti-doping and Professor for Public Health, Prof. Dr. Andrea Petroczi (Kingston University, London, UK). She will be staying in Münster for two month in summer 2017 and work on various projects with Prof. Dr. Bernd Strauß und his PhD students. In this interview she talks about these projetcs, her long lasting relationship with the research training group and explains why trust is not a specific topic of anti-doping research but why it's important nonetheless.

How has your visit to Münster been so far?

It has been busy but I truly enjoyed it. Amazing how fast time flies. It's almost two weeks already since I arrived. The good thing is that we could jump right into work. I have a long-standing collaboration with the researchers here in Münster, since the inception of the research training group. For example, I helped two PhD students of the research training group, Dennis Dreiskämper and Katharina Pöppel, as their international mentor. And over the years, I have worked with the department of sports psychology in various capacities.

How did the cooperation with the research training group came to pass?

I knew Bernd Strauß a few years before through his work as an editor-in chief for the journal “Psychology of Sport and Exercise”. When the research group formed, he asked me if I wanted to co-supervise two PhD students. I was honoured.

How does a fellowship like the Mercator Program benefit interdisciplinary and international cooperation in research?

I think it is a good opportunity to work very focused on specific projects and it helps to move things along but the fellowship lasts only for two months. So, I think what really benefits our work is that I already had relationships to the researchers here and ongoing projects. I have been working with Bernd Strauß and Dennis Dreiskämper on an IOC-funded (International Olympic Committee) research project since last May. It is a bit like coming 'home'.

Let’s talk about this project.

It is a study on legitimacy of anti-doping policy; and on how clean athletes can and are willing to actively support anti-doping. So far, we interviewed elite athletes in six different countries and collected survey data for developing a bespoke scale for measuring the psychological components of individuals’ perceptions of anti-doping legitimacy. I hope we can make significant progress with this research while I’m here.

What else will you be doing?

Simultaneously, I am working with Daniel Westmattelmann, one of the current PhD students. I’m also helping him to finish his work and to publish his thesis. Because one of his topic is quite relevant to my own work, we have started to formulate future plans. Beyond research, I’m looking forward to holding a few lectures in June and July.

Which role does trust play in your study on legitimacy so far?

What we see from the qualitative data from the anti-doping legitimacy project is that there is no trust in anti-doping. On one hand, athletes say that clean sport is important to them and that the methods to ensure this – meaning the testing and education – are probably the best way to do it. Although everybody knows that the system is flawed. There are gaps and not every athlete who uses prohibited methods or performance-enhancing substances is caught. Characteristically, athletes believe that the anti-doping organization in their own country is thorough and does its best. But when you ask them if they believe that other countries are as rigorous with anti-doping tests as their own country is, the answer is always no. They don't trust athletes or organisations from other countries. And they feel that they have to compete against foreign athletes under conditions that are not fair. That’s how every athlete feels no matter what country they are from. On the other side, anti-doping organisations don't trust athletes either, otherwise there would not be an elaborate testing regime in place; nor would be a constant quest to improve detection.

The whole system is based on mistrust towards the athletes.
Prof. Dr. Andrea Petróczi

So the athletes don’t trust foreign anti-doping systems?

They don't trust athletes or organisations from other countries. And they feel that they have to compete against foreign athletes under conditions that are not fair. That’s how every athlete feels no matter what country they are from. On the other side, anti-doping organisations don't trust athletes either, otherwise there would not be an elaborate testing regime in place; nor would be a constant quest to improve detection.

Which effect has that on the athletes?

This lack of trust has an effect on how athletes perceive the legitimacy of anti-doping. Is anti-doping justified, appropriate and fair? Justified for sure, appropriate maybe, because we don't have a better idea, but certainly not fair if athletes feel that not every country applies the rules rigorously.

Do the athletes mistrust other athletes the same way they mistrust anti-doping organisations?

It’s quite interesting because their trust or mistrust seemed to shift after the scandal involving the Russian Federation and its Olympic programs. Some athletes now say that they perceive their fellow athletes in other countries who might use those substances as victims. Rather than thinking of them as cheating opponents, they are beginning to believe those athletes might not have a lot of choice. This trend clearly shows the data from the athletes we talked to in UK. Right now, we are analyzing the data from the other five countries: Germany, Italy, Greece, Serbia and Russia. The Russian data will be the most interesting.

Has the concept of trust been always relevant for your research?

Come to think about it, trust (or lack of) is an integral part of doping and anti-doping - even if you don't specifically put trust in the centre of your research paradigm. Look at anti-doping as a whole in competitive sport. No one trusts anyone because if the sports system trusted their athletes they wouldn’t have to educate them on anti-doping or wouldn’t need to test them. At the moment, about 250.000 doping tests are conducted each year, with each costing about 300 US-Dollars. You see, a lot of money is spent on detection because the society doesn’t trust the athletes to compete in fair games. So, the whole system is based on mistrust towards the athletes. Then the athletes don’t trust the system, definitely not in other countries and obviously, the athletes don’t trust each other, resulting in mistrust in every party involved. But in fact, trust doesn’t explicitly feature in the doping literature as a specific topic. It comes up more now because of the question of legitimacy. Legitimacy as a concept is closely related to trust.

Did the climate of trust or mistrust change in last few years?

The Russian scandal and affairs revolving around the International Association of Athletics Federation were a massive setback to the athlete’s and society’s trust in global anti-doping. But more interestingly what comes out of it is - based on the focus group interview on legitimacy - that athletes now wanting to talk to each other on this subject. Instead of pointing fingers to 'other countries' or 'other athletes', for the first time they seem to wanting to come together; perhaps triggered by the increasing mistrust in the system. I hope we can work on a funding application during my stay here to fund a spin-off study from our legitimacy project and create an international focus group. For this, we would bring athletes from different countries together and let them talk amongst themselves. It would be interesting to see the results regarding the trust if they suddenly sat at one table with athletes from other countries.