SSA Blog: Sports ethical line

The spotlight of doping in elite sport shines on. Over recent years, heroes have fallen, state-sponsored doping has been uncovered and numerous high-profile athletes have been sanctioned, stripped of medals and banned from competing following evidence of doping violations. Last week, Sir Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky were back in the news, casting further aspersions on the reputation of elite cycling…

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On 5th March 2018, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee released a statement declaring that, Team Sky ‘crossed an ethical line’ in their use of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs). Specifically, the DCMS allege that the drugs administered, whilst therapeutic, were also devised and delivered to boost Wiggins’ performance levels.

"Drugs were being used by Team Sky, within World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) rules, to enhance the performance of riders and not just to treat medical need,"                              DCMS Select Committee (05/03/18).

This ‘ethical line’ presents a problem for sponsors and partners. Brands showcase their vision and values through their sponsorships to create a favourable position with the sports’ fans. How then to rationalise that sponsorship when a sports person or team follow the letter of the law, breaks no rules, but cross an ‘ethical line’. Practices are either legal or banned.

This might seem like a cynical stance, but literature from elite sport supports it. Smith and Stewart, in their 2015 overview of doping in sport, highlighted how athletes are pressured to use substances to enhance their performance whilst remaining ‘clean’. This includes the possibility for an athlete benefiting from elevated doses of a banned substance via a TUE. Athletes know natural talent is not sufficient to reach the top echelons of performance and competition. To reach this level, advanced training, coaching, supplements and substances were cited as a necessity. Before financial incentives even figure, the concept of sporting failure is less desirable than the threat of sanction for a doping violation or the potential risk to their health

Herein lies the issue with TUEs; most banned substances are those devised to cure illness but may also produce a performance enhancing effect. Like anyone, athletes get ill, suffer from chronic ailments and pick up injuries. A TUE is then required for the necessary medicine to help the athlete recover and the grey area of performance enhancement opens. A grey area that athletes, teams, doctors and organisations can venture into to pursue ‘legitimate’ marginal gains. In this pursuit, morality and ethics do not form part of the equation, legality, as stated by Overbye and Wagner (2013) in the international journal of drug policy, is the name of the game.

The researchers argue that whilst TUEs are less efficient than using banned substances in enhancing performance, manipulating the system to gain a TUE is infinitely more accessible, safe and low-risk. Indeed, they highlight that in a cohort of 638 elite athletes in Denmark, only 2% had ever applied for a TUE and had that application rejected. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that a general distrust of the TUE system’s effectiveness in anti-doping exists.

With TUEs increasingly under the spotlight, brands partnering with elite sport must consider a response strategy to stories such as the one involving Wiggins and Team Sky. Whilst the DCMS’ conclusion over Team Sky’s TUE use may seem reasonable to many, it concludes that no rules were broken. In elite sport, this is all that matters to teams when it comes to doping.

Brands face a quandary. Should they stand by teams and athletes whose use of medication is questioned? Should they support athletes that fail tests due to innocent mistakes rather than deliberate cheating?

Controversially, Head and Nike stood by Maria Sharapova following her positive test for Meldonium in 2016. Porsche and Tag Heuer in contrast, terminated their contracts with the Russian star. Can the direct sporting performance values of Nike and Head help explain their stance vs those of Sharapova’s more lifestyle-based partnerships and the subsequent lack of negative backlash for all?

Athletes deserve the right to compete on a level playing field and to be safe when doing so. Anti-doping regulations and the TUE system should exist, but both apparently require more stringent regulation and enforcement to protect clean athletes and the sponsors involved in the sport. The idea that an athlete ends up on the right side of the rules but the wrong side of a so-called ethical line should be an anathema to all parties involved.

Only the governing bodies of sport can make the rule changes required to protect both athletes and sponsors. However, they seem unwilling or unable to make those difficult decisions. It may be time to take that responsibility away from organisations that are so intimately linked with the public perception of the sports they are policing. Maybe supporting organisations such as WADA could provide the next sponsorship opportunity for a forward-thinking brand.

Sport Science Agency works with brands, broadcasters, rights holders and agencies to create insight, experiences and content from the latest sport science research. If you want to know more just drop us a note via and we can arrange to go for a healthy performance boosting drink. 

SSA Blog: The performance benefits of beer

Beer companies have a long history of sports sponsorship. Beer remains a fixture within the top ten spending categories across the sponsorship industry. Major deals exist across high profile sporting properties such as the Football, Basketball and Rugby World Cups, which are synonymous with hospitality and fan engagement programmes.

But one beer brand used the 2018 Winter Olympic Games as a platform to showcase another activation strategy. Like many of the athletes in the aerial events, Erdinger tried something different and managed to grab the attention of sports fans all over the world.

How..? By claiming beer was beneficial for performance.

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Linking beer with elite performance is brave, but it enabled Erdinger to create cut through that many of its peers have failed to do. Indeed, back in 2016 Hans Erik Tuijt, Head of Global Sponsorship at Heineken described the Olympic sponsorship programme as “too cluttered, making it hard for the biggest sponsors to stand out from smaller ones”.

So how did Erdinger manage to become the talk of the Games with articles published across the globe about beers performance enhancing properties?

Firstly, the beer they are linking to a performance advantage is non-alcoholic. Secondly, they created a performance link by supplying the joint table-topping German team with gallons of it, thirdly and most importantly, they have some scientific research which shows they might just be onto something.

