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Bike racing, neutralization, and the social construction of performance-enhancing drug use.

Even those with scant interest in contemporary sports cannot fail to escape the attention devoted to performance-enhancing drug (PED) use in recent years. No longer confined to the sports page, the public trials and accusations of a number of high-profile athletes--including baseball star and current home run record holder Barry Bonds, track and field Olympian Marion Jones, and seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong--have invigorated public discussions regarding PED use, along with larger questions regarding the role of the athlete in modern society. Studies have documented the growing public concern regarding PED use at all levels of sport (see Beamish & Ritchie, 2005; Waddington, 2000). Although researchers have questioned the application of the dependence model to steroid and other PED consumption as well as the dangers posed by PED use (see Moiler, 2010) and the ethics of drug testing (see Kayser, Mauron, & Miah, 2007; Lavin, 2003), Ian Ritchie (2007) has argued that PED use is now one of the most publicly condemned problems in sport. This article focuses on elite cyclists' attitudes toward and understanding of PED use. Using ethnographic fieldwork and qualitative interviews with riders and team support staff on an English-speaking team in Belgium, I show how cyclists and other subcultural members make meaning and challenge mainstream understandings of PED use as solely deviant by deploying a variety of techniques to justify and excuse PED use by elite and professional riders.

From its competitive infancy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cycling has been predicated on extending the limits of the human body. During this time, riders frequently used all manner of stimulants, including strychnine and amphetamines, to complete grueling races that would last in excess of twelve hours (see Thompson, 2008). As Thompson notes, perhaps more than any other modern sport, cycling has been closely linked to PED use since its inception. The recent reemergence of PED as a social problem, indeed the impetus for the establishment of the World Anti-Doping Agency, can be traced in large part to an international sporting scandal that arose on the eve of the 1998 Tour de France. The Festina Affair, as it would come to be known, began when a team soigneur, or assistant, for the top-ranked Festina team, was intercepted on his drive to the start of the Tour de France along the French and Belgian border and found to be in possession of a truckload of doping products.

Researchers have examined a range of on- and off-field sport-related deviance among male and female athletes (Beals, 2000; Blackshaw & Crabbe, 2004; Ezzell, 2009; Peretti-Watel, Guagliardo, Verger, Mignon, & Provost, 2004; Theberge, 1999; Young, 2007). Hughes and Coakley (1991) argue that much sport-related deviance among athletes emerges from overconformity to an overarching sporting ethic that prizes risky behavior and a total dedication to their sport. Albert's (1999) study of cyclists demonstrates how the sport has developed a set of norms and practices that construct risky behavior as normal, salient, and valued. For Albert's subjects, the negotiation of risk becomes a significant socializing practice, one that is used to maintain identity and group membership within cycling culture. This sport ethic is linked to deviance because overconformity to its norms is expected in many sport cultures, even though it is often defined as deviant outside sport (Hughes & Coakley, 1991). Athletes across a range of sports have been shown to appeal to this sporting ethic as a strategy for neutralizing deviant behavior (see Donnelly, 1993; Howe, 2004).

Despite the difficulties often involved in accessing behavior considered deviant, a thread of sport-deviance studies includes the use of PED among various sport cultures, including bodybuilding (Klein, 1986, 1993; Monaghan, 2002;), track and field (Veligekas, Mylonas, & Zervas, 2007; Wilson, Gilbert, & Edwards, 2004), and baseball (Fainaru-Wada & Wilson, 2006). Many of these studies drew from the accounts literature (Scott & Lyman, 1968; Hewitt & Stokes, 1975; Sykes & Matza, 1958) to explain their subjects' PED use. Ethnographic studies of recreational bodybuilding cultures have examined the vocabulary of motives used by subjects to justify their PED use, which draw on self-fulfilling accounts, condemnations of the condemners, and denial of injury (see Klein, 1986; Monaghan, 2002). A study of elite Australian athletes' perspectives regarding PED use indicated a distrust of the sports' governing bodies that were viewed as ethically inconsistent and ambiguous in their punishment. They also described testing protocols as hypocritical in their focus on the health rationale used to justify the prohibition, viewing it as overly paternalistic. Yet they did see PED use as "cheating" (Wilson, Gilbert, & Edwards, 2004). Peretti-Watel et al.'s (2004) study of elite French athletes also viewed PED use as a deviant practice, yet many agreed that it offered a performance benefit.

Few studies have investigated PED-related attitudes among elite and professional cyclists. Brissonneau's (2010) interviews with elite and professional cyclists indicate that attitudes regarding PED use have shifted since the 1998 Festina Affair. Where PEDs were once understood as a group initiation or rite of passage into professional sport, PED use post-Festina had become a more individualized practice. They also found that riders on teams that expressed a strong anti-doping stance were more likely to disapprove of PED consumption. However, the majority of riders in Brissonneau and colleagues' study did not unequivocally condemn PED use but rather viewed it as a personal choice. Lentillon-Kaestner and Carstairs's (2009) qualitative interviews with elite and newly professional cyclists uncovered a belief that doping at the professional level was acceptable but did not approve of the practice among amateurs. Subjects were attracted to doping and were open to using PEDs if it was the key to continuing their cycling career, but only after they became professional. Given the diversity of cycling cultures (see Kidder, 2006), it is likely that the attitudes expressed may not reflect the majority of cyclists. These studies are important because they offer insight into complex and sometimes contradictory understandings that athletes hold regarding PED use.

