Athletes as young as 12 are using performance or image enhancing drugs, according to a new study finding the practice may be going unchecked because of a lack of drug testing.
The three-year study by the University of Canberra and Griffith University has found use of performance enhancing drugs and supplements was now relatively prevalent among young elite athletes.
The study – which will be presented at the University of Canberra on Wednesday night – interviewed more than 900 athletes between the ages of 12 and 17 and found about 4 per cent of elite junior athletes were using performance or image enhancing drugs.
About one in three young athletes use nutritional supplements.
Report co-author and University of Canberra associate professor in psychology Stephen Moston said the findings were concerning and there was a need for anti-doping education and "detection efforts" to be expanded to include young elite athletes.
Of the roughly 30 young athletes who admitted to "doping", just one reported having been tested, he said.
"We don't do much testing of young children and they're very much aware of that. They're growing up in a culture where they think elite athletes are using drugs, they think it's really common and young athletes think they have to take drugs to be like the elite athletes they see on TV," he said.
"Their thinking patterns are very similar to those of adults, they expect drugs, and even, supplements to have this magical effect to turn them from an average athlete into a super athlete."
Dr Moston said the findings were troubling and the study found young athletes believed performance enhancing drugs were used by about a third of adult elite athletes.
The study found almost 5 per cent of junior athletes had been offered performance enhancing drugs.
Dr Moston said the pressure facing junior elite athletes was also concerning.
"A lot of the emphasis, even in junior sport, is more about winning rather than skill development. There's a real pressure that if you're not taking drugs, that you're putting yourself at a real disadvantage. We know that adults feel those same sorts of pressures," he said.
Sport and Recreation Services director Jenny Priest said the ACT Academy of Sport and SRS were reluctant to comment on the study's findings without having seen them, but any athlete choosing to use performance enhancing drugs was of concern.
"ACTAS and SRS are fully supportive of, and active in, the fight against doping in sport and condemn doping as fundamentally contrary to the spirit of sport," she said.
ACTAS has an anti-doping education strategy in place for all athletes on scholarships within the academy and scholarship holders have to follow Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority protocols, she said.
Researchers also looked at doping in adult sports, finding about 8 per cent of adult athletes had been offered performance enhancements, most commonly by their teammates.
Griffith University's Dr Terry Engelberg said a substantial number of athletes surveyed were currently using nutritional supplements and most had unrealistic expectations of their performance enhancing impact.
He said many athletes and support staff had misconceptions about doping, with the study finding about one in 10 believe doping does not occur in their sport.
The Australian Institute of Sport recently released a new sports supplement framework, which provides information and includes a classification system ranking sports foods and supplement ingredients according to scientific evidence.
Dr Moston said
many athletes believed they would not be caught if they took performance enhancers.
"As soon as athletes go out into the real world ... a 'win at all costs' mentality takes over," he said.
"We've got some strange expectations going on and trying to convince athletes they shouldn't be doing it is a hugely complicated task."
Both studies were commissioned by the Australian government's anti-doping program.