Recalibrating experiences, perceptions and values of doped bodies

Alexis Sossa Rojas
University of Amsterdam / CEDLA

Jesper Andreasson & April Henning
Performance Cultures and Doped Bodies: Challenging categories, gender norms, and policy responses
102 pages, hardcover
Champaign, IL: Common Ground 2021 (Sport & Society)
ISBN 978-0-949313-99-7

Social phenomena are complex, historical, fluid, mobile, changing and full of gradations. However, it is commonplace to look for precise definitions or generate dichotomies that give us certitudes (or the illusion of them). An excellent example of this is doping, since it continuously brings morally charged discourses. What images come to our minds when listening to concepts such as steroids or doping? What adjectives do we think of? Performance cultures and doped bodies: Challenging categories, gender norms, and policy responses is a book that helps us expand our understanding of steroids, developing new terminology and multiple ways to comprehend doped bodies and doping practices.

From a sociological perspective and based on empirical qualitative data collected over several years, Jesper Andreasson and April Henning invite us to see the use of image and performance-enhancing drugs (IPEDs) as a phenomenon and a practice, as a historical event and a sanitary concern, as a community and a personal choice. In seven chapters, the authors question the hegemonic views and dichotomic perspectives of a complex, global and expanding phenomenon. They also show us a more human and grounded side with stories and cases taken from internet forums.

Although schematically well organised, Performance cultures and doped bodies is, in my opinion, relatively short. Chapter 1 presents the introduction and general guidelines of the text. Chapter 2 illustrates a broad historical background to doping. Chapter 3 focuses on data extracted from the internet on doping contexts and trajectories. Chapter 4 examines gender and its relationship to female doping. Chapter 5 explores male dopers. Chapter 6 focuses on responses to doping, such as anti-doping prevention. Finally, chapter 7 presents the conclusions of the study. The book also includes an appendix with more detailed methodological considerations.

Through these seven chapters, the authors show us cultural events, medical changes, sporting incidents, media happenings, primarily online doping communities, and in-depth case studies; these inputs weave a discourse where norms and regulations are exposed in their practical, historical and cultural implications without neglecting lived experiences where aspirations, identities, drives, pleasures and lifestyles converge in a provocative narrative.

For instance, when anti-doping policies promote health with a punitive approach, they can have unintended effects that may shape user environments that result in greater potential hazards.

The use of image and performance enhancing drugs (IPEDs) in many countries is an illicit behaviour. Sometimes we are reminded of this reality when a famous athlete tests positive or when different statistics show us that the use of these substances is increasing. But these shreds of evidence tell us little about regular people who consume these products and even less about gym-goers not affiliated with any sports institution or without any interest in sports competitions of any kind. Resorting to online communities (for both users and researchers) is a wise step to learn about a practice often discussed underground. Given the intolerance of steroids generally, online forums have emerged as an aid to a subculture that has to deal with many problems such as legal restrictions, harm reduction, pharmacological knowledge, to name a few. Although popular and with interesting online engagements and discussions, these online communities still experience clear repercussions in their real lives offline.

At the individual level, the book tells us about trajectories of doping within a drug/doping culture, where knowledge, risks, (self-declared) experts, practices, rules, rituals, and the results are not only physical but also psychological, sociological and cultural. These are mixed in a complex phenomenon of pleasure, empowerment, identity, virility, performance, life trajectories and recreation.

At a more structural level, the book compares different socio-cultural environments framing IPED use. It mainly compares the zero-tolerance prevention frame in Sweden with the harm reduction frame in the UK. It emphasises that doping is a dynamic process where understanding what reduces or contributes to IPED use is essential for diminishing risks. For instance, when anti-doping policies promote health with a punitive approach, they can have unintended effects that may shape user environments that result in greater potential hazards. Punitive approaches may impact physical, political, economic and social risk factors.

The Swedish approach criminalises all aspects of steroids (trafficking, purchase, possession, use) in a similar way to illicit recreational drugs. These criminal law policies make it unlikely for harm reduction services to be available and/or effective. A person deciding to engage in steroid use must consider possible criminal penalties. Then, this usually leads them to operate underground, having to contend with criminal networks without access to a secure supply, reliable substances, and medical support. Criminalisation makes an IPED user, not just a person; they become a criminal that, if caught, will have to face the criminal justice system. In contrast, UK law allows for the purchase and use, but not for the sale of steroids. This approach is more helpful for introducing harm reduction strategies that support safer forms of IPED use, focusing on users’ health and needs.

While the legal orientation towards the use of steroids is a complex decision, this book also helps us to see a more complete range of the risks individuals face, such as being marginalised or stigmatised, which may lead individuals down precarious paths. Anti-doping policies become formative for steroid practices in avenues that are likely to be in direct opposition to their intent. Similarly, it shows us that the public perception and assumptions about IPEDs do not always match the opinion of users themselves.

Humans have always sought to manipulate and experiment with their physical bodies and sensations. In my opinion, the most relevant discussion that the book provokes is to show that IPED use not only represents a social trend or a personal action but is also linked to broader environmental factors that shape doping behaviours where lifestyles, available technology, social and legal norms are all woven into a complex phenomenon, with psychological, social, anthropological, cultural and historical edges. Without falling into enclosed visions, the authors squarely face the fact that people are motivated by complex and changing ideas in which they find ways to respond and push back against restrictions. IPED use is a phenomenon and a practice that challenges us as researchers and society. This book will help anyone interested in problematising the different aspects involved, such as health, legislation, gender, and individual freedom.

Copyright © Alexis Sossa Rojas 2022

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