Studies have also approached cyclists' attitudes from a socio-cultural perspective. In her investigation of the Tour de France, Schneider (2006) identifies a number of key cultural values of elite cycle racing, including endurance, perseverance, and competitiveness, that she argues have given rise to a PED culture that exists in modern cycling (see also Moiler, 2010; Thompson, 2008). Waddington (2000) also draws from a sociocultural perspective to explain PED use in cycling as the result of larger social trends in and around sport, including the medicalization of sport and the technologization of sport performance, and a subcultural tradition of PED use. These studies provide important insight into the nature of athletes' understandings of PEDs and the role that socialization plays in establishing deviant norms in elite athlete subcultures. What is currently lacking in contemporary understandings of athlete PED use is a nuanced investigation into athletes' meanings and in some cases justifications for PED use that is rooted within the values and ethics of particular sporting subcultures, including elite cycling. The present study attempts to fill this void by offering a culturally grounded understanding of cyclists' meanings and beliefs regarding PED consumption and the strategies they employ to justify PED use.

Accounts and techniques of neutralization

C. Wright Mills (1940) investigated the motives actors offer for past and potential future conduct. This "vocabulary of motives" enables us to analyze the reasons actors give for their actions. These can involve past-oriented accounts wherein persons engaged in unconventional behavior employ an "account ... a statement ... to explain unanticipated or untoward behavior" (Scott & Lyman, 1968, p. 46) as well as future-oriented accounts as in the case of disclaimers (Hewitt & Stokes, 1975) used to deflect anticipated negative reaction to what one is about to say or do. "Motive talk" involves the deployment of accounts that are socially approved vocabularies that serve as explanatory mechanisms for deviance. Scott and Lyman (1968) distinguished between two types of accounts. "Justifications" involve assertions that, contrary to initial impressions, an act should not be judged as wrong, whereas "excuses" acknowledge the wrongfulness of an act but offer reasons why the actor should not be held responsible. Pogrebin, Stretesky, Unnithan, and Venor (2006) note that accounts are also "a form of impression management that represents a mixture of fact and fantasy (p. 481)." Accounts emerge when individuals in certain contexts are considered members of an out-group and are confronted by others who negatively judge their behaviors or utterances.

Criminologists have investigated both types of accounts as ways of understanding behavior considered deviant by mainstream society. Drawing on Sutherland's (1947) proposition that individuals learn both criminal techniques and attitudes favorable to deviant behavior, Sykes and Matza (1957) pioneered the concept of techniques of neutralization to explain the various strategies that people employ to justify or excuse behavior generally considered deviant by larger society. Cultural members engage in constructive rationales that serve to temporarily "neutralize" their behavior by defining it as inapplicable, irrelevant, or unimportant. Importantly, Sykes and Matza also argue that rationalizations may be used not only to explain past behavior but to justify future deviant behavior. These techniques of neutralization serve to protect the individual from self-blame or the blame of others. As Becker (1963) notes, many of those labeled deviant by mainstream society actually remain committed to conventional values and do not adopt a deviant identity or view themselves as deviant.

While additional techniques of neutralization have been identified (see Coleman, 1994), this work draws principally from, and extends, Sykes and Matza's five original propositions: condemnation of the condemners, denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of the victim, and appeal to higher loyalties to justify or excuse their behavior. Alone or in concert, each of these techniques enables subcultural actors to view their behavior as largely valid while the legal system or the society at large continues to see these behaviors as problematic.

Settings and subcultures of neutralization

Understanding the process by which individuals justify and account for their actions has been a subject of considerable research, and there is a rich history of application to a range of empirical settings and subcultures including mothering (Lois, 2009), nurses (Dabney & Hollinger, 1999), college student "cheats" (LaBeff, Clark, Haines, & Diekhoff, 1990; McCabe, 1992), white-collar criminals (Benson, 1985), and those engaging in HIV-risk practices (Hansen, Lopez-Iftikhar, & Alegria, 2002), to name a few. As Cromwell and Thurman (2003) note in their study of the neutralizations used by shoplifters, excuses were often a critical component of the motivation. Excuses acted to explain and justify behavior. Neutralization is therefore about making deviance possible, not just explaining why people choose to engage in deviance in the first place.

Both self-identified delinquents and nondelinquents make use of neutralization strategies and these strategies are used in deviant and nondeviant social contexts (Maruna & Copes, 2005). Recent studies have demonstrated that various techniques of neutralization are used before deviant acts. Indeed, some have argued that those able to provide anticipatory accounts of deviant behavior are more likely to follow through with the behavior (Murphy, 2004). In her study of homeschoolers' justification for maternal deviance, Lois (2009) extends the accounts literature by arguing that individuals use neutralization techniques to counteract deviant emotions, not just actions. Although some have critiqued the neutralization approach as a form of "motive mongering" (see Christensen, 2010), the aforementioned studies highlight how accounts and neutralization approaches can illuminate the negotiated process by which individuals explain, justify, and make meaning of past and future actions. In addition, and of particular importance to this study, investigations of the accounts and neutralization strategies used by subjects allows us to link subjects' accounts to aspects of culture and in doing so provide critical insights into the values and beliefs of both subcultures and larger society. While the techniques of neutralization and accounts literatures have been applied to numerous settings, no ethnographic work to date has applied these approaches to PED use among elite and semi-professional cyclists. In this article, I describe and analyze the accounts and techniques used by elite and former professional racers to justify and excuse PED use among cyclists. Findings are contextualized within the organizational, economic, and cultural realities of elite cycling and situated within the sociology of sport and deviance literatures. Finally, I consider the broader implications of these findings for general anti-doping efforts.

