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Team doctors doped up on competition

Sociologist blames sports physicians for adding to the problem of doping in sports.

With only five percent of all sports medicine physicians actually interested in sports medicine, it’s no surprise that they are the least ethical of all doctors.

The rest of them are in for the love of the game, and out of loyalty to their favorite teams, says Ivan Waddington, a sociologist at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences.

But as far as loyalty to medical codes of ethics, they’re losing badly. The pressure on team doctors to bend rules for their team’s success is one of the major root causes of performance-enhancing drug abuse today, according to Waddington. His lecture was part of a three-day long conference that seeks to bring a human and social science perspective to the use — and misuse — of drugs in sports.

Only winning matters

Team doctors and sports medicine doctors are the most likely to breach medical codes of ethics and also the reason why many athletes are doped up. This, Waddington says, is because they are also the practitioners with the most strain placed on their performance.

Most team doctors are hired and managed by the coach of a team. This means that issues of health and safety are often overlooked in order to keep the star player in the game. And unlike doctors who work at hospitals, their medical values are monitored by the team, and not other doctors.

Waddington sited one Rugby team whose coach made a less-skilled kicker spit out fake blood in order to put the better kicker in the game. When the other team’s medic noticed that the blood wasn’t the right color and said something to the referee, the doctor cut the inside of the player’s mouth to show that it was real.

»They are so committed to the team that nothing else matters,« Waddington says to the University Post.

Misdiagnosis keeps players in the game

This isn’t the only horror story Waddington has heard in his research of the social impacts of competition on sports physicians. He links this pressure as the major reason why sports physicians offer athletes drugs.

For instance, some sports coaches will give players high doses of pain-killers after they sustain an injury and encourage them to play despite the risk of worsening their injuries. Other times, this mindset will cause these physicians to misdiagnose injuries to avoid team policies. Waddington sited the decreasing numbers of concussions in Rugby as the result of team doctors not diagnosing them – this would bench the player for three weeks.

»They just say it’s a bump on the head and then he’s back in the game,« Waddington says.

In most of these cases, the physicians are breaching serious codes of medical ethics, but Waddington links this to the societal pressure visible in team sports – the sports ethics.

Doctors ‘never made it on their school team’

Most sports physicians are aware of the pressure to bend the rules. They also know they will be paid almost five times less than the average doctor, and will be disrespected by their colleagues, the athletes, Waddington says. So why do they do it anyway? Maybe because they never made the team back in primary school.

»Being the team doctor is the next best thing,« Waddington says.

This creates major problems in the way their patients, the athletes, are diagnosed and treated, as they would rather see their favorite player stay in the game than see him nurse his injuries.

The best way to prevent this from happening, and perhaps even minimize the use of illegal drugs in sports, is for team doctors to be hired independent of the team. That way, coaches won’t be concerned with the consequences of benching a player, Waddington says.

Read more about the three-day conference on the human and social science perspective on drugs in sports here.

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