The impact of alcohol, particularly on delaying muscle recovery after exercise is well documented. It can also impact on the cardiovascular system and inhibit a number of other post-exercise processes associated with fitness gains. This means if you are training for any major activity, including the Olympic Games, the traditional couple of pints after a session isn’t ideal.

Erdinger has tried to create a position across active sport for a number of years. They have a presence spanning running, triathlon, cycling and biathlon all over the world. They target an active, health-conscious audience who want to enjoy the taste of beer without worrying about the impact of alcohol on their training.

But their latest activity has taken this message one step further to claim that non-alcoholic beer can actually provide a performance advantage.

In a well-developed study lead by Dr Scherr, who is also the doctor for the German ski team, a team of German researchers put the beer to the test. They took a large group of runners and asked them to drink a litre of non-alcoholic beer each day for 3 weeks prior, during and 2 weeks post the Munich marathon. The results showed that those drinking the beer had less post-race inflammation and suffered fewer coughs and colds when compared to the control group. Anyone who has taken part in a major endurance event will know that coughs and colds are par for the course. Indeed, research shows that elite athletes suffer from more ‘upper respiratory tract infections’ than normal members of the population. So, anything that helps reduce the impact of illness and supports improved recovery is surely good for athletic performance.

But what is the beer doing to produce this effect? The authors conclude it’s due to the organic properties within ingredients such as barley and hops. These ingredients contain polyphenolic compounds, similar to those found in vegetables and fruit and are associated with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antipathogenic properties.

But don’t go swapping your recovery drink for a pint just yet. During the study, the runners were all required to adhere to a restricted diet, which was necessary to ascertain any direct impact from the beer. The question remains, would the beer have had any significant effect if runners were enjoying a normal balanced diet with vegetables, fruit and other sources of antioxidants?

As this research is yet to be done, for now, enjoy your training, enjoy a balanced diet and you can even enjoy a few pints of Erdinger without worrying about the negative effects on your training and recovery.


Sport Science Agency works with brands, broadcasters, rights holders and agencies to create insight, experiences and content from the latest sport science research. If you want to know how we could help you just drop us a note via

SSA Blog: VAR and the physicality of football

Last week saw the introduction, into competitive English football, on a trial basis, of the video assistant referee technology system (VAR). It follows last season’s successful implementation of goal line technology and is the latest in a growing number of virtual, tracking or predictive technologies introduced to support officials and referees across sport.

Arguments as to the benefits and drawbacks have been well reported. What has gained less coverage is the potential impact regarding players’ physical load during a game.


Throughout sport, rule changes and the introduction of technology have affected how the game is played and the nature of the players playing it. Tennis is a prime example.  Players often use the challenge system tactically, in an attempt to break opponents’ momentum or gain extra recovery time following a high-intensity rally.

Football at the highest level requires players to combine a number of fitness elements. It involves high intensity sprinting, accelerations, strength, an endurance base as well as the application of skill and mental agility to deal with tactical demands.

In the English Premier League, the average 90 minute game sees the ball in play for 56.17 minutes. Players are covering distances of nearly 11km per game of which over 10% is covered at high speed. But the biggest increase in activity levels has come in the number of high intensity runs players now make. Data from Barnes et al, back in 2014, showed that players were making 49% more high speed runs than in 2007 and the total distance and intensity numbers are expected to have continued to rise.

The game is undoubtedly speeding up though many have argued VAR may slow it down. What they actually mean is, VAR will impact the ball in play time. But can VAR actually increase ball in play time? Or could it lead to changes in player load and even greater physical demands?

A recent study examining the evolutionary changes in activity and recovery in Rugby League, published by Gabbett & Hulin (2017) in the Journal of Sport Sciences, showed the greatest impact on ‘ball in play’ time resulted from video referee stoppages. It also showed that ‘in game recovery’ time actually increased. So, while video referee referrals reduced the ‘ball in play’ time, it also produced greater recovery time for players, which can enable greater player load/exertion levels to be reached during games.

Could the same be a consequence of the introduction of VAR in football?

There are two areas to consider here:

  1. Will VAR reduce ball in play time?
  2. Will VAR effect in game recovery (and therefore training practices to address this)?

Until the system has been fully trialled and evaluated it is difficult to answer either of these questions. However anecdotal evidence from goal line technology points to more ball in play time as players no longer challenge the referee during breaks. This leads to play being resumed without incident. Evidence from Rugby League and Rugby union on the other hand, suggests that ball in play time has been reduced by the introduction of video technology as game time is lost during those time on and time off moments during referrals.

The really interesting analysis will be the impact, if any, on the players physical demands. Will, as we have seen in Rugby League, increased in game recovery time allow players to compete at even higher intensities once play resumes? Will more effective decision making mean less stoppages and a reduction of in game recovery? And what impact will this have regarding player preparation in order to cope with the potential physical challenges VAR might bring.  

It’s too early to know how VAR will impact player load and the physical demands of the Premier League.  As the system’s adoption increases, sport science teams will evaluate how its introduction impacts areas such as ball in play and in game recovery. If it does, as in both codes of Rugby, start to alter the physical demands of the game, the challenge for clubs will be to adapt training, ensuring players are prepared for these new demands.