Setting and method

Like many North American bike racers, I viewed Belgium as the Promised Land. This country of nearly 11 million has a mythic status for many English-speaking racers, a place where cycling's popularity is not unlike that of football in the United States. For over a decade, I have been closely involved in bicycle advocacy as well as elite racing in various regions throughout the United States. Contacts developed through racing put me in touch with Wounter, the owner and director of a Belgian-based amateur team that has historically welcomed English-speaking riders.* After a friend vouched for my abilities on the bike, Wounter informed me that I could come to Belgium, stay at his team accommodation and race for his mostly English-speaking cycling team. Over the course of 3.5 months, I was able to immerse myself in Belgian cycling culture by living, training, and racing in the heart of the cycling region. During my stay, I raced 2-4 times a week throughout the Flanders region and parts of Holland and attended numerous amateur and professional races as an observer.

The Palace is a cyclist boarding house owned by Wounter, a longtime Belgian cycling enthusiast and primary sponsor of the team. Since the late 1980s, Wounter has owned and operated this team house and cycling team in the heart of Belgian cycling country. Built in the mid-1800s, the two-level brick structure is typical of the region, containing a kitchen, living room, two downstairs bedrooms, and an attic that has been converted into three bedrooms. The adjoining areas house aging motor vehicles and bicycles.

While riders were responsible for daily grocery shopping and cooking, our cycling needs were well cared for by three soigneurs who drove us to races, and provided food and drink during races, as well as post-race assistance. Jos, Dee, and Eddy were longtime friends of Wounter. These men were far from coaches in the modern sense, but operated as vast historical repositories of racers and cycling knowledge. Our soigneurs were caretakers of and contributors to the production and transmission of cycling culture. Despite this challenging environment, an extensive list of Palace alumni has graduated to the professional ranks over the past 2 decades. During my tenure, a total of sixteen different riders from five different English-speaking countries lived at the Palace. The majority were in their late teens and early twenties while a few of us were roughly a decade older. Most came from working-class backgrounds and labored in marginal part-time jobs at home. Only three riders were exclusively supported by sponsors. Riders' tenures at the Palace varied from 1 to 6 months depending on personal finances and the ability to negotiate the challenging lifestyle. Those achieving some success often returned year after year.

Riders come to the Palace to learn the trade of bike racing and to clarify the limits of their abilities in the sport. As important as the racing, living at the Palace functioned to filter racers unable to manage requirements necessary to become a professional cyclist. Like all elite sports, the great majority would not see a professional contract. For the younger riders, their results here would determine their future occupation, while for myself and the others past our sporting prime, it was a chance to become immersed in racing and to focus almost entirely on racing largely free of daily work routines. It was for me also a fieldwork site, one where I consciously attempted to grasp and understand my own experiences within cultural contexts.


Both a method and orientation, "edgework" is an approach to social inquiry that attempts to locate structural dynamics within lived experience (Ferrell, Hayward, & Young 2008). Initially adopted by researchers attempting to understand the meanings participants ascribe to high-risk recreational pursuits involving nonmainstream sports, including skydiving (Lyng, 1990), base jumping (Ferrell, Milovanovic, & Lyng, 2001), and various deviant behaviors (see Collison, 1996; Hamm, 2005), the concept and method of "edgework" has been extended to a variety of risky occupational and institutional settings including search-and-rescue workers (Lois, 2003), bicycle messengers (Kidder, 2006), and those working in finance (Smith, 2005). As a team sport, one where participants earn a living, work, and often live within an occupational setting, elite cycle racing and its related risks can be understood not only in a sporting but institutional context. Lyng (2005) argues that edgework skills converge with instrumental demands rather than deviate from them. The study of a cycling team offers the opportunity to apply the institutional perspective of edgework to the study of individual athletic pursuits.

Edgework is also a methodological orientation that is situated within the interpretive ethnographic tradition and guided from the epistemological position of the social world as processual, negotiated, and contingent (see Goffman, 1963; Mead, 1934). Discussing edgework's orientation, Ferrell, Hayward, and Young (2008) argue that within our rapidly changing culture, edgework attempts to capture the terror and thrill of in-the-moment experiences. Edgework involves boundary exploration found in testing the limits of one's abilities while maintaining enough control to successfully negotiate "the edge" (Lyng, 2005). By drawing close to this edge, found in pushing oneself to physical limits, researchers can recognize and experience, often simultaneously, what subjects are also feeling, which presents the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of fellow group members.

Uncovering behaviors considered deviant by mainstream society can present challenges for researchers. Like other forms of illicit behavior, PED use is a highly sensitive topic, one that has potentially serious repercussions if private information becomes public. Getting athletes to speak freely and honestly is challenging, particularly for those subject to random drug testing. However, getting subjects to speak freely and honestly can be aided if the researcher is able to adopt an active membership role. This approach involves attempting to understand cultural members' world from their perspectives, and demands that the researcher engage in the daily lifestyle of the cultural members (see Adler & Adler, 1987). For me, this involved racing, training, and living as a member of the cycling team. Direct participation also allows researchers to be relevant characters in their study (Emerson, Fretz & Shaw, 1995). Drawing on edgework's sensibilities, I immersed myself in the cycling subculture in an attempt to capture the physical, corporeal "feel" not only of bike racing but my existence as a bike racer living abroad. Similar to Wacquant's (2003) participant study of boxers, I positioned my body as a key site of knowledge production. In essence, my knowledge was gained not solely from the reading of bodies, but through bodies.

