Understanding and building clean(er) sport together: community-based participatory research with elite athletes and anti-doping organisations from five European countries

The RESPECT Consortium

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Background: In sport the narrative is changing from anti-doping to pro-clean sport. Yet, our understanding of what ‘clean sport’ means to athletes is notably absent from the literature.

Objectives: Working together with elite athletes and National Anti-Doping Organisations (NADOs), this study explored the meaning and importance of ‘clean sport’ and ‘clean athlete identity’.

Design: Community-based participatory research design was employed to explore (a) how elite athletes define clean sport and being a clean athlete; (b) the hopes and challenges associated with clean sport and being a clean athlete; and (c) what can be done in anti-doping to elicit clean sport.

Methods: Five elite athletes in five European countries (Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Slovenia and United Kingdom) were recruited as co-researchers by their respective NADOs, trained for their role as co-researchers and individually interviewed. Seventy-seven elite athletes were then purposefully recruited for 12 athlete-led national focus groups. Finally, the five athlete co-researchers and five athlete participants took part in one 2.5-h long international focus group.

Results: Reflexive thematic analysis resulted in generating four overarching themes: ‘clean is being true to the self’, ‘clean performance enhancement has multiple meanings’, ‘clean is not a solo act’ and ‘the problems and solutions are systemic’. Collectively, the themes showed that the clean athlete identity is generally rooted in upbringing, early experiences and love of sport; and characterised by continued, intrinsically motivated commitment to fundamental values and morals acquired in childhood. In contrast, the concept of clean performance-enhancement is highly idiosyncratic and flexible. Elite athletes value anti-doping efforts but their experiences of disparity and unfairness in doping control undermine their trust in anti-doping.

Conclusion: Clean athlete identity is a social endeavour and artefact, which needs to be reflected in and developed through evidence-informed anti-doping interventions. Raising athletes' voices via collaboration and participatory research can be an enriching experience for athletes and researchers alike, and a worthwhile endeavour for sport organisations with responsibility for anti-doping. To make anti-doping education personally relevant, the richness of individual interpretation of ‘clean’ for the self (i.e., clean athlete identity) and performance-enhancement must be acknowledged, respected and cultivated.
Original languageEnglish
Article number101932
Number of pages18
JournalPsychology of Sport and Exercise
Early online date27 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The current study was conducted as part of the ‘Research-Embedded Strategic Plan for Anti-Doping Education: Clean Sport Alliance Initiative for Tackling Doping’ (RESPECT) project funded by the European Union under their Erasmus + Collaborative Partnerships programme. RESPECT was a three-year international, collaborative, multi-agency project that aimed to empower the clean sport community through cooperative actions that bridge the gap between research, policy, and practice to develop effective anti-doping education programmes. Specifically, the project was a partnership between academics from Leeds Beckett University, The University of Birmingham, and Kingston University, and stakeholders from UK Anti-Doping (UKAD), Slovenian Anti-Doping Agency, Sport Ireland, National Antidoping Agency of Germany, and the Antidoping Authority of the Netherlands.

The study received funding from the European Commission ERASMUS + Collaborative Partnership Programme . (RESPECT Project ID 2017-3178/001-001 ). The authors are thankful for participating athletes for generously sharing their time and thoughts; and gratefully acknowledge the help received from Professor Adrian Coyle and Dr Toni Williams at various stages of this project.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier Ltd


  • Anti-Doping
  • Clean sport
  • Focus groups
  • Identity
  • Prevention
  • Qualitative
  • Values of sport

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology


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