22 Jul 2020

When you first start work as a junior dietitian, for many of us, it’s hard to imagine how our skills may be transferable to other roles outside of nutrition and healthcare. I’ve found and worked in one such role and thought it may be good to share my experience. It doesn't replace the role of working as a dietitian, and I still need to keep up my CPD but it complements my freelance role nicely.

Around 2005, I was working as a Specialist Oncology Dietitian and had just retired from playing professional ice-hockey. I was looking for something that would let me keep in with sport and was considering working as a sports dietitian. However, I was made aware that UK-Anti Doping were recruiting by a teacher friend and after some discussion thought It sounded like something I’d enjoy. 

Doping Control Officers (DCOs ) are responsible for the collection and processing of urine samples and the processing of blood samples, from the athlete both during competitive events, in training and at home. This role requires a great deal of sensitivity, tact and professionalism. It involves ensuring the integrity of the sample taken under supervision, dividing the sample into two bottles, and maintaining a robust chain of custody to transfer it to an International WADA accredited laboratory for analysis, in the UK this is Kings College.

This is not a full-time role and the DCOs generally undertake these duties in their spare time, in addition to their day jobs (although many are retired). Part of the enjoyment for me comes from working as part of a team with people from a wide range of different professional backgrounds. There is no specific qualification to becoming a doping control officer and those that I work with include nurses, police officers, teachers and fire fighters, many of whom are now retired but whose skills fit the role well. One of our more recent recruits is a retired Professor that I remember from my junior rotations!

UK-Anti doping have around 200 field staff across the UK and they tend to stick to an approximate area of the country. This means some DCOs test certain sports more than others but there is always plenty of variety.

Why dietitians make great DCOs

UK Anti-doping (who work under WADA World Anti Doping Agency) require a specific set of skills of their doping control personnel.

These include:

The ability to carry out administrative tasks with a high degree of accuracy,

  • A proven ability to work with confidential work
  • Sound judgement and decision making ability
  • To use own initiative within a procedural framework
  • Conflict management skills in a stressful environment
  • Organisational skills of people and activities

DCOs have to deal with athletes and support staff who may be elated, exhausted or devastated depending on the outcome of their events. They may be at home in the middle of a meal, movie, or in one case have a one day old baby at home when I turned up at 6am.

I found that my experience as a dietitian prepared me well for this role because of the crossover of skills required for both jobs, and because such a large part of the role is about building a rapport.

The process

If an athlete is ready to pass urine, the process usually only takes around 15 minutes. However, if they can’t or have just been, it may be a long time until the test is finished! A big part of the process is ensuring all the documentation is completed perfectly (sometimes with an athlete desperate to leave for some reason). All urine samples must be within a certain specific gravity. This is a way of measuring hydration. If the samples are too dilute the athletes usually have to produce more samples, so it’s not just a case of drinking as much as possible. For anyone wondering, 90mls is the minimum needed or 6 tablespoons as I often tell them!

From the time the athlete is notified they are going to be tested, they have to remain with a member of the doping control team. This could be in a wide variety of venues such as a changing room, at a stadium or their kitchen/living room. You may be in a changing room with players while they celebrate winning a cup final or in the same changing room when a team has lost - everyone else has gone home and it’s just you and the player waiting to pass urine. This is where our conversational skills are so useful. Silence can quickly get awkward but you also need tact and judgement.

Who gets tested?

Any UK athletes subject to the anti-doping rules of their sport and non-UK athletes staying, training, residing, entering a competition, or named as a member of a team participating in a competition at any level within the UK is eligible for testing as part of UKAD’s national anti-doping programme. Any athlete eligible for testing can be tested anytime, anywhere.

So, you may be testing someone playing in a lawn bowls competition, a boxer after a fight in front of 80,000 people, a semi professional rugby player during training in the Welsh Valleys or a cyclist at home 6am in the morning. The variety of individuals is extensive and being able to build a rapport with the individuals makes the job not only easier but a lot more enjoyable for the DCO and athlete.

Sometimes during conversation it comes up that I’m a dietitian and we get to discuss nutrition. At elite levels I get to see some current trends in sports nutrition. You may be chaperoning a team player while they have lunch in the teams restaurant or sat with someone at home while they eat their breakfast. Many athletes are now well informed regarding nutrition (especially at team level) however I still find it amazing how poorly informed many athletes are regarding nutrition once you get away from the very elite. Most recently I’ve had lots of questions regarding vegan diets following a certain Netflix documentary. As I’m there in an anti-doping role things are more of an informal discussion but it’s always interesting.

I still remember a few years ago when an athlete first came to me with a bright red pot of urine, I had some obvious concerns until he informed me he was taking a beetroot supplement for recovery!

I have been lucky to leads teams of Doping Control Personnel at many major sporting events including the Rugby World Cup, FA Cup final and Ironman competition. I’ve also had the opportunity to travel to a number of Olympic games. This is however usually an eight week commitment which is difficult with a young family and balancing things with the day job. I also work as a regional co-ordinator, trainer and assessor with UKAD. Roles for which dietetic student training, lecturing and having a PGCE prepared me for well.

Although the work of a DCO sounds exciting, it can also be quite tiring. We have to be there in advance of events starting, and work days can be quite unpredictable. You may expect to be home by 5pm and it ends up becoming 10pm. Sports that are televised in the US can mean 2am finishes and you can easily end up working a 12 hour day. Luckily, you do get some downtime during most events and you get to watch them. Having played a physical sport for most of my life I have always understood the importance of anti-doping, however prior to working as a DCO I never would have considered sports like snooker having doping benefits. (Beta Blockers to slow heart rate etc). People also question why they test jockeys when the horses do all the work but drugs like diuretics will obviously make a Jockey lighter when they are racing.

All in all I thoroughly enjoy my role in anti-doping and my experience as a dietitian has been a key asset to me being able to do the job well. It’s always nice to see how other organisations outside of healthcare function too. Systems/processes/facilities etc from UK-Anti Doping themselves (who still receive public funding) to Premiership football teams where money is almost no object!

For anyone wanting to watch the technical parts of the anti-doping process they are widely available online and for anyone wanting to get involved, UK Anti-Doping recruit sporadically so anyone interested in getting involved should keep an eye on their website and Twitter feed.



Wesley Spencer

Registered Dietitian and Anti-Doping Officer