Though my research was overt, I had not met many of my participants before entering the fieldsite. I therefore wished to position myself, at least initially, as primarily a rider and teammate rather than as a researcher. With this role in mind, I initially limited formal interviews and direct questions regarding PEDs, focusing instead on situating myself within the daily rhythms of the Palace and getting to know my new teammates. As time went on, my willingness to "work" for teammates during races and assist our soigneurs with logistics also helped to build trust and acceptance among my teammates and soigneurs. By the end of my stay, I was an accepted member of the group with all the privileges of my teammates.

Contacts occurred at races in which I participated or observed, on training rides, team functions, and daily interactions. Throughout my stay, I maintained a field journal where I recorded daily conversations, emotions, and detailed environmental descriptions and impressions as a means to situate subsequent observations (see Emerson et al., 1995). Toward the end of my fieldwork, I conducted eight informal, semi-structured interviews with teammates and assistants. Each interviewee gave verbal consent to be interviewed and notes were taken during the interviews, including verbatim quotations and abbreviated comments from the discussions. My interview questions were intentionally open-ended, wherein several core questions were asked, while also offering the discursive space for other topics to emerge. This approach offered the flexibility to pursue emerging issues and themes as the interviews progressed (see Fontana & Frey, 1994). I was frequently able to directly observe many of the events described, thus offering an additional layer of cross-checking and analysis.

As an active participant in cycling cultures for over a decade, I drew from my experiences to both situate and inform my representations. However, I recognized that the immersed nature of my fieldwork, along with a mutual affinity foR cycling and similar lived experiences via cycling that I shareD with many of the subjects, could easily obscure importanT distinctions including lived history, social positions, and power relations. I actively attempted to identify and account for these distinctions by not assuming shared beliefs or attitudes and by reflexively locating my experiences as a racer and researcher within the larger historical and immediate social context. Yet like Marcus (1986), I recognize that we never have complete authority or analytic closure over our topic, as even the most reflexive practices cannot fully assimilate difference, and as such knowledge produced from this study should be viewed as partial, contingent, and situational.

After my fieldwork was completed, I attempted to gain fuller picture of riders' perspectives and experiences by conducting an additional eight in-depth, tape-recorded, semistructured interviews with contacts I had made, including North American racers who had also raced in Belgium for the Palace or similar amateur teams. As with the previous interviews, I applied Emerson et al.'s (1995) coding process that began with an "open" coding of the interview transcripts ant my ethnographic field journal that identified recurring themes, and ideas. My analysis focused on processes and developing interpretive or analytic themes rather than causal explanations. Core themes were further distilled through a constant comparison between the data, emerging themes, and larger sociohistorical processes (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). The process of reading, coding, and refining produced the major themes of this study that are presented below.

Attitudes and beliefs regarding PED use

I present my findings in thematic categories that detail the attitudes and beliefs regarding PED use expressed by riders, soigneurs, and cycling fans, and the various neutralizing techniques used to justify PED use among elite and professional cyclists. The narratives chosen in this analysis are representative of the most common types of accounts. Concordant with much of the literature, multiple techniques were often employed to account for behavior.

In this study, attitudes and understandings of PED use as well as the techniques employed to account for PED use emerged from core values of the cycling culture identified by Schneider (2006) and Moiler (2010), which include perseverance, competitiveness, overcoming struggles, and survival. Therefore, riders' discussions about PED use and the neutralization techniques used by riders and subcultural members detailed below can be seen as cultural resources employed to maintain both their subcultural identity as elite cyclists and their identity as primarily nondeviant.

Every one else is doing it: PED use as rampant

Nearly all riders and soigneurs at the Palace believed that PED use was common among professional and some elite cyclists. Discussions about PED use frequently emerged before races and while watching televised racing. While staging just before races, certain riders who had allegedly tested positive would frequently be pointed out by teammates or our soigneurs. Additionally, the performances of successful riders often sparked comments regarding alleged drug use that were sometimes supplemented with anecdotes. For example, Todd, who was in his late twenties and who had raced in numerous Western European countries, offered frequent pronouncements about the endemic nature of PED use in the professional ranks, noting that:

No one has won a grand tour without doping. No doubt about it. Of course there are heaps of clean riders that are successful--I know a lot of them--but at that level it's a different story altogether.

Todd's view of PED use as a necessity, particularly at the professional level, reflected a belief echoed by many Palace residents. Given that Palace riders aspired to be--but were not currently--professional, their belief in the necessity of PEDs could also be understood as a form of scapegoating those better than themselves.

Declarations of PED use as rampant in cycling often sparked additional discussions regarding PED use outside sport. These conversations involved riders and soigneurs asserting that all manner of PEDs were routinely consumed by nearly all members of society. Frequently mentioned substances were caffeine, Viagra, and study aids such as Ritalin. The following passage from Dee, a soigneur, is characteristic of these conversations.

