Michael Pavitt

I could not help but shake my head when I saw that UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) had banned an amateur cyclist for two years earlier this week. The idea of a 55-year-old man opting to take steroids to improve his performance firstly made me laugh, but then began to sadden and trouble me.

The cyclist in question claimed the steroid hormones prednisone and prednisolone had appeared in his system because of mouth ulcer medication, which led to a positive test at the Port Talbot Wheelers Cycling Club's 25 mile time trial last year. Whether his reason is actually the case is beside the point in my view.

It is not the first case of UKAD tackling an amateur athlete. In fact, during the last year we have written about several similar cases. Cycling and rugby feature strongly.

An investigation, published by the BBC last week, found that 35 per cent of amateurs have claimed that they personally know someone who has doped. The study also stated that eight per cent of amateur sports people said they had taken steroids and 49 per cent thought performance-enhancing drugs were "easily available".

Frankly, these responses are troubling. They raise a number of questions on how drug use in sport is tackled. The initial query which springs to mind is what is the point of trying to combat doping in amateur sport?

A repeated complaint from anti-doping organisations is that they do not have the financial resources in which to effectively combat the use of performance enhancing drugs at elite levels of sport. Fundamentally, only a small number of people ever reach the top echelons of their chosen sport and this small and limited pool has proved impossible to police.  

Doping is a problem in both amateur and elite sport ©Getty Images
Doping is a problem in both amateur and elite sport ©Getty Images

By throwing the net even wider to include all athletes from amateur through to elite sport, anti-doping forces are attempting to scoop up krill, when they need to be focusing on the big fish in sport.

If 35 per cent of people actually know of an amateur who has doped, how do you go about target testing this, when hundreds of thousands of people could be involved? UKAD have even admitted that the majority of the bans handed out to amateurs have come through tip-offs, rather than testing.

How far down the sporting system do we go when trying to tackle doping? I would personally set the bar at the elite level.

There is clearly a difference of opinion regarding this issue when you scout around. A section of the public would be pleased that doping is being taken seriously, regardless of the standard of competition. While others would cynically suggest that catching a few MAMILs (Middle Aged Men in Lycra), who are perhaps naïve and not aware of what they are taking, is an attempt by anti-doping agencies to show they are competent.

Despite this, it would be interesting to note whether organisations could learn and detect trends from amateur sport, where those caught up in cases are unlikely to have been as educated on the issues as an elite sportsperson. For instance, if a particular substance is repeatedly flagged up at amateur level, could we assume that the drug in question is also present at the top level? Could National Anti-Doping Agencies (NADOs) become more aware of the source of substances by talking to the amateurs?

However, it could be working in the opposite way. The International Cycling Union's (UCI) Cycling Independent Reform Commission report revealed last year that doping in amateur cycling was "becoming endemic" across a variety of events, including at masters level.

Rather than trying to catch amateurs and handing out bans - which come across as token gestures because the athletes are competing at low level events - greater education of the dangers would surely be the way forward.

When I was going through school, the education regarding drugs centered around the likes of cocaine, cannabis and heroin. Unless you opted to study physical education or maybe biology in the latter stages of your schooling, your knowledge of the likes of steroids and beta blockers would be basic at best and non-existent at worst. Perhaps this has changed since I departed the school gates, but I have my doubts.

Nicole Sapstead said the issue of drug use at amateur level could be due to a societal problem ©Getty Images
Nicole Sapstead said the issue of drug use at amateur level could be due to a societal problem ©Getty Images

UKAD chief executive Nicole Sapstead claimed last year that the issue of drug use at amateur level could be due to a societal problem.

"The reality is that with all of those factors - online access, cheap products, gym culture etc - it is entirely possible that sport at an amateur level, and I am talking across all sports, is at risk," she told The Telegraph

"If this is going on in every sport and in the gyms which you or I frequent then for me this isn't a sport-specific problem, it is that something is going on out there. Something has shifted in society which is telling them that you can't achieve your best potential by good nutrition and training."

Sapstead’s assessment is one I would agree with. Our society has perhaps contributed to what appears to be a growing culture at amateur level, one I would particularly argue is the case among young men. The pressure to achieve the body beautiful seems to be greater now for young men than ever before - although I am willing to be picked up on this.

The perceived need for bulging muscles and a "ripped" torso surely contributes to a culture where it might be seen as normal to take substances to provide a boost to achieve what one of my friends describes as "gains".

To be clear, this does not necessarily mean the use of performance enhancing substances. The use of supplements appears to be vast and, in my view, there is a distinct lack of education around what they actually achieve. Their easy access - a quick Google will rack up the results - and minimal awareness from buyers about products they are choosing strike me as clear problems. It would not be hard to foresee that should the "gains" not follow, stronger substances may be tempting.

It seems clear to me that rather than trying and likely failing to police amateur sport, which could put off people from participating at a time when there are concerns about inactivity and obesity, education has to be the way forward.

We often view doping through the lens that it is solely about cheating, but fundamentally it is about health. 

Bans from competition should not be the way forward at amateur level. Instead, educate people in the classrooms, educate them in the gyms, educate them in clubs.