Can Psychology Explain the Maria Sharapova Doping Controversy?

A recent study, from the Monaco Institute of Sports Medicine and Surgery-Exercise Physiology, examined androgen blood levels in female elite athletes – androgens are male sex hormones and are anabolic steroids – testosterone is probably the most famous example.

The study entitled, “Serum Androgen Levels in Elite Female Athletes,” points out that even today, the best documentation of the effects of testosterone on physical performance in female athletes remains experiments by sports scientists in the former German Democratic Republic.

Munich Olympics

This study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, reports that these scientists, after the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, concluded that “the effects of the treatment with androgenic hormones were so spectacular, particularly in female athletes in strength dependent events, that few competitors not using the drugs had a chance of winning.”

Sports governing bodies, and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), consequently banned them.

Testosterone stimulates muscle mass and reduces body fat, increasing aggression and competitive motivation, as well as enhancing visuospatial ability, possibly even assisting in perceiving critical targets and navigating an individual’s way around a sports environment.

In a paper entitled, ‘Testosterone and Sport: Current Perspectives,” it is reported that in 2006, testosterone was the single most-common banned substance detected in urine tests at World Anti-Doping Agency accredited laboratories, representing 26% of all ‘adverse analytical findings’.

The same investigation, by Ruth Wood and Steven Stanton, points out that the effects of testosterone can also occur within minutes. In the 1980s, the authors report that East German scientists developed a male hormone nasal spray to enhance aggression and competitiveness, without it showing up in the body’s general systems.

The review, published in the journal, Hormones and Behaviour, explains that these rapid actions of testosterone could have contributed to American cyclist Floyd Landis’ dramatic comeback in the steep 17th stage of the 2006 Tour de France.

Although Landis was initially declared the winner of the 2006 Tour, his urine sample collected after the 17th stage, revealed results consistent with use of externally taken testosterone. Such supplemental testosterone would not be expected to acutely enhance boost muscle function or exercise capacity but could increase competitive drive.

In research published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology & Performance, 22 professional male rugby union players were studied. Entitled, ‘Relationship Between Pregame Concentrations of Free Testosterone and Outcome in Rugby Union,’ the study found that pregame testosterone concentrations were significantly higher during winning games than losing contests.

Machar Reid and Rob Duffield document the physical effort of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal through the Australian Open in 2012, in their paper entitled, ‘The development of fatigue during match-play tennis.” Both players contended more than 12 hours of tennis across 13 days before competing in a final that lasted close to six hours.

The analysis published in ‘The British Journal of Sports Medicine,” in 2014 points out that in the final the two players competed in 369 points, and, according to Hawkeye data, each contestant traversed in-point distances greater than 6 km.

Tennis Match Analysis

The authors of this investigation, based at Sports Science and Sports Medicine Unit, Tennis Australia, Melbourne, and the Sport and Exercise Discipline Group, UTS: Health, University of Technology Sydney, Australia, point out that the players covered approximately 10% more ground when losing points than when winning and reached maximum speeds in excess of 20 km/h.

Throughout the match, more than 40% of points involved more than eight shots, and the players hit over 1100 groundstrokes at average velocities of >95 km/h.

In a study,”Elite Collegiate Tennis Athletes Have Lower 2D: 4D Ratios Than Those of Nonathlete Controls,” longer ring fingers, compared to the finger you use to point at things, were found in both male and female elite tennis athletes.

This finding, published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, is important because the longer your ring finger is compared to the pointer finger, the more masculine you supposedly are. The ratio between the lengths of your index finger versus your ring finger is referred to as the 2D:4D ratio. This ratio is a measure of how much you were exposed to hormones such as testosterone in your mother’s womb.

In other words, this finger ratio indicates the masculinity of your body.

This study is suggesting that being exposed to more testosterone while a fetus may give you a significant advantage many years later, in elite tennis.

Ruth Wood and Steven Stanton point out that a variety of Disorders of Sexual Development may result in elevated testosterone production in women. Given the hormone’s performance-enhancing abilities, higher levels could become a competitive advantage in athletics.

Whatever has happened in the case of Maria Sharapova, the reality is women’s tennis, as in all female elite athletics, might, behind the scenes, be becoming deeply problematic in terms of defining normal biology for a woman.

Andy Murray is now reporting that Maria Sharapova “must accept responsibility” for failing the drugs test and serve her ban.

Amélie Mauresmo, Andy Murray’s current coach, first came to tennis fame when she was just 19 years old, ranked 29, and during a remarkable winning streak at the Australian Open, knocked out American Lindsay Davenport, the number-one seed, in the 1999 semi-finals.

Davenport, in a comment after the match for which she later apologized, complained that her opponent’s physique and power were overwhelming, and that playing Mauresmo was like “playing a guy.”

Doping Barbell Imagine available on Shutterstock.


Can Psychology Explain the Maria Sharapova Doping Controversy?

Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen


APA Reference
, . (2019). Can Psychology Explain the Maria Sharapova Doping Controversy?. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 16, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 25 Sep 2019
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 25 Sep 2019
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