How many people died last year from aspirin? Or beer? How many died from EPO [erythropeitin]? They give EPO to cancer patients ... [Famous cyclist] was on EPO. What is more dangerous? Only if you take too much, but it's the same with aspirin or beer or anything you take.

During a discussion regarding a recent positive drug test by a high-profile cyclist, Jamie, a young rider from the United Kingdom, expressed a more targeted disapproval of those in society whom he believed condemn PED use:

I always found it amusing that cyclists get called a bunch of dopers and cheaters ... but it's usually by fat guys who just watch football and smoke. Most of them couldn't ride a bike or do any exercise at all! It's like they are endangering their health by the way they live.

In claiming PED use as common in society, and that those critical of PED-using athletes are themselves unhealthy and thus forfeit their right to accuse others, Dee and Jamie adopt the "condemning the condemners" neutralization technique. This approach involves the claim that although a particular act was unfortunate, it pales in significance when contrasted with worse acts committed by others that go unnoticed. Condemnation of the condemners projects blame and in doing so reorients focus from the offender to those who disapprove of the acts. Dee, Jamie, and other members of the Palace team minimized the dangers of PED use by arguing that other forms of "unhealthy" drug use are common among mainstream society. By characterizing society as unhealthy and its members as widespread consumers of all manner of drugs, claims of deviance about PED-using athletes should be viewed as grossly hypocritical.

Frequent targets of those employing condemnation of the condemners are "society at large" and the "corrupt system." These vague descriptors have been evoked by a range of subjects including athletes (see Wilson et al., 2004; Monaghan, 2002), college exam cheaters (McCabe, 1992), homeschoolers (Lois, 2009), and shoplifters (Cromwell & Thurman, 2003). Members justified their deviance by characterizing society at large as responsible for creating and maintaining what was viewed as a corrupt system. Similarly, Palace riders and soigneurs redirected attention towards a vague general public and "crooked" larger system that they characterized as hypocritical and ignorant regarding PED use, and thus unable to justify creating and enforcing rules to which it does not adhere itself.

PED use as an occupational necessity

When one views PED use as rampant, it is unsurprising that PED use is further characterized as nearly an occupational necessity for professional riders and those existing on the margins of the sport. The "defense of necessity" excuse argues that the offender has no choice under the circumstances but to engage in the behavior. The following quote from Ken, a cyclist in his mid-twenties who had raced throughout Western Europe, is illustrative:

Bike racing is hard enough as it is. For many of these guys, they are just trying to hang on [in the races]. Trying to keep their jobs. It's not like drugs are going to make them start winning a bunch of races. It's a way for them to keep their head above water, not to go from riding in the dag [dung-caked wool dangling from the hindquarters of sheep] all day to winning races.

Eric, another former Palace resident, echoes Ken's claim of necessity noting that "For most of the guys, doping is just so they keep up or just to make the team."

Both Ken and Eric recognize PED use in instrumental terms, as a means for maintaining one's career in the face of events beyond their control, such as injury or illness. A third rider, Dale, provides further evidence for the view of PED use in

European cycling as a near necessity occupationally by contrasting European with North American professional cycling. He notes that:

In the US it's not a surprise that we have a lot fewer positives because there's not as much incentive to dope because there are so few guys who are actually making a living off it [cycling]: Generally the wife's got a good job or something. The stakes are just not as high [as in Europe]. Even if you are one of the best, you still aren't gonna make a real living, to support a wife and kids.

Given the circumstances described by Ken, Dale and Eric, PED use was considered an occupational necessity for some riders. Research into a range of occupationally related deviant behaviors has been completed among other high-risk occupations, including taxi drivers (Collison, 1996), bouncers (Monaghan, 2004), search-and-rescue workers (Lois, 2003), and police officers (Goldschmidt, 2008). Similar uses of defense of necessity techniques were frequently employed by subjects in these studies to justify a range of deviant behaviors committed in the course of their occupation.

In order to appreciate these claims of necessity, they must be contextualized within the larger historical and economic structure of professional cycling, wherein professional riders continue to enjoy little job security and few alternative employment opportunities. As has historically been the case, the majority of European professionals are drawn primarily from rural and working-class backgrounds, and increasingly from Eastern European countries, where jobs are even less available. Riders and soigneurs were keenly aware of the limited career options and, as such, it was seen as understandable and reasonable that riders would seek means for continuing their racing occupation.

Ken excuses this behavior by noting that many PED users are not winning races but merely continuing to earn a basic living. Mills (1940) reminds us that for excuses to be accepted, they must appeal to culturally resonant values or ethics. In Ken's case, his excuse draws from the values of self-sufficiency and dedication to one's occupation. In addition to elite sport, studies of other high-risk occupations that share characteristics of "total institutions," such as police officers (Goldschmidt, 2008) and firefighters (Holt, 2010), have also found that their members appeal to perceived occupational norms and standards to neutralize allegations of deviant behavior. As Hicks (2008) noted, deviance is often framed as an instrumental work task.

In an interview with a Belgian magazine, recently retired former professional Roy Sentjens recounts his reasons for deciding to take EPO:

I had already been looking longer for a way to get back to my old level. I had done everything--training hard, regular sleeping, not going out, watch my food. But no success. I need to pay for the new house I bought, I'm divorcing; my team stops at the end of the season and I did not have a new contract. I was fearful that I totally would blow my chances on a new contract. (Humo, 2010)

Sentjens also excuses his behavior by evoking culturally resonant themes often found in mainstream society--for example, familial obligations. By evoking mainstream rather than solely subcultural resources, Sentjens is able to embed his excuse in conventional and law-abiding culture. Studies of parental deviance (see Lois, 2009; Murphy, 2004), gun violence (Pogrebin, Stretesky, Unnithan, & Venor, 2006), and theft (see Dabney, 1995) have also shown how behavior seen as deviant can be justified and excused by making appeals to the need to fulfill a range of familial obligations.

Dedication and devotion: Marks of the professional

An effect of the long history of PED use within elite cycling has been what Waddington (2000) terms the "institutionalization of drug use" within the sport. Use of PEDs has been characterized within certain cycling milieu as no less than a professional obligation (Whittle, 2008). Views of cycling as an occupation are exemplified in the quote from former professional cyclist Rudi Altig, who in response to journalists' questions regarding PED use, stated cryptically, "We are professional cyclists, not athletes." Having raced professionally on a Belgian team during the mid-1990s, Roy reflected on PED use by noting that:

It wasn't an ethical question to dope or not, it was more, what are you willing to do to become a great cyclist? Cycling is a really hard sport and what you need to do was do whatever it takes. I think sometimes it's (PED use) unfortunately viewed as just part of your job. I think the older generation, they even talk about it now as the older, the old guard, the old generation. It's their mentality; they see it as part of their job.

For Roy, continuing to race professionally demanded a commitment to PED use. Below he recalls his reaction to watching the performance of a top-ranked team that placed four of their riders in the top five placing of a prestigious international race:

I realized that their performance wasn't possible without EPO. But I didn't want to take it that.far. I was committed but not that committed I guess [laughs]. I was scared of it and I had an education, I knew I wanted to be a coach someday. I saw cycling as temporary, and I had other options.

In his book chronicling his life as a professional racer in Belgium, Joe Parkin (2008) offers a similar perspective regarding PED use in his recollection of being offered doping products by a team soigneur:

Many of the managers, teammates, friends, and fans I had while living in Belgium would have looked at not taking the drugs as a failure to give 100% to being a cyclist and I didn't want to be suddenly left at home for every race because I openly refused to try. (p. 100)

Parkin excuses his behavior with appeals to higher loyalties. In this case, Parkin makes appeals to common sporting values of teamwork and dedication. In addition, Roy and Parkin link dedication, commitment, and membership with PED use. As with the defense of necessity technique expressed earlier, Parkin's commitment to his craft extends beyond the boundaries of sport.

The apparent contradictions between the values held by cultural members and mainstream values regarding PED use were reconciled by employing the neutralization techniques of condemnation of the condemners, defense of necessity, and appeals to higher loyalties that allowed riders to maintain their and cycling's nondeviant identity. Additionally, Roy's description of former riders as "the old generation" and "the old guard" illuminates the way in which PED use can serve to create and maintain group membership and identity among participants. Importantly, evoking these defenses also illuminates how PED use can become a logical outcome for expressing dedication and devotion to the sport. Indeed, for many of the riders with whom I spoke, PED use served to embody these values.

Exaggerated health dangers

While the medical establishment remains a powerful institution of authority and social control (see Conrad & Schneider, 1980), skepticism of medical knowledge and authority has become more frequent in recent decades in many spheres of society. Fairness and health are traditionally employed to justify limits and prohibitions placed on various performanceenhancing substances (see Kayser, Mauron, & Miah, 2007). Weinstein (1980) argues that denial of injury is often maintained by arguing that drug use is permissible on the ground that it is not injurious to health. The following comments by Eric, a Palace resident, exemplify the justification of certain PEDs (in this case EPO) based on health grounds:

It's funny because it's (EPO) a rather benign product, as long as you don't take too much of it. It's not that bad for you--it's what happens when you live in Boulder (Colorado). Or sleep in an altitude tent.

Eric repudiates the health rationale for PED prohibition by evoking a denial of relatively serious injury related to PED use. When discussing health-related dangers of PED use, riders frequently redirected conversation towards what they viewed as overly dangerous racing conditions found in poor road surfaces, poor road markings, and excessively large fields that they viewed as characteristic of many races. Post race conversations among the team often involved recounting various dangers encountered during the race. The following discussion exemplifies many of these conversations and illuminates the ways that riders evoke the dangers found in participation vis a vis PED use:

Trent: I've always maintained that racing over here (Belgium) on these type of courses you know, like sixty races a year, can be more harmful to your health than taking drugs [laughs]. Jeff interrupts: Cause you've got mental courses here! [laughs]. The courses here would never be authorized in ... cause they'd be seen as too dangerous. But here they don't think twice about that stuff.

The sentiments expressed in the above passage are commensurate with those expressed by runners (Wilson et al., 2004) and cyclists (Lentillon-Kaestner & Carstairs, 2010). These studies also found that athletes identified greater dangers posed by the competition itself and the stresses of elite athlete lifestyle than by the use of PEDs. Additionally, athletes in the above studies condemned race organizers whom they viewed as placing financial gain above rider safety. Importantly, these data should not be interpreted as subjects denying injury related to PED use but rather, as a nuanced understanding of the dangers of PED use in relation to a range of injurious behaviors related to their sport.

