Promoting Belief in a Clean Sport: a look at the results of the letsrun clean/dirty poll

Recently carried out an interesting experiment. The polled their readers as to their perceptions of who in the sport was "clean" and who was "dirty." You can read the results of their poll here as well as an interesting explanation of why they decided to do this polling. Their explanation makes good sense to me: they state clearly that the results of the poll do not tell us whether someone used PEDs; they only tell us about a specific community's beliefs about who is clean and who is dirty.

What can we do with this information? Quite a bit, it turns out. We can look at the relationships between class, race, nationality, and beliefs about performance-enhancing drugs. We see that as a community we do have some degree of bias in these areas, but we also see that while these biases affect individuals; on the aggregate the beliefs of the community as a whole is not fundamentally skewed by any of these factors. notes that the most important bias affecting the data is "familiarity bias." Those athletes we are most familiar with are the athletes we are least likely to hold in suspicion.

The most surprising aspect of the data to me was the percentage of voters who thought that athletes were clean. Except for known dopers (say, the East German athletes of the '80s or the Chinese women of the mid-90s), relatively small percentages of fans thought that world record holders were dirty. Take a runner like Daniel Komen, who in 1996 at the height of the EPO era, ran perhaps the most incredible distance performance ever seen. Only 39% of voters believe that Daniel Komen used performance enhancing drugs -- yet you can see underneath the youtube video that the comments are dominated by discussion of PEDs.

This data is surprising because I thought that as a community we were more cynical than the numbers show. To explain this, perhaps we can draw an analogy between beliefs around PED use and beliefs in high schools and middle schools about the use of recreational drug and alcohol. Studies have shown that high school students use drugs and alcohol at rates far beneath what those same students believe is happening in their school. In other words, high schoolers have far healthier attitudes towards the use of drugs and alcohol than they believe they have. One of the most successful drug and alcohol non-profits, Freedom from Chemical Dependency capitalizes on this difference, noting that if actual attitudes towards drug and alcohol replace mythologies about use, then peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol could be drastically diminished. They call this approach the "social norms" approach, and it's worth reading about.

Likewise, it is possible that as a community, track and field fans are more likely to believe that "everyone dopes"-- just as high schoolers believe "everyone drinks"-- but that as individuals, we are much more likely to be nuanced and evidence-based in our analysis. In fact, I think that the polls show just this: that track and field fans do not generally hold the view that to reach the top levels of the sport, it is necessary to dope. As individuals, in the privacy of our homes, we believe the sport is healthier than we do when we participate in public discussion.

What does this mean for the actual use of PEDs? I think that has done a service for us through this poll because they have shown athletes that if they do things the right way, a vast majority of fans will believe that they are running their times clean. They have also showed fans that if we choose not to be cynical, we are not alone in that choice -- and that in reality, despite appearances to the contrary, the dominant social norm in the community of track and field fans is not to believe that every amazing performance is the result of cheating. The numbers show that while there will always be people who question every performance, there are many more who are willing to believe.

In short, I find the data encouraging, and I hope that it motivates fans and athletes to continue to believe that incredible performance without PED use is possible, that a clean sport is possible, and that if we adopt an attitude of cynicism and disbelief, we are in the minority. The data shows that hope for a clean sport is not only possible, but a majority opinion. While this hope does not mean that we will have -- or do have -- a clean sport, I do not think it is meaningless. It ought to reinforce belief in our better selves and reduce our cynicism. An adjustment of our social norms can allow us to re-animate work on behalf of a clean sport and remind us that we are not alone in the fight.


  1. Interesting stuff. This reminds me of the study that showed that the "Just Say No!" campaign of the 80's & 90's actually increased marijuana use, because it gave a lot of kids who actually had very little knowledge about drugs additional information they didn't have -- many kids your age use drugs, it's probably the most popular & cool kids, and they will probably offer you drugs at some point. But be sure to turn them down! The upshot being, telling people what they *should* do does not influence behavior as much as telling people what their peers *actually* do.

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