The argument that, because numerous potential health risks are associated with participation in sports particularly at the elite and professional levels, a health rationale for prohibiting PED use can be viewed as hypocritical is also found in ethical analysis of PED regulations (see Hoberman, 2005; Kayser, Mauron, & Miah, 2005; Waddington, 2000). By riders redirecting blame for harm towards the race organizers and their choice of courses, they are also engaging in a form of condemnation of the condemners.

Illegitimate authority

Condemnation of the condemners frequently projects blame upon law-makers and law-enforcers and in doing so reorients focus from the offender to those who disapprove of the acts.

As noted earlier, this justification functions as an indictment of the larger system and its authority. In this case, riders and soigneurs viewed national cycling federations, law enforcement, and the media as illegitimate authorities regarding the use of PEDs due to what was viewed as their hypocritical responses to PED use, a lack of necessary factual information about PEDs, and having an agenda contrary to their stated mission.

Cycling federations

Formal organizations are often the public face of the sport and their policies serve as public expressions of the sport's values. Unsurprisingly, their public position targets them for condemnation from fans and athletes under their jurisdiction. International and domestic sporting bodies, including the International Olympic Committee and Union Cycliste International, have been characterized by fans and athletes as heavy handed, overbearing, and out of touch with mainstream values (see Thompson, 2008). For Palace residents, distrust of cycling's governing bodies was manifest in drug-testing practices and a belief in corruption. In the following passage Dale, a rider with considerable experience, discusses misgivings regarding his experiences with drug testing:

I'm not a scientist, I don't know if it's being done correctly. I don't know. Even with vitamins. I'd feel helpless; it's a lot of blind faith. I just wonder what type of "hush-hush" they may have on the results. Is there an opportunity to test again before the results go public? That would give me more comfort. But I can't totally trust it, cause I don't understand it.

Dale's distrust is threefold. He is uncomfortable with the reliability of the testing procedure, the actions of those responsible for the testing, and the process by which positive tests are adjudicated and processed. The perceived lack of transparency and the inability to contest results before they "go public" represents for Dale improper and illegitimate conduct on behalf of the governing body. In the following passage Tom, a rider in his early thirties who had raced in France, makes the link between nefarious conduct by governing bodies more explicit when he discusses an experience in France:

I looked at the start list and it had like a hundred twenty or fifty people and there was only about a third of that on the start line and I was like, "what, happened" and our soigneur said, "well they found out there was going to be doping control at the last minute." I realized that some guys and teams would only show up to races where they knew the ambulance [doping control] would not be there.

Tom is arguing that the sport's governing bodies are in some manner complicit in allowing confidential information regarding random doping controls to be leaked to certain riders and teams. Tom's and Dale's apparent distrust of cycling governing bodies emerges from a perception of these institutions as hypocritical in their public pronouncements against PED use while simultaneously suppressing certain test results and providing limited recourse for athletes to contest positive test results.

Law enforcement

For many, the police represent the everyday face of formal social control (see Black, 1970). As such, it is perhaps unsurprising that police are often the targets of techniques adopted to neutralize criminal behavior. Beginning with studies of juvenile delinquency, numerous studies indicate that subjects frequently employ a condemnation of law enforcement officers whose behavior is viewed as corrupt, arbitrary, and capricious. Viewing law enforcement as untrustworthy is expressed in the following quotation from David:

Joe [a former pro], the guy that ran the place, he would search your bags and all this stuff. You had to sign a thing that said he could do this. He was also nervous about the day the Flemish police would show up and search the place. He said, "Sooner or later with that exposure they are going to come knocking and when they do, this is what I want everyone to do. You know, be cooperative, there's nothing to hide." Joe said that when they come in we had to follow them [the police], you know, not just give them free rein. Cause he'd be nervous about sabotage--who knows what they'd plant in one of our bags or something. "Try to follow somebody, each rider follow a person," he said.

David's coach clearly believed in the possibility of police sabotage during doping raids. In demanding that his riders, many of them still teenagers, accompany police during their search indicates a deep distrust of law enforcement. Of course, the coach's fear and distrust must be contextualized within the historic relationship that often saw police employ heavyhanded tactics including paramilitary style raids on team hotels and headquarters (see Thompson, 2008; Whittle, 2008).


The combination of deviance and sport found in PED-related stories offers exceptionally compelling narratives. Indeed, PED scandals have been shown to increase casual fan interest in sports (see Carstairs, 2004). While nearly every rider at the Palace indicated frequently reading PED-related news, many of them characterized PED-related coverage as ill-informed and overly sensational. Yet what most found particularly offensive was what they perceived to be the inordinate attention given to PED use in cycling in comparison to other sports. Blake expresses this popular sentiment in arguing that:

We [cyclists] get a bad reputation. It's a relatively small sport and the money is not that big. Look at Operation Puerto, only the cyclists got named. There were too many other big names involved but they didn't list them out like they did the cyclists.

Trent also found fault with media coverage of PED use in cycling noting, "It's media that's going to kill cycling, not doping--cause that's all they're ever reporting on!" Here Blake deflects attention from PED use within cycling to alleged PED use among other sports. Trent's comment extends Blake's reasoning by explicitly accusing the media of nefarious practices. Like claims of hypocrisy and ill-treatment leveled at "society at large," the media also offer targets for condemnation as claims do not have to identify specific groups or persons but rather vague entities. Perceptions of being singled out for inaccurate or particularly harsh or inordinate treatment by various media outlets have been found among a wide range of social and occupational groups, including law enforcement (Thomas, 2008), skateboarders (Nolan, 2003), and other sports participants (Monaghan, 2002). By viewing the media's behavior as at least as harmful if not more harmful than PED use, participants are also engaging in condemnation of the condemners.

Sykes and Matza (1957) remind us that whether actors' accounts are valid is not central. What is important is whether members' accounts serve to both sustain justifications for particular behavior and maintain their desired identities. In this study, the veracity of claims made by media, medical, and legal professionals regarding the dangers and scope of PED use are largely unimportant. What is important is that members' accounts justified PED use among certain riders in certain circumstances and figured prominently in the negotiation of deviant identities.


Given that it is largely taken for granted by the mainstream public that PED use is considered deviant, it is unsurprising that members of the elite cycling subculture with whom I spoke engaged in a variety of strategies for reconciling PED use among elite and professional cyclists. These strategies allowed them to construct cyclists as nondeviant. For riders at the Palace, PED use was considered a legitimate means to an end and a justifiable practice for professionals. Riders sought to dispel the view that PED use among elite and professional athletes should be considered solely a deviant behavior enacted by dishonorable or immoral athletes. Accomplishing this task involved employing accounts that were a mix of excuses and justifications, including condemnation of the condemners, denial of injury, appeals to higher loyalties, and defense of necessity. The views of real or imagined condemners were largely dismissed while possible health risks were minimized in the face of potentially larger risks associated with the nature of elite competitive racing.

Elite and professional sport is characterized by risk and reward. Riders hoping to make a living in cycling held a pragmatic view of PED's, as an occupational necessity for some and as a means for resolving sporting challenges not of their own making including sickness and injury. As with similar research related to elite and professional sports, institutional success was defined by a win-at-all-costs ethos. Drug use becomes a central component of this philosophy, particularly when participants believe that many of their competitors are consuming drugs to improve their performance. The institutional goal of winning at all costs can encourage PED use among dedicated participants.

Researchers have found that participants in bodybuilding (see Klein, 1986; Monaghan, 2002) and a variety of risk sports often placed a higher value on self-fulfillment and the experience itself than on achieving instrumental ends (Ferrell et al., 2001). In contrast, few Palace residents spoke of cycling as a means of self-exploration or transcendence. Instead they viewed their participation in rational and instrumental terms; as a means for acquiring or maintaining a professional contract. Given the commitment required of elite and professional riders and a keen awareness of their own limited career options, it is unsurprising that PED use was understood as an occupational and instrumental decision.

Attitudes regarding PED use also served as a key form of identity management. For many Palace residents, PED use evidenced a high level of commitment to cycling and served to delineate membership and identity as a fully committed rider. Often a component of overconformity to the sport ethic, risky behaviors have been shown to create and maintain membership and identity within sporting groups (see Albert, 1999; Hughes & Coakley, 1991). By viewing PED use as both a component of the professional cyclist occupation and as a socializing practice (indeed, for some a core value of professional cycling), cultural members neutralize deviant identities by rationalizing PED use as part of a cycling subculture that prizes commitment and dedication. In this way, PED users embody Merton's (1938) "innovators" by accepting the cultural goal of success while rejecting the socially approved means for achieving this goal. Thus, PED use becomes a subcultural response to culturally approved goals.

Laypeople often regard athletes and medical professionals as having an intimate understanding of bodily health and the dangers of controlled substances. However, illicit drug use among athletes and medical professionals is not uncommon. The accounts of Palace residents share important similarities with many studies of drug use among those in the health care professions including doctors (Mansky, 1999), pharmacists (Dabney & Hollinger, 1999), and nurses (Dabney, 1995). Athletes and medical professionals viewed the projection of society's values onto them as negative and frequently deployed techniques to offset normative judgments. Both groups have also been shown to link drug use to subcultural occupational norms while viewing consumption as instrumentally useful and in some cases, a professional necessity. For some athletes and medical professionals, drug use becomes integral for reducing occupational strains and maintaining performance.

Although the importance of including participants' perspectives is well established (see Moore & Fraser, 2006), athletes' attitudes and beliefs towards doping are often disregarded when formulating PED policies (see Hoberman, 2005).The results of this study suggest that those seeking to enact PED regulations that will enjoy greater compliance should give greater consideration to both the economic realities of athletes' lives and the influence of cycling's cultural history when formulating anti-doping policies.


For many of the riders in this study, PED use was a justifiable practice, one viewed primarily in instrumental terms, as means for procuring or maintaining a professional contract and resolving unanticipated sporting challenges. Riders justified PED consumption by employing a range of accounts and neutralizing techniques directed at a range of institutions and authorities. Additionally, PED consumption also served to define and maintain membership and identity within the elite cycle racing subculture. These findings encourage sociologists of sport and deviance to further investigate the influence of economic demands and subcultural values on participants' decision-making regarding PED use, particularly for participants heavily invested in sport. In this way, PED users embody Merton's (1938) "innovators" by accepting the cultural goal of success while rejecting the socially approved means for achieving this goal.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The author thanks Peter Adler for his assistance with the analysis presented here as well as the anonymous reviewers and editor for their helpful comments and suggestions. For additional information about this article contact: Ophir Sefiha, Department of Sociology and Criminology, University of Denver, 2000 E. Asbury Avenue, Denver, CO 80208. E-mail: Ophir.Sefiha@


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Author:Sefiha, Ophir
Publication:Contemporary Drug